Calculating Kin: Analyzing and Understanding Cultural Codes

Michael D. Fischer

Modelling Kinship Terminologies

We are going to take a relatively simple approach to illustrate how to analyze a terminology.

If we look at the terms used in English Kinship Terminology (EKT),

mother, father, son, daughter, brother, sister
uncle, aunt, nephew, niece
cousin (differently elabourated in different English speaking cultures)
grandfather, grandmother, grandson, granddaughter
granduncle, grandaunt, grandniece, grandnephew (in many dialects)
great-grandmother, great-great-grandmother etc
great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather etc

there are also the affinal terms:

wife, husband, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, mother-in-law and father-in-law as well as uncle and aunt.

there are two basic classificatory distinctions being made, sex and generation. Most kinship terminologies make use of these in some part of the terminology, and not in others. EKT is no different.

Most terms are marked for sex, that is, EKT has mostly pairs that are differented by sex, eg mother, father, son, daughter, brother, sister, uncle, aunt. Indeed the only term which is not marked is cousin. There are terms like parent, child and sibling in English which can be used as kin terms that do not mark sex, but in all these cases there are sex-marked alternatives.

For a terminology to be useful (and reduce the information necessary to learn the system), there must be a systematic way to assign kinship names to individuals, e.g. match up genealogical positions to kinship terms. Kinship terms are distinct from genealology, but must provide a means to address the assignment problem.


father - a male of the first ascending generation
mother a female of the first ascending generation
son - a male of the first descending generation
daughter - a female of the first ascending generation
brother - a male of the same generation
sister - a female of the same generation

These are not yet definitive - uncle is also of the first ascending generation, niece of the first descending generation. These will only work as a means of assignment if we start from a primative set of kin terms; a set that is sufficient to define all the other terms.

In the case of EKT, we can start with the undifferentiated term for first descending generation, child, and the attribute male or female.

Using these we can proceed:

daughter --> female child
son --> male child
father --> male reciprocal of child
mother --> female reciprocal of child
sibling --> someone who shares parents
brother --> male sibling
sister --> female sibling
grandparent --> parent of parent
grandmother --> female grandparent
grandfather --> male grandparent
grandchild --> reciprocal of grandparent
grandson --> male grandchild
granddaughter --> female grandchild
uncle --> male sibling of parent
aunt --> female sibling of parent
cousin --> child of parent's sibling
niece --> female child of sibling
nephew --> male child of sibling

Note that sex is only marked for the end of the genealogical path, not for the positions intermediate. Many terminologies mark sex for some intermediate positions, but EKT does not.

Some of the importance of defining terms in terms of other terms is that a) if possible this indicates structure that we can expect to find in the culture of native thinkers, and b) it reduces the amount of actual information required for this system to work in a real society. For example, in the examples above, we need only supply genealogical data about children, males and females. All the remaining relationships can be calculated based on this data. We could have chosen parent as a basic category, and identical results would occur. A more detailed analysis would indeed permit us to find that parent is more likely the basic category, but in our simpler approach here there is no way to decide which is more basic.

There are other relationships, the affinal relationships, e,g.

spouse, wife, husband, uncle, aunt, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, father-in-law, mother-in-law. In our approach we must specify data for spouses, but in conjunction with our earlier analysis, the remaining terms can all be defined in terms of spouse, child, male and female. You should construct these as an exercise.

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