9. Systems of Kinship

(a) Family, household, marriage. (b) Types and forms of family. (c) Lineage and descent. (d) Patriarchy and sexual division of labour. (e) Contemporary trends.

Table of contents

Topics of interest for CSE:

  1. Family, household, marriage.
  2. Types and forms of family.
  3. Lineage and descent.
  4. Patriarchy and sexual division of labour.
  5. Contemporary trends.


Relations which emerge on the basis of social recognition of biological ties. Social recognition more important here than the biological ties, it has two implications:

  • If biological link is not socially recognised, then not kinship tie. Ex. role of husband in the matrilineal Nayar families; in Trobriander society childbirth occurs when spirit of ancestors enters the body, thus no role for father-figure.
  • No biological link but if socially recognised, then kinship tie. Ex. anda in Mongol society (blood-brothers by ceremony); adopted child etc.
    Representing kinship ties with a matrix:


Relations of affinity.
Relations of consanguinity.

Lineal. Based on direct descent.
Collaterals. Based on indirect descent.

Social biological connections can be of two kinds: sexual and descent based. Therefore kinship consists of affines and consanguines. There may be an overlap of the two. Ex. affine of consanguine is sister’s husband and consanguine of affine is wife’s brother. When these relations are socially recognised they lead to the formation of kin groups.

One type of kin group is based on social recognition of biological descent, the descent group. With social recognition it becomes the basis of transmission of:

  • Group membership. Ex. surname.
  • Offices. Ex. king’s son is prince.
  • Property. Ex. law of inheritance.

This transmission takes place according to the social norms (how recognition is given) i.e. either male or female line of descent may be given precedence according to norms. When only one line (fe/male) inherits it is called unilineal descent. It is of two kinds:

  • Patrilineal- Prominent in North India.
  • Matrilineal -
    • Seen in South India - Nairs, Bunts, Jujans.
    • North-Eastern India - Garo, Khasi, Jaintiya.


Members share descent from a common but mythical ancestor. The genealogical links with ancestor can’t be established. Groups on the basis of one line of descent ex. ahir clan. When clans divided into smaller groups they are called lineages. Gotra groups are another example of clans.


Share descent from a common real ancestor. Link to ancestor can be established. Ex. sons of Begraj Ahir of Mandlana.
All over the world, the patri-clans/lineages are more commonly found. Matri-clans/lineages, while found, are rare occurences.

  • AGNATES: individuals connected through patrilineal descent.
  • UTERINES: individuals connected through matrilineal descent.
  • KINDREDS: individuals connected through bilateral descent.


Bilateral Descen

tBoth sides of the parents are recognised symmetrically and equally. (This is the direction of current change in modern industrial societies)

Bilineal (double unilineal) Groups

Both sides are recognized but asymmetrically. Ex. yako tribe in Nigeria; movable property inherited from father and immovable from mother.

Ambilinear Groups

Both sides are recognised but choice left to the individual. Ex. Samoa islands.

Parallel Descent

Son inherits from father and daughter from mother. Ex. Red Indian tribes of Brazil.

NOTE: Except for bilateral descent, all others of this kind are rare.

The role of descent groups is more important in simpler societies where specialised institutions have not developed to take over functions of the extended kin group as in the industrial society. Out of clan and lineage, lineage is the more functional group. Clan is accounted for during marriages and other major life events (birth, death etc.), but it is not of everyday significance.

Functions of Lineage

  • Economic cooperation. Land allocated to lineages in societies where private property doesn’t exist.
  • Religious functions. Have local deities. (Clan: totem; lineage: Kul Devi/Devta)
  • Political functions. Intra-caste disputes resolved by lineage panchayats.
  • Social functions attributed to lineage depending on the nature of the clan. Ex. tax collection privileges in case of some warrior clans. Leads to development of social capital of the lineage.
    Thus, lineage roles are an important part of simple societies. But in modern societies their importance is declining. These roles experience disintegration as:
  • Economic activity separated from kinship groups.
  • State develops for political problems.
  • Religious importance declines due to personalisation of religion.

Social Capital: Elinor Ostrom defines social capital as the shared norms, rules, and expectations about patterns of interaction that groups of individuals bring to a recurrent activity.

  1. Social capital does not wear out with use, rather with disuse.
  2. Social capital is not easy to measure or observe
  3. Social capital is hard to construct through external interventions
  4. National and regional governments affect the kind of social capital available to pursue long term developmental goals.

Putnam, Nanetti identify social capital as involving networks, norms, and social beliefs that evolve out of processes that are not directly investment activities. On the flip-side, organised crime syndicates use social capital as the foundation for their organisation structure. Cartels develop social capital in their effort to keep control over an industry so as to reap more profits that would otherwise be the case. An authoritarian state based on military command and use of instruments of forces destroys other forms of social capital while building its own.


Come into existence when sexuality is socially recognised through the social arrangement of marriage. Although all societies have arrangements for giving recognition to sexuality it is on the decline in modern industrial societies. While marriage is a common institution, due to the multiplicity of norms it is difficult to define it exactly. A minimal definition is given as:“Marriage is a socially recognised arrangement by which certain rights are conferred on the individual/group. The rights are of two kinds: kinship & domestic.”
Kinship rights can be subdivided as:

  • Sexual rights.
  • Rights in genetricem and uxorem. (right to bear and beget; the husband's ownership of the offspring)Domestic rights are in relation to cooperation household/residential group management.
    Based on the way these rights are conferred we can classify types of marriages as:

Straight life monogamy: no right to divorce or remarry. Ex. Hindu women.
A classic example of polyandry (non-fraternal) is in Nairs in Kerala. After marriage (Jali ceremony) husband leaves and does not reside with the wife. The wife can take up to 12 co-husbands (called Sambandham relations) and children are raised by the mother’s brother.
Tibetans follow a system of fraternal polyandry. (Mahabharata reference)
Polygyny is evident in most tribes of north-east/central India and Hindu upper castes and Muslims. Highest incidence is among tribals followed by upper caste Hindus and lastly Muslims.

Claude Levi-Strauss views marriages as essentially an exchange of women among groups. Broadly there are two types of exchange principles:

  • Restricted and symmetrical exchanges based on immediate (Southern Kinship systems)/delayed (Northern kinship systems) reciprocity.
  • Generalized and asymmetrical exchanges based on no reciprocity. Ex. in north India clear separation between wife givers and wife takers.
    Marriages can also be classified in terms of preferential marriages i.e. certain individuals are preferred over others. Ex. cross-cousin marriages in south India. Here cousins are tertiary collateral with two people between them. Another example may be the uncle-niece exchange, also common in south India.

Another classification is on the basis of levirate/surrogate marriages.

  • Levirate. Woman is expected to marry her deceased husband’s younger brother.
  • Surrogate. Man is expected to marry the younger sister of his decease wife.
    Marriage governed by rules of residence.
  • Virilocal. Woman follows man to his household.
  • Uxorilocal. Man follows woman to her household.

NOTE: while matrilineal societies have been found, they are rare. The matrilineal nature does not imply that male authority is absent, men still manage property, it is just the transference that takes places through females.Thus, one could conclude that matrilineal societies too are patriarchal. Ex. the Tchambouli tribe in Polynesia (studied by Margaret Mead), Minangkabu people of Sumatra.


The family as an institution of society contains both affinitive and consanguine relations. It is universal in society, but due to the large number of variations an exhaustive definition is not possible.

George Murdock. Observed 250 societies all over the world. Identified a familial group he believed universal. Called it the elementary family. He defined it as:A social group characterised by:

  • common residence,
  • economic cooperation, and
  • reproduction.

It consists of at least two adults of both sexes who maintain socially approved sexual relations and the children born to or adopted by sexually cohabiting adults.
His definition was critiqued as in the southern USA a sizeable African-American population lives in which 50% of the families didn’t conform to this idea. There the father was usually missing from the picture. Reasons given for this were the slave history of the people, West African polygyny traditions, and poverty. Thus, it was claimed that Murdock only defined one type of family, not the universal family.

NOTE I: a husband-wife couple without children is called a conjugal family.

NOTE II: The atom of kinship is the mother-child bond.

Types of Family

  • Family by polygamous marriage. The women usually maintain separate kitchens and households with the husband-father moving between them.
  • Lineally extended family. Three generations living in the same house.
  • Laterally extended family. Siblings living in the same house. May be brothers in a lineally extended family after father has died or brother-sister as in the Nair tradition. Most families are both lineally and laterally extended.
  • Classic extended family. With all siblings living together (with their wives in case of brothers) under the father. A variation of this exists in England/France, due to primogeniture. The eldest son continues living with the father, while younger siblings break off and start new household, but maintain close contacts.
    NOTE: Khasi tribes in Meghalaya maintain matrilineal ultimogeniture i.e. the youngest daughter inherits. Namboodiri Brahmins in Kerala followed primogeniture.

Functions of Family

George Murdock identified 3 traditional functions of the family:

  • Sexual gratification and socially approved reproduction.
  • Economic cooperation.
  • Education.

Parsons said that family has two indispensable functions:

  • Primary socialisation.
  • Adult personality stabilisation.
  • Family is the only place in the industrial society where individual is valued intrinsically.
  • Relations are emotionally gratifying and this leads to adult personality stabilisation.

Engels in his Origins of Family, Private Property and State said that:

  • Family comes with private property (which is controlled by men).
  • To transfer wealth to the next generation, paternity confidence needed.
  • Marriage develops as a means to control women’s sexuality and labour.
  • Women do unlimited work in the family. Capitalists get free labour.
  • Keeps the male breadwinner more docile as he cannot risk his wife and child.
  • The wife also acts as an emotional sponge for the frustrated/alienated man, thereby reducing his revolutionary tendencies and the capitalist rests secure.

Criticism of Family

Critique of Murdock.

  • With the advent of public education, education is now no longer the sole purview of the family except for primary socialisation.
  • Peter Wilmott says economic cooperation has been reduced to consumption, the role of family as a producer is on the decline with the decline of the agricultural economy.
  • Wells & Vogel found that emotionally disturbed children were victims of family. The children were scapegoated by parents for their own troubles. Functional for the parents and dysfunctional for the kids.
  • RD Laing: often family is a place of politics. It becomes a gangland/factional feud place and the victims are children.
  • Jessie Bernard said that Parsons’ adult personality stabilisation is nothing but male personality stabilisation. She conducted a study to show that:
  • psychic disorders increased in women post marriage and decreased in men.
  • Also men’s career jumped after marriage, while women’s took a step back.

Structure of Family

Most common in industrial society, also found in pre-agrarian societies.
In agrarian societies due to cycle of dev of family, extended families emerge.
Generally found in agrarian societies, where pooling of labour helps.
Bilateral descent.
Unilineal descent (mostly patrilineal).
Conjugal bond important.
Conjugal bond subordinated to consanguine bonds.
Personal choice in mate selection.
Marriage is seen as alliance of families.
Public Display of Affection encouraged.
PDA prohibited. Joking and avoidance relations.
Women have greater equality. (Though still not complete equality)
Authoritarian with mostly male supremacy.
Joint roles and women active in labour market.
DoL based on sex. Compulsory domesticity for women.

Pre-industrial societies were dominated by extended families for a number of reasons:

  • Agriculture is labour intensive. Makes sense to keep labour pool large.
  • Skills simple. Family transmits occupational skills.
  • Life expectancy is short. Death rates high due to inadequate nutrition and medical technology, thus bereaved members can fall back on extended family.
  • No welfare state. Family only institution to look after old/sick.Extended family was ideal for pre-industrial societies. With industrialization domestic unit was no longer the economic unit. Cultural patterns in conflict with idea of extended family.

A nuclear family is more suited to social and geographic mobility, which are characteristic of industrial society. Thus, a nuclear family is a structural fit with industrial society.
NOTE: post green revolution, nuclear families have mushroomed in India.
Parsons said that the nuclear family is structurally isolated i.e. only maintains kinship relations with the immediate kin group.
WJ Goode. Said that there is a trend towards nuclearisation of the family.

  • Structural differentiation leads to the role of family being highly specialised.
  • With industrialisation many roles of the family overtaken by other institutions.
  • Social positions are achieved and not based on descent. Leads to role-bargaining in kinship ties i.e. kinship ties maintained to maximise self-interest. Intrinsic worth of kinship on the decline.
  • Allows for greater social and geographical mobility.
  • Education system and media ideology (cereal-box family) promote nuclear family.
  • Goode’s theory led to a number of empirical studies.
  • Peter Laslett. Conducted a historical study in England over 300 years (1550s-1820s). He found that most families were nuclear families, and similar trends were found in France, Netherlands and Scandinavian countries. He concluded that only 10% of the families were extended. (May have been due to low life expectancy + family development cycle + stem family in primogeniture cultures)

Development Cycle of the family.

Elizabeth Roberts. Found that during early industrialisation, there was a spike in the number of extended families. With men working long hours, unemployment frequent and no welfare state, extended families cooperated to bring up children and manage households. Return to this trend in modern era where both parents are working.
It is found that households become nuclear more often than families. Household is a residential group, while family is a kinship group. These households maintain close kinship relations even though nuclear, thereby preserving the family. True for working class (Bethnal Green Study) and middle class (Woodfort Study).

Willmott & Young. Conducted studies in Bethnal Green and Woodford.

  1. Industrialisation has not led to nuclear families.
  2. Found frequent contact with kin outside nuclear family.
  3. Access to automobiles and telephones (and now internet) have connected people even transnationally.
  4. Old parents move in to babysit children. The study also found that 75% of sample had sought help outside the nuclear family.
  • Social attitude survey in 1995 in Britain found that:
    • 70% nuclear families maintained links with extended family when they lived nearby.
    • 50% maintained links even when they lived far away.
    • 60% had taken financial aid from extended kin group.It would be an oversimplification to say that industrialisation leads to development of nuclear families. The direction of change is from extended to modified extended families not nuclear families. In the 21st century, nuclear families are breaking down. What is emerging is a pluralisation of forms. For ex:
    • Symmetrical nuclear family (Mother-father, son-wife).
    • Reconstituted nuclear family (2nd marriage; my kid, your kid, our kid).
    • Single parent nuclear family (mostly single moms and child).
    • Live-in relation nuclear family (40% of kids born in USA in 2004 from live-in relationships).
    • Commune families (Israeli Kibbutzim).
    • Same sex partner families etc.

AM Shah - Changes in the Indian Family

  1. Assumption of inevitable trend from large and complex to small and simple families is faulty.
  2. The assumption of large households in pre-independence India is based on a confusion between household and family.
  3. Residential unity is higher in the upper castes.
  4. Sanskritisation of lower castes tends to increase number of relationships in a household.
  5. Westernisation tends to decrease the same.

Death of the Family - David Cooper

  1. Family is the social institution most resistant to change.
  2. Family is an ideological conditioning device to maintain the western imperialistic worldview.
  3. Family traps members in their roles and restricts their ability to be more than the role.
  4. Family uses guilt and emotional over control to dominate it's members.
  5. Solutions: communal child rearing. Kibbutzim example.
  6. Solution: increased number of lovers and partners.


Patriarchy: Men dominate women sexually and control their labour.Sexual

Division of Labour: Social arrangement whereby social roles are assigned based on gender. Men are usually bread-winners and women are confined to the domestic sphere (leads to compulsory social exclusion). SDoL creates inequality.

Domestic roles are private and isolating roles, leading to forced seclusion for women. They deprive women of both social and economic rewards. This in turn creates dependence on men and thus, leads to exploitation and dis-empowerment of women. Over time this has led to the institutionalisation of patriarchy. In the end, women are commodified (made into objects of sexual gratification).
4th wave feminism is highlighting the institutionalised patriarchy in society. Ex. me too movement.


Sexual DoL is an ongoing debate in sociology. Some are pro (meninists) and some are anti (feminists).

Sex is a biological concept, defining people as male/female or trans while gender is a social concept which defines the appropriate social conduct associated with being male/female or trans.

Socio-biology seeks to explain it in terms of biology (note here that these are indicative perspectives and have not been causally linked). The basic claim here is that biological difference make sexual division of labour necessary:

  • Men and women differ in terms of hormones. The testosterone in men makes them more aggressive as compared to the oestrogen and progesterone found in women. This results in differences in personality, giving us SDoL.
  • Brain lateralisation: men have a well developed right hemisphere, leading to better visuo-spatial skills and tunnel vision. Women have a well developed left brain resulting in better verbal skills. Biological difference leads to social difference.
  • Difference in hormones. Men once matured are sperm factories, leading to a promiscuous nature and visual orientation. Women have a limited number of eggs before reaching menopause and are qualitatively oriented and look for stability.

Robin Fox & Lionel Tiger- Homo sapiens came about 2 million years ago, Homo sapiens sapiens came about 70,000 years ago. For the longest time we have been hunter-gatherers. The mothering role has led to men being hunters while women gather. This has resulted in greater musculature for men and reduction in size of women.

Murdock- He says that given physical differences, Social DoL is the most effective way of organising social life. He found SDoL in 224/250 of the societies he studied. Nearly universal.

Robin Fox- There are 4 basic requirements for any kin group which has resulted in 85% of societies being patriarchal, lineal, and local. They are: (as these condition are changing, patriarchy being challenged)

  1. Adult women who bear children.
  2. Men who impregnate them.
  3. Mother role incapacitates women. Men manage property.
  4. Avoid incest. (So as to stabilise family, apart from biological reasons)

Parsons Says that it is the most functional way of organising social life. Expressive females are very important for developing stable human personality. Women teach emotions during primary socialisation and provide emotional support during adult personality stabilisation.

John Bowlby- Juvenile delinquents lacked intimate relationship with mother in childhood. Intimacy with mother implies more sensitivity to pain and suffering.

Anne Oakley- Questions Murdock. Says in many societies women perform physically strenuous tasks. She says post-partum dependence is rubbish, women are as flexible/adaptable as men. Ex:

  1. Lumbering in Siberia.
  2. Indonesian tribeswomen return to agriculture 3-4 days after giving birth.
  3. Israeli army/Kurdish Peshmerga have a large number of women & are very effective.
  4. Indian construction labour has a large proportion of women in the workforce.

She questions if compulsory domesticity is necessary for providing emotional support, saying that working women spend quality time with children while full-time mothers would get frustrated and thus inflict physical/psychological violence on children.

Margaret Mead. In her study of Samoan tribes found that:

  • Studied primitive cultures in order to find ways of living that were no longer practiced in west.
  • In some tribes both men and women were nurturing, while in some both men and women were aggressive.
  • Said that gender roles are not natural but socially defined.
  • Tchambouli - women as power brokers instead of men.
  • Arrapesh - peaceful tribe that did not have a concept of aggressive males.
    Shulamith Firestone. Radical feminist and Marxist. Criticised Marx for ignoring the most fundamental inequality, sexual inequality. Gender exploitation is the most enduring form of social stratification, leads to development of sexual class system.
  1. Admits that the mother role incapacitates women for some time, this leads to dependence on men and thus exploitation. A power psychology develops in men.
  2. However, birth control has given greater freedom to women.
  3. Equality will result only with the abolition of the mother role. Technology can help.Her critics say that she hasn't advocated freedom from mother role, rather freedom from womanhood itself. (That’s sexist!)(Still gotta be aware of the false dichotomy of choice)
    Kate Millet. In her book Sexual Politics, she says that all unequal power relations involve politics, this is patriarchy. Patriarchy is the most pervasive ideology in human society, it is more pervasive than class and most enduring.

Factors causing patriarchy:

  1. Biological. Mother role.
  2. Ideological. Like socialisation, roles imposed since childhood by society.
  3. Educational. Women were denied education, a free-minded woman is a social peril.
  4. Religious. Father in heaven in Abrahamic religions. Manusmriti in Hinduism says that women should always be subordinated to men.
  5. Family. To ensure legitimacy of offspring, women forced into subservient role.
  6. Internalization of Patriarchy. Long existence has caused internalisation. In a typical mother-in-law and daughter-in-law feud they are both acting as agents of patriarchy.

Silvia Walby

Patriarchy is imp for understanding gender inequality. Structural aspects:

  1. Male domination in paid employment.
  2. Patriarchal domination in family. Termed as private patriarchy.
  3. Patriarchal culture. Femininity defined in male terms.
  4. Control over female sexuality.
  5. Men use violence for controlling women.
  6. State supports patriarchy.She admits that with rise of feminism, 50% of the labour pool is women, but most women are still in the secondary labour market. The rise of single mother families shows the decline of patriarchy. Judiciary hardly has any women.

Another feminist said that the most common role for women is that of secretary, which is a maid, mother, and mistress all rolled into one role.

NOTE 1: nuclear families are becoming increasingly dysfunctional as expectations from marriage are ever increasing in the modern society. This leads to high rate of divorce as people continue to keep looking for a more satisfying relationship. Fletcher.
NOTE 2: kinship ties are often also used to recruit managers for the family business. In terms of Davis & Moore’s theory of stratification, it comes into conflict in case of technically oriented positions but otherwise works just fine. Ex. Indian corporate culture - Lala companies.

Solution for Sexual Division of Labour

  • Radical Feminist. Total abolition of gender based roles and traditional parenting. Encourage professional parenting (womb renting). (Recent surrogacy law)
  • Liberal Feminist. Advocate joint roles for men and women.

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