Another way to compare ideas about family across cultures is to categorize them based on kinship terminology: the terms used in a language to describe relatives. George Murdock was one of the first anthropologists to undertake this kind of comparison and he suggested that the kinship systems of the world could be placed in six categories based on the kinds of words a society used to describe relatives. In some kinship systems, brothers, sisters, and all first cousins call each other brother and sister. In such a system, not only one’s biological father, but all one’s father’s brothers would be called “father,” and all of one’s mother’s sisters, along with one’s biological mother, would be called “mother.” Murdock and subsequent anthropologists refer to this as the Hawaiian system because it was found historically in Hawaii. In Hawaiian kinship terminology there are a smaller number of kinship terms and they tend to reflect generation and gender while merging nuclear families into a larger grouping. In other words, you, your brothers and sisters, and cousins would all be called “child” by your parents and your aunts and uncles.
Definition: kinship terminology
The terms used in a language to describe relatives.
Other systems are more complicated with different terms for father’s elder brother, younger brother, grandparents on either side and so on. Each pattern was named for a cultural group in which this pattern was found. The system that most Americans follow is referred to as the Eskimo system, a name that comes from the old way of referring to the Inuit, an indigenous people of the Arctic. Placing cultures into categories based on kinship terminology is no longer a primary focus of anthropological studies of kinship. Differences in kinship terminology do provide insight into differences in the way people think about families and the roles people play within them.
Sometimes the differences in categorizing relatives and in terminology reflect patrilineal and matrilineal systems of descent. For example, in a patrilineal system, your father’s brothers are members of your lineage or clan; your mother’s brothers do not belong to the same lineage or clan and may or may not be counted as relatives. If they are counted, they likely are called something different from what you would call your father’s brother. Similar differences would be present in a matrilineal society.
An Example from Croatia
In many U.S. families, any brother of your mother or father is called “uncle.” In other kinship systems, however, some uncles and aunts count as members of the family and others do not. In Croatia, which was historically a patrilineal society, all uncles are recognized by their nephews and nieces regardless of whether they are brothers of the mother or the father. But, the uncle is called by a specific name that depends on which side of the family he is on; different roles are associated with different types of uncles.
A child born into a traditional Croatian family will call his aunts and uncles stric and strina if they are his father’s brothers and their wives. He will call his mother’s brothers and their wives ujak and ujna. The words tetka or tetak can be used to refer to anyone who is a sister of either of his parents or a husband of any of his parents’ sisters. The third category, tetka or tetak, has no reference to “side” of the family; all are either tetka or tetak.
These terms are not simply words. They reflect ideas about belonging and include expectations of behavior. Because of the patrilineage, individuals are more likely to live with their father’s extended family and more likely to inherit from their father’s family, but mothers and children are very close. Fathers are perceived as authority figures and are owed deference and respect. A father’s brother is also an authority figure. Mothers, however, are supposed to be nurturing and a mother’s brother is regarded as having a mother-like role. This is someone who spoils his sister’s children in ways he may not spoil his own. A young person may turn to a maternal uncle, or mother’s brother in a difficult situation and expects that a maternal uncle will help him and maintain confidentiality. These concepts are so much a part of the culture that one may refer to a more distant relative or an adult friend as a “mother’s brother” if that person plays this kind of nurturing role in one’s life. These terms harken back to an earlier agricultural society in which a typical family, household, and economic unit was a joint patrilineal and extended family. Children saw their maternal uncles less frequently, usually only on special occasions. Because brothers are also supposed to be very fond of sisters and protective of them, those additional associations are attached to the roles of maternal uncles. Both father’s sisters and mother’s sisters move to their own husbands’ houses at marriage and are seen even less often. This probably reflects the more generic, blended term for aunts and uncles in both these categories.
Similar differences are found in Croatian names for other relatives. Side of the family is important, at least for close relatives. Married couples have different names for in-laws if the in-law is a husband’s parent or a wife’s parent. Becoming the mother of a married son is higher in social status than becoming the mother of a married daughter. A man’s mother gains authority over a new daughter-in-law, who usually leaves her own family to live with her husband’s family and work side by side with her mother-in-law in a house.
An Example from China
In traditional Chinese society, families distinguished terminologically between mother’s side and father’s side with different names for grandparents as well as aunts, uncles, and in-laws. Siblings used terms that distinguished between siblings by gender, as we do in English with “brother” and “sister,” but also had terms to distinguish between older and younger siblings. Intriguingly, however, the Chinese word for “he/she/it” is a single term, ta with no reference to gender or age. The traditional Chinese family was an extended patrilineal family, with women moving into the husband’s family household. In most regions, typically brothers stayed together in adulthood. Children grew up knowing their fathers’ families, but not their mothers’ families. Some Chinese families still live this way, but urbanization and changes in housing and economic livelihood have made large extended families increasingly less practical.
An Example from the Navajo
In Navajo (or Diné) society, children are “born for” their father’s families but “born to” their mother’s families, the clan to which they belong primarily. The term clan refers to a group of people who have a general notion of common descent that is not attached to a specific ancestor. Some clans trace their common ancestry to a common mythological ancestor. Because clan membership is so important to identity and to social expectations in Navajo culture, when people meet they exchange clan information first to find out how they stand in relationship to each other. People are expected to marry outside the clans of their mothers or fathers. Individuals have responsibilities to both sides of the family, but especially to the matrilineal clan. Clans are so large that people may not know clan every individual member, and may not even live in the same vicinity as all clan members, but rights and obligations to any clan members remain strong in people’s thinking and in practical behavior. I recently had the experience at the community college where I work in Central Arizona of hearing a young Navajo woman introduce herself in a public setting. She began her address in Navajo, and then translated. Her introduction included reference to her clan memberships, and she concluded by saying that these clan ties are part of what makes her a Navajo woman.
A group of people who have a general notion of common descent that is not attached to a specific biological ancestor.
An Example from the United States
In many cases, cultures assign “ownership” of a child, or responsibilities for that child anyway, to some person or group other than the mother. In the United States, if one were to question people about who is in their families, they would probably start by naming both their parents, though increasingly single parent families are the norm. Typically, however, children consider themselves equally related to a mother and a father even if one or both are absent from their life. This makes sense because most American families organize themselves according to the principles of bilateral descent, as discussed above, and do not show a preference for one side of their family or the other. So, on further inquiry, we might discover that there are siblings (distinguished with different words by gender, but not birth order), and grandparents on either side of the family who count as family or extended family. Aunts, uncles, and cousins, along with in-laws, round out the typical list of U.S. family members. It is not uncommon for individuals to know more about one side of the family than the other, but given the nature of bilateral descent the idea that people on each side of the family are equally “related” is generally accepted. The notion of bilateral descent is built into legal understandings of family rights and responsibilities in the United States. In a divorce in most states, for example, parents are likely to share time somewhat equally with a minor child and to have joint decision-making and financial responsibility for that child’s needs as part of a parental agreement, unless one parent is unable or unwilling to participate as an equal.
- George P. Murdock, Social Structure (New York: MacMillan, 1949). ↵
- Vera St. Ehrlich, Family in Transition: A Study of 300 Yugoslav Villages. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966. See also Gilliland, M. 1986. The Maintenance of Family Values in a Yugoslav Town. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI International. ↵
"Family and Marriage" by Mary Kay Gilliland, Central Arizona College. In Perspectives: An Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology, 2nd Edition, Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges, 2020, under CC BY-NC 4.0.