Kinship: A System of Social Organization

Kinship is system of social organization based on  real or putative family ties . The modern study of kinship can be traced back to mid-19th-century interests in comparative legal institutions and philology, the study of the history of language. In the late 19th century, however, the cross-cultural comparison of kinship institutions became the part of anthropology.

If the study of kinship was defined largely by anthropologists, in fact, anthropology as an academic discipline was itself defined by kinship. Until the last decades of the 20th century, for example, kinship was regarded as the core of British social anthropology, and no thorough ethnographic study could overlook the central importance of kinship in the functioning of so-called stateless, nonindustrial, or traditional societies.

Kinship is a universal human phenomenon that takes highly variable cultural forms. It has been explored and analyzed by many scholars, however, in ways quite removed from any popular understanding of what “being kin” might mean.

In anthropology, kinship is the web of social relationships that form an important part of the lives of all humans in all societies, although its exact meanings even within this discipline are often debated. Anthropologist Robin Fox states that “the study of kinship is the study of what man does with these basic facts of life – mating, gestation, parenthood, socialization, siblingship etc.” Human society is unique, he argues, in that we are “working with the same raw material as exists in the animal world, but [we] can conceptualize and categorize it to serve social ends.”These social ends include the socialization of children and the formation of basic economic, political and religious groups.

Kinship can refer both to the patterns of social relationships themselves, or it can refer to the study of the patterns of social relationships in one or more human cultures (i.e. kinship studies).

Types of Kinship:

In any society, kin relationships are based either on birth (blood relations), or marriage. These two aspects of human life are the basis for the two main types of kinship in society.

1. Consanguineal Kinship:

It refers to the relationships based on blood, i.e., the relationship between parents and children, and between siblings are the most basic and universal kin relations.

2. Affinal Kinship:

It refers to the relationships formed on the basis of marriage. The most basic relationship that results from marriage is that between husband and wife.

Degree of Kinship:

Any relationship between two individuals is based on the degree of closeness or distance of that relationship. This closeness or distance of any relationship depends upon how individuals are related to each other.

Kinship basically has three degrees, which can be explained in the following ways :

Degree of Kinship

Primary Kinship:

Primary kinship refers to direct relations. People who are directly related to each other are known as primary kin. There are basically eight primary kins—wife father son, father daugh­ter mother son, wife; father son, father daughter, mother son, mother daughter; brother sister; and younger brother/sister older brother/sister.

Primary kinship is of two kinds:

1. Primary Consanguineal Kinship:

Primary consanguineal kin are those kin, who are directly related to each other by birth. The relationships between parents and children and between siblings form primary kinship. These are the only primary consanguineal kin found in societies all over the world.

2. Primary Affinal Kinship:

Primary affinal kinship refers, to the direct relation­ship formed as a result of marriage. The only direct affinal kinship is the rela­tionship between husband and wife.

Secondary Kinship:

Secondary kinship refers to the primary kin’s of primary kin. In other words, those who are directly related to primary kin (primary kin’s primary kin) become one’s secondary kin. There are 33 secondary kin.

Secondary kinship is also of two kinds:

Secondary Consanguineal kinship:

This type of kinship refers to the primary con­sanguineal kin’s primary consanguineal kin. The most basic type of secondary consan­guineal kinship is the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren. In the Figure 3, there is a direct consanguineal relationship between Ego and his parents. For Ego, his parents are his primary consanguineal kin. However, for Ego’s par­ents, their parents are their primary consanguineal kin. Therefore, for Ego, his grandpar­ents are his primary consanguineal kin’s (his parents) primary kin. For him, they become secondary consanguineal kin.

Secondary Affinal Kinship:

Secondary affinal kinship refers to one’s primary affinal kins primary kin. This kinship includes the relationships between an individual and all his/her sisters-in-law, brothers-in-law, and parents-in-law. For an individual, his/her spouse is his/her primary affinal kin, and for the spouse, his/her parents and siblings are his/her primary kin. Therefore, for the individual, the parents of brother/sister-in-law will become his/her secondary affinal kin. Similarly, any sibling’s spouse or sibling’s parents-in-law will become secondary affinal kin for an individual.

Tertiary Kinship:

Tertiary kinship refers to the primary kin of primary kin’s primary kin or secondary kin of primary kin primary kin of secondary kin. Roughly 151 tertiary kin have been identi­fied.

Like other two degrees of kinship, tertiary kinship also has two categories:

Tertiary Consanguineal Kinship:

Tertiary consanguineal kinship refers to an individual’s primary consanguineal kin (parents), their primary kin (parents’ parents), and their primary kin (parent’s parent’s parents). Thus, the relationship is between great grand­children and great grandparents, and great grand aunts and uncles, and consequently the relationship between great grand uncles and aunts and great grand nieces and nephews.

In Figure 3, Ego’s primary kin are his parents, their primary kin are his grandparents and his grandparent’s primary kin (who are Ego’s primary kin’s primary kin’s primary kin) are his great grandparents. Thus, tertiary kin are primary kin’s primary kin’s pri­mary kin.

This relationship can be seen in different ways – Ego’s tertiary kin are his pri­mary kin’s (parents) secondary kin (father’s grandparents), thus showing that tertiary kin are primary kin’s secondary kin. Another way of looking at this same relationship is by showing that Ego’s tertiary kin are his secondary consanguineal kin’s (his grandpar­ents) primary kin (grandfather’s parents), which proves that tertiary kin can be second­ary kin’s primary kin.

Tertiary Affinal Kinship:

Tertiary affinal kinship refers to primary affinal kin’s pri­mary kin’s primary kin, or secondary affinal kin’s primary kin, or primary affinal kin’s secondary kin. These relationships are many, and some examples will suffice at this stage of tertiary affinal kin can be spouse’s grandparents, or grand uncles and aunts, or they can be brother or sister-in-law’s spouses or their children. Let us try and understand these relationships with the help of an illustration.


Descent refers to the existence of socially recognized biological relationship between individuals in society. In general, every society recognizes the fact that all offspring or children descend from parents and that a biological relationship exists between parents and children. It refers to a person’s offspring or his parentage. Thus, descent is also used to trace one’s ancestry.


Lineage refers to the line through which descent is traced. This is done through the father’s line or the mother’s line or sometimes through both sides. Both descent and line­age go together as one cannot trace descent without lineage.

Importance of Kinship in Rural Society:

It is important to study kinship, as it helps in sociological and anthropological theory building. Pierre Bourdieu, Levi Strauss and Evans Pritchard are some of the theorists, who have constructed various theories on the basis of kinship relations. However, except a few, no substantial work has been done on villages.

Kinship relations have been studied by the Indian sociologists or anthropologists. Most of them have concentrated on village, caste, family and other social institutions in rural areas. Few sociologists and anthropologists, such as, Irawati Karve, Rivers, and T. N. Madan have made certain notable contributions to the institution of kinship.

The importance of kinship in tribal/rural societies can be understood from the following discussion:

a. Kinship and its Relation to Rural Family, Property and Land:

The prime property of any rural family is land. So, land is related to all the kin members of the family. The sons, grandsons and other kins, who are related by blood and marriage, have their economic interests in land. Now-a-days, women are becoming aware that they are also entitled to get an equal share from the an­cestral property.

The emancipation movement of women demands that wom­en should not be deprived of the inheritance rights and should get all equal share of the property. In most of the village studies, property and kinship are discussed in relation to each other.

The family members also gain status by the ownership of land. Even politi­cal status is determined by kinship relations in some cases. In the case of kin relations, related by blood and marriage, many economic and political con­cessions are given to the members of the kin. However, it does not mean that kinship relations are important only in rural society as they are also there in urban society too. As the urban community is widespread, there is hardly any chance for kin members to participate and meet in the social gatherings of the family.

b. Kinship and Marriage:

In every society, marriage has certain rules, such as endogamy, exogamy, incest taboos and other restrictions. These rules are ap­plicable to all the kins of the family. Usually, the rural people are more serious and strict in observing the rules related to marriage. Exogamy is commonly followed in most of the villages of India. The members of the villages do not prefer to marry within their own village. However, this rule can vary on the basis of the severity of rules of marriage.

Irawati Karve and A. C. Mayer in their studies on kinship have reported on the village exogamy. Mayer, in his study of Kinship in Central India, informs that village exogamy is violated in some of the cases, but it brings disrepute to the parties involved. It must be observed here that the study conducted by Mayer is an important document on village ethnography. Mayer further informs that inter-caste marriages, in all cases, are looked down by the village people. (Doshi S. L., and Lain P. C., Rural Sociology, p. 192)

c. Kinship and Rituals:

The role and importance of the kin members lies in the degree of close relationships among them. Their importance can be seen dur­ing the occasions, such as cradle ceremony, marriage and death. During a naming ceremony, it is the father’s sister, who has to give a name to the new­born. There are certain rites and rituals, which have to be performed by moth­er’s brother during the marriages of daughters.

The daughter’s parents make the payment in cash or kind to the son-in-law’s sister, who occupies an impor­tant place during a Hindu wedding, especially in South India. It is obligatory on part of the close kin relatives to offer gifts to the newly wed couples and in the same manner, these close relatives are equally rewarded from both sides (parents of the couple). During the occasions of death also, it is obligatory for the kinsmen to observe mourning for about 11 to 14 days (this period varies from region to region).

Changes in the Kinship Relations in Rural Society:

Many changes are taking place in all the institutions of the rural society, includ­ing kinship relations. These changes can be noted as demand for ownership titles by women, rules of marriage are being challenged and the traditional rules regard­ing divorce are also getting weakened.

Though some of the aspects of kinship are losing their importance, few others are gaining prominence. Kinship is playing an important role in the field of politics, especially in rural elections to Panchayati Raj Institutions. Favoritisms, while distributing jobs, is being observed among the kins­men. Due to the emergence of such new forces, kinship may acquire new structure and form.

Helpful Videos

Source(s) and Link(s):



Kinship Glossary


Indian Society



About Rashid Faridi

I am Rashid Aziz Faridi ,Writer, Teacher and a Voracious Reader.
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1 Response to Kinship: A System of Social Organization

  1. Pingback: Indian Society:An Overview | Rashid's Blog: An Educational Portal

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