In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Kinship

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Kinship as Biological and as Social
  • Family, Residence, and the Kindred
  • New Reproductive Technologies
  • Adoption and Fostering

Anthropology Kinship
Robert Parkin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0066


Kinship has traditionally been one of the key topics in social and cultural anthropology. There are two principal reasons for this: First, although not all human groups are constituted on the basis of kinship, all humans have kinship as individuals and are related to other individuals through it. Second, for the sorts of “tribal,” classless, economically unspecialized societies that anthropologists have mostly—though no longer exclusively—studied, kinship has appeared to be the main or even sole form of social organization. As a result, many theoretical approaches, especially the schools of functionalism and structuralism within social anthropology, have focused on how social groups are formed, how individuals are related to one another through kinship, and the mutual rights and duties they have as a result. Cultural anthropologists, by contrast, have chosen to focus more on the symbolic aspects of kinship, such as the meanings attached to being a particular sort of relative, as well as how symbols of and perspectives on personhood, the body, and gender inform kinship ideas and practices. In broad terms, this latter approach has predominated in America since around 1900 but has been reinvigorated periodically and become more influential in world anthropology, especially in the poststructuralist phase starting in the 1970s. The domain of kinship can be divided into descent (that is, relations between generations), marriage, and siblingship, though there are not nearly as many studies on the last category as there are on the first two. Early work (especially from the functionalist school) tended to see kinship as a matter of descent only, which produced the phrase “kinship and marriage”; later work, starting with structuralism, has tended to include marriage within the overarching rubric of kinship, adding to it the notion of affinal alliance. Among other things, this reflects the heavy concentration in functionalism on genealogical reckoning in analyzing kinship systems. Structuralism, by contrast, moved away from this in favor of a focus on kin categories rather than genealogical positions, and poststructuralism moved away from both genealogy and the notion of kinship systems to focus more on meaning, practice, and agency. Both earlier schools had an interest in kinship terminology, or the terms used for relatives and the different patterns they make when seen as whole systems, but whereas functionalism tended to view the terminology in terms of descent, structuralism connected it with marriage, especially affinal alliance involving marriage to various classes of cousins, from which came the terms, respective to the schools, of descent theory and alliance theory. There have also been numerous studies of the family, less influential theoretically than very recent studies of the new reproductive technologies and their implications for what we mean by kinship.

General Overviews

The overviews and accounts of kinship in the texts in this section are from various periods, covering functionalism (Malinowski 1930), structuralism (Needham 1971), approaches invoking culture and practice (Peletz 1995), key thinkers (Barnes 1971), and recent attempts to bring social and evolutionary biological approaches together (Stone 2001).

  • Barnes, John Arundel. 1971. Three styles in the study of kinship. London: Tavistock.

    Discusses approaches of three key thinkers of importance to kinship: the structural-functionalist Meyer Fortes, the structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss, and George Murdock, creator of the Human Relations Area Files database.

  • Malinowski, Bronisław. 1930. Kinship. Man 30:19–29.

    An early critique of the more formal and systemic studies of kinship, by one of anthropology’s founding fathers. Notable for Malinowski’s alternative stress on practice and indigenous ideas and his rejection of prior evolutionary perspectives in favor of a functionalist approach focusing on the nature of kinship rather than its origins, and for the extensionist theory of kinship that treats parent-child relations within the nuclear family as prior to all others.

  • Needham, Rodney, ed. 1971. Rethinking kinship and marriage. London: Tavistock.

    A collection of articles consolidating the move away from functionalism to structuralism in British social anthropology. Includes a lengthy introduction on the editors’ personal debates with others, as well as a banner article that advocates a focus on types of kin ties and their variable incidences in societies rather than drawing up typologies of whole systems. The latter article reflects the influence of Wittgenstein’s polythetic classification.

  • Peletz, Michael. 1995. Kinship studies in late twentieth century anthropology. Annual Review of Anthropology 24:343–372.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    A comprehensive review of new studies in anthropology since the 1970s, with a focus on new methodological and theoretical perspectives. In particular, it covers Marxist, feminist, and historical approaches; lesbian and gay kinship; and the new reproductive technologies, with special attention to the issues of ambiguity, politics, and the power these give rise to. Available online for purchase.

  • Stone, Linda, ed. 2001. New directions in anthropological kinship. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

    A recent collection of articles that combine sociocultural with biological and psychological approaches to kinship, including the new reproductive technologies, gay relationships, multiple parenthood through divorce and remarriage, and kinship and the state.

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