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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Human Complex Systems


A Kinship Parable


The protagonist of the parable, Eager Graduate Student (EG), wants to apply the idea of cultural consensus and goes to the field and finds a set of terms the villagers use to refer to each other. EG elicits data by using triad questions and works out the semantic links among the terms. He finds that the semantic domain he has elicited is also a cultural domain based on consensus analysis. When he returns and talks with Prof. Silverback about his research, Prof. Silverback tells him he has been eliciting kin terms and he should go back and use a genealogical framework instead of the triad questions. EG suggests that they try a new program called Kinship Algebra Expert System and to their astonishment the program works out the logical structure for the semantic domain. Even more, it predicts the genealogical definitions of the kin terms even though EG had not asked his informants about the way kin terms relate to genealogy. Prof. Silverback is very disturbed as the computer program is able to predict the genealogical definition of the kin terms, which challenges longstanding assumptions in anthropology about the primacy of genealogy for understanding kinship. The enormity of what has happened slowly begins to sink in as he realizes that “this is telling us something fundamental about human cognition, perhaps something about culture … about what it means to be human!”

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