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Open Access Publications from the University of California


The Structure and Dynamics eJournal welcomes articles, book reviews, data, simulations, research material, and special issues that examine aspects of human evolution, social structure and behavior, culture, cognition, or related topics. Our goal is to advance the historic mission of anthropology in the broadest sense to describe and explain the range of variation in human biology, society, culture and civilization across time and space. Submissions of databases, software tutorials, programs, and teaching materials are welcomed, as are communications on research materials of interest to a wide variety of science and social science researchers, including networks, dynamical models, and complexity research and related genre.


Back to Kinship: A General Introduction

In this collection, we retrace some of the historical development of the anthropological study of kinship and go back to the concepts and ideas that we, as anthropologists, had previously been circulating about kinship knowledge.  We address issues that have been raised about the study of kinship, the place of kinship in anthropological knowledge and what constitutes kinship on the basis of local knowledge.

We, the Taumako: Kinship Among Polynesians in the Santa Cruz Islands

Raymond Firth’s We, The Tikopia, first published in 1936, still sets the standard for detailed, nuanced, sensitive ethnography.  As Malinowski’s student, Firth—who died in 2002 at the age of 100—was a hard-headed functionalist, whose forte was careful examination of cultural “institutions” and their effects on individuals as well as on other institutions.  Suspicious of abstruse theoretical pronouncements, he presented his analyses in plain language and always situated them in relation to the “imponderabilia” of real people’s everyday lives. We, The Tikopia has been a foundational text for generations of anthropologists, and it helped to guide my research on three Polynesian outliers over the past four decades.  Since the time of Firth’s initial fieldwork, conditions in the region have changed drastically, as even the most remote communities have become enmeshed in the world market economy.  In 2007-08, I studied a revival of indigenous voyaging techniques on Taumako, a Polynesian community near Tikopia, in the southeastern Solomon Islands.  I was struck by the extent to which the cash economy permeated Taumako life, altering the tone of kin relations in ways that would have been unimaginable on Tikopia in the 1920s—or even on Anuta, where I conducted research, in the 1970s.  Here, I will examine Taumako kinship in light of the insights offered by Sir Raymond three quarters of a century ago and explore the changes to the kinship system brought about by new economic forces.

Transformationality and Dynamicality of Kinship Structure

Building on data systematically gathered during a field study in Qatar, it is found that kinship structure is characterized by a property combining transformationality and dynamicality, certainly in Qatari kinship, and proposed here as a feature of the universal human phenomenon of kinship.


Talk Is Not Cheap: Kinship Terminologies and the Origins of Language

Kinship terminology is a human universal, a kind of cultural knowledge circulated through language. In this paper I explore the possibility that the need for social rules prompted the development of fully syntactic language via kinship terminologies. In other words, kinship terms are at the core of modern language. They require uniquely human cognitive features such as symbolic reference and recursiveness, which in turn require a cognitive capacity beyond that of non-human primates. The conceptualization of kinship types was crucial in the transition from non-human primate to human social organization and the ‘invention’ of kinship terms facilitated this transition. The heuristics used in kin classification could have provided the decisive cognitive leap that introduced the essential tools for organizing and expanding social relationships and increasing the chances for survival. Thus kinship terms could have been the original nucleus of human language.

From Consanguinity to Consubstantiality: Julian Pitt-Rivers’ ‘The Kith and the Kin’

In 1973, Julian Pitt-Rivers published a chapter in Goody’s The Character of Kinship that, although rather infrequently used and quoted, suggested a work-around to the major criticisms that were expressed towards kinship studies in the 1970s.  Reintroducing the notion of “consubstantiality”, Pitt-Rivers suggested a bringing together of emic and etic approaches to kinship classification and ontology.  As straightforward as it may appear, the concept, when combined with Burke’s use of the notion in relation to that of “context”, crystallizes a methodology for embedding structural and formal approaches of kinship within the social domains of relatedness and action.  While discussing Pitt-Rivers’ proposition, this paper illustrates the application of consubstantiality as an explanatory model of the extension of self in the Australian Western Desert through two examples: the diversity of marriage scenarios and their consequences and the “unusual” usage of some terminological classes in relation to close kin.

The Place of Kinship in the Social System: A Formal-and-Functional Consideration With an Appendix on Descent and Alliance

This papers examines the recent controversy as to whether there is any universally defined domain of kinship in sociocultural systems from the point of view of the philosophy of science, in particular, the classical positivism (e.g., of Radcliffe-Brown and of Murdock) that I show to have motivated the question.  It also examines the American version of the controversy, as with Schneider, and shows that, again, the question arises because of essentially the radical empiricism of cultural particularism and its methodological focus.  It then proceeds to evaluate the question from a cognitive-cum-formalist perspective, and goes on the argue that Lounsbury’s approach is not only also positivist-behaviorist in its foundations but also unwilling or unable to consider kinship as a domain having regard to its function within the whole social system and therewith in fact inadequately formalist, having regard to genealogical organization.  I proceed to take especial not of the fact that, uniquely, kinship is a system of social relations that is what I cal pure-relational, that being the functional basis of its universal definition.  Finally, as an appendix, I generalize the idea of alliance to the structural organization of all kinship systems.

Implicit Formality:  Keesing’s Challenge and Its Significance for European Kinship

During the 1960s and 1970s, students of kinship became increasingly uneasy about the gap between formal terminology-and-genealogy-based models and data on actual behaviour. This gap–sometimes described as the problem of relating ‘prescriptive’ and ‘statistical’ models–was an important factor in Schneider’s rejection of the structural and cognitive traditions, and their subsequent near abandonment by Anglo-American anthropology. However, these developments did not resolve the problem so much as simply refuse to address it. The need for a better understanding of the relation between terminology and behaviour is still there, nowhere more so than in Europe, where quantitative historians and sociologists have revealed major macro-regional differences in kinship practices, which are associated with distinct patterns of kinship terminology.

This is where Keesing comes in. In his contribution to a 1972 volume celebrating the centenary of Morgan’s “Systems”, he, too criticized the existing work on formal models–but did not advocate abandoning it. On the contrary, he argued that it should be extended and deepened–setting aside simplistic assumptions of a direct correspondence between terms and roles in order to model the complex social and semantic processes that integrate kinship with the rest of social life. In this article, I return to Keesing’s agenda and propose a modeling approach that would fit some of the European data.

The House That Morgan Built

L.H. Morgan’s kinship work began and ended with the Iroquois longhouse, and the Iroquois kinship system that it shaped and by which it was shaped.  Kinship became a house for anthropology, shaping and being shaped by the emerging discipline.  Much of the house that Morgan built for anthropology still stands, including the last book, on houses and house-life, which seems to anticipate the current literature on houses and house-societies.

The Descent of Morgan in Australia: Kinship Representation from the Australian Colonies

Morgan had two extraordinary disciples in Lorimer Fison and Alfred Howitt in Australia.  They were inspired by Morgan’s kinship schedule and were profoundly engaged in the method and theory of the collection of kinship data and its interpretation.  Fison began using the schedule in Fiji in 1869.  Soon after his first contact with Howitt, in 1873, they changed the method of collection of kinship terminologies.  This paper traces the shift from tabulated kinship lists to family trees and the use of sticks to represent relationships (nearly twenty years before Rivers’ celebrated ‘genealogical method’), as well as efforts to find new means of representing kinship through experimentation with ‘ graphic formulae’ inspired by chemical equations.  These innovations first occurred through the gathering of kinship data about the Kŭnai of Gippsland, Victoria, and crucially involved close collaboration between Howitt and his Kŭnai consultant Tulaba.  What was revealed in this process was an indigenous kinship system quite different from that found in other parts of colonial Australia known at the time.  Fison and Howitt explained this system as transitional between two stages in terms of Morgan’s evolutionary scheme, but at the same time challenged the assumption that the general scheme could be applied to Australia.  While the details of Morgan’s evolutionary stages have faded from view, the methods of collection, representation, transmission, comparison and interpretation of kinship data are still live issues in anthropology today.  The kind of kinship system discovered in Gippsland involved neutralisation of the cross-parallel distinctions, distinctions that are otherwise typical of Australia.  Such neutralisation can now be shown to occur elsewhere in Australia.  There does indeed seem to have been a transition from a Dravidianate system with cross-parallel distinctions to ‘overlays’ of cross-parallel neutralisation, and finally a complete loss in some generations of such distinctions in the terminology.  These discoveries open up possibilities of rebuilding a diachronic theory of kinship change and evolution, incorporating some of the insights of Fison and Howitt, though without their specific hypotheses, either of local developments in Gippsland or the grand scheme of Morgan.

The Legacy of Radcliffe-Brown's Typology of Australian Aboriginal Kinship Systems

I review A. R. Radcliffe-Brown’s approach to the classification of Australian Aboriginal kinship terminologies and marriage systems, including revisions by A. P. Elkin. I contrast Radcliffe-Brown’s approach to typology with those of Lévi-Strauss and Scheffler, and I trace the way in which certain of Radcliffe-Brown’s categories have become standardised in the anthropological literature.  Following a discussion of approaches to classification, I propose a new classification of Australian systems and examine the frequency and spatial distribution of the proposed types.


The Recognition of Kinship Terminologies As Formal Systems

We now know what kinship terminologies are and what their function is in kinship systems, even though this knowledge is not yet widespread.  Every social system consists of a set of organizations built up interactively by the use of specific idea systems: governmental systems are systems of organizations built up by the use of governmental ideas, military systems by the use of military ideas, economic systems by the use of economic ideas, and so on, including kinship systems by the use of kinship ideas.  These social idea systems are not preeminently nomenclatures per se, but are associated with distinctive nomenclatures, just in the way that geometry is not a nomenclature but is associated with a nomenclature.   For kinship, the core of the nomenclature has mainly been encountered and studied under the heading of “kinship terminologies.”   The ideas associated with them are the ideas that make up their definitions.  These are highly systematic and form powerfully generative  conceptual calculi.  This paper describes how this recognition has emerged from earlier, quite different, formulations.

A New Approach to Forming a Typology of Kinship Terminology Systems: From Morgan and Murdock to the Present

This paper addresses typological relationships among kinship terminologies determined from structural differences in the way kin terms are organized as systems of concepts.  Viewing a terminology as a system of concepts makes evident the generative logic of a terminology that starts with properties shared across several terminologies and eventually includes properties specific to a single terminology.  These structural properties lead to a typology in which structural differences between terminologies form the branch points.  The typology highlights two primary dimensions along which terminologies may be distinguished: (1) structural differences between terminologies and (2) variation in the morphology of the lexemic form of kin terms.  Variation in the former relates to change constrained in the cultural domain and change in the latter relates to change constrained in the linguistic domain.