Robert Parkin

in Anthropology

ISBN: 9780199766567
Published online January 2012 | | DOI:

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Kinship has traditionally been one of the key topics in social and cultural anthropology. There are two principal reasons for this: First, although not all human groups are constituted on the basis of kinship, all humans have kinship as individuals and are related to other individuals through it. Second, for the sorts of “tribal,” classless, economically unspecialized societies that anthropologists have mostly—though no longer exclusively—studied, kinship has appeared to be the main or even sole form of social organization. As a result, many theoretical approaches, especially the schools of functionalism and structuralism within social anthropology, have focused on how social groups are formed, how individuals are related to one another through kinship, and the mutual rights and duties they have as a result. Cultural anthropologists, by contrast, have chosen to focus more on the symbolic aspects of kinship, such as the meanings attached to being a particular sort of relative, as well as how symbols of and perspectives on personhood, the body, and gender inform kinship ideas and practices. In broad terms, this latter approach has predominated in America since around 1900 but has been reinvigorated periodically and become more influential in world anthropology, especially in the poststructuralist phase starting in the 1970s. The domain of kinship can be divided into descent (that is, relations between generations), marriage, and siblingship, though there are not nearly as many studies on the last category as there are on the first two. Early work (especially from the functionalist school) tended to see kinship as a matter of descent only, which produced the phrase “kinship and marriage”; later work, starting with structuralism, has tended to include marriage within the overarching rubric of kinship, adding to it the notion of affinal alliance. Among other things, this reflects the heavy concentration in functionalism on genealogical reckoning in analyzing kinship systems. Structuralism, by contrast, moved away from this in favor of a focus on kin categories rather than genealogical positions, and poststructuralism moved away from both genealogy and the notion of kinship systems to focus more on meaning, practice, and agency. Both earlier schools had an interest in kinship terminology, or the terms used for relatives and the different patterns they make when seen as whole systems, but whereas functionalism tended to view the terminology in terms of descent, structuralism connected it with marriage, especially affinal alliance involving marriage to various classes of cousins, from which came the terms, respective to the schools, of descent theory and alliance theory. There have also been numerous studies of the family, less influential theoretically than very recent studies of the new reproductive technologies and their implications for what we mean by kinship.

Article.  12597 words. 

Subjects: Anthropology ; Human Evolution ; Medical Anthropology ; Physical Anthropology ; Social and Cultural Anthropology

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