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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Human Complex Systems


What is Kinship?


The anthropologist David Schneider suggested two decades ago that we need to consider a hypothesis other than the claim of a universal grid underlying all kinship systems as the basis for explicating the structural properties of kinship terminologies. In this paper I analyze the American/English kinship terminology viewed as a structured system of abstract symbols and establish that it has a generative structure. The analysis makes clear the sense in which a terminology is a cultural construct with an underlying logic that is not derived from the properties of a genealogical grid. The analysis leads to 100% accurate prediction of kin type definition of kin terms, thereby disproving W.H.R. Rivers’ widely accepted argument that kin terms are primarily defined through genealogical relationships. But rather than viewing either the terminological space or the genealogical grid as primary and the other as secondary, I argue that we need to view the genealogical and the terminological spaces as co-existing conceptual structures with overlap arising through application of the symbols from these two conceptual systems to the same domain of persons.

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