Do we need families?

Ryan Schram

ANTH 2654: Forms of Families

August 6, 2015

Available at

Alternative classrooms

Blackburn Lecture Theatre

A new kind of lecture

The “flipped lecture”:

Why do people want to do this?

What do you think this would be like as a student?

How does this work in anthropology?

Kinship live

What makes these TV shows popular? What do audiences see in them?

Kinship as a classification system

Henry Maine: status, contract

Lewis Henry Morgan: gens, state.

W. H. R. Rivers: The genealogical method, an inventory of social statuses.

"Bastard algebra"

Bronislaw Malinowski, founder of “fieldwork,” believed that British social anthropology was obsessed with kinship as a structure of society.

In a 1930 paper in the journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (then called Man), he wrote:

[I have my doubts] whether the effort needed to master the bastard algebra of kinship is really worth while. [...] After all, kinship is a matter of flesh and blood, the result of sexual passion and maternal affection, of long intimate daily life, and of a host of personal intimate interests. Can all this really be reduced to formulas symbols, perhaps equations? (1930: 19)

Anthropology aspires to become a mathematics of society. Should it?

Key terms

Consanguineous: Related by blood.

Affinal: Related by marriage, equivalent to English 'in-law'.

Filiation: The relationship of a parent to a child and the social roles and obligations attached to these social statuses.

Descent: A principle of kin reckoning, especially for purposes of determining group membership. People who are related by common descent have lineal ancestors in common.


The peoples of Kiriwina, Kitava and the other Trobriand Islands belong to dala, a group based on matrilineal descent.

A person in this society is a member of their mother's dala automatically. People of one dala are related to each other through women, to common female ancestors, who are descended from one woman. This woman emerged from the earth ages ago. Each dala founder came out of the ground in a different place.

Two ideas, two perspectives

Malinowski: Kinship systems are different ways of satisfying the same need for family connection and nurture of children. If different relatives are called by the same term, this is because the prinary term has been extended to apply to a more distant relative, e.g. Kiriwina ina: mother and mother's sister.

We have to examine kinship from the bottom-up, in terms of the real, practical (and emotional) circumstances of its experience. Discover “the native's point of view” (Malinowski 1932 [1922]: 25)!

Morgan: Kinship systems are derived from the kinds of property that people can own. More generally, kinship is a way for a group to organize its members into different groups.

We should approach kinship systems as total systems. Societies with classificatory systems of terminology tend to based on the gens. Kinship is society!

The axiom of amity

Meyer Fortes:

Kinship concepts, institutions, and relations classify, identify, and categorize persons and groups. ... [T]his is associated with rules of conduct whose efficacy comes, in the last resort, from a general principle of kinship morality that is rooted in the familial domain and is assumed everywhere to be axiomatically binding. This is the rule of prescriptive altruism which I have referred to as the principle of kinship amity and which Hiatt calls the ethic of generosity. (Fortes 2004 [1969]: 231-232)


This is the region where Susana de Matos Viegas carried out field research in Bahia, Brazil:


Fortes, Meyer. 2004 [1969]. Kinship and the Social Order: The Legacy of Lewis Henry Morgan. London: Routledge.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1930. “17. Kinship.” Man 30: 19–29. doi:10.2307/2789869.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1932 [1922]. Argonauts of The Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd.