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  • Writer's picturebruce yu

Social Anthro#2: Kinship - Given or Made?

When you start to reflect upon the meaning of this blog's title, I would like to invite you to first think about the following questions: Why is it that most people in the modern society think that biology is more important than social factors in defining who we consider to be ‘family’? Is there a ‘natural’ connection between a human baby and the people who ‘create’ it? Are family ties about blood relations, or social relations, or both?

The anthropological studies of patterns and relatedness, known as kinship, aims to unravel what is behind our conceptions regarding the word "family". We are used to thinking about kinship in terms of consanguinity, or ‘common blood’ shared by a group of people who are biologically and genetically related through descent from common ancestors. Belonging within a kin group can therefore be defined according to descent. Kinship is also defined in terms of marriage, or affinal relations. This can be referred to in terms of alliance – that is, the alliances that are made between different kin groups through marriage and related ties. The paper "Australian Aboriginal Kinship - Part four: Social category systems - pacific-credo Publications (" on social category systems explores deeper into the kinship categorization within consanguinity and affinal relations.

Matrimoieties in a genealogy

However, the idea of kinship can be of higher complexity, as a socially constructed set of relationships does not necessarily correspond to ties of ‘blood’. To further explore this side of the kinship, we need to call upon the idea of functionalism ("Functionalism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)"), a fundamental concept in anthropology, presents a perspective that views society as a complex system composed of interdependent parts working together to maintain equilibrium and functionality. According to functionalism, each aspect of a society, be it social institutions, cultural practices, or individual behaviors, serves a purpose that contributes to the overall functioning of the society. Just as the organs in a body work harmoniously to sustain life, functionalism posits that different elements within a society have specific roles that contribute to the whole. Functionalism can be applied to explain kinship in anthropology. Within a kinship system, individuals are assigned specific roles and obligations based on their familial relationships. For instance, parents are responsible for nurturing and raising their children, while children are expected to respect and support their parents in their old age. Siblings share bonds of mutual assistance and solidarity. Extended families often come together for important events, providing emotional support and resources during times of need. Functionalism would argue that these roles and responsibilities are not merely arbitrary but are designed to ensure the smooth functioning of the society.

The American Plains Tribe

On the other hand, an example of kinship based on social structure or utility, rather than consanguinity, can be found in certain traditional societies where formal kinship-like relationships are established for functional purposes. One such example is the concept of "blood brothers" among various indigenous groups. For instance, among the Native American Plains tribes, the practice of becoming "blood brothers" was a way to create alliances and strengthen intertribal relationships. Two individuals from different tribes would come together, often in times of peace, and perform a ritual that involved the exchange of blood. This act created a bond that was considered just as sacred and binding as that between biological siblings. These blood brothers would then support and protect each other in times of need, offering a sense of trust and loyalty that extended beyond their biological families.

In this context, the kinship bond was established not through shared ancestry but through a deliberate social act that had practical utility for both individuals and their communities. This example highlights how social structures can create kinship-like relationships based on shared experiences, goals, and responsibilities, rather than solely relying on genetic ties.

In conclusion, the significance of consanguinity over social utility in terms of kinship isn't a straightforward verdict; rather, it's a delicate equilibrium where both aspects intertwine to create the rich tapestry of kinship. Biological relatedness speaks to our evolutionary heritage, while social relatedness reflects our adaptability as cultural beings. As we explore the depths of kinship, it becomes evident that neither biological nor social relatedness reigns supreme; instead, it's the interplay between these two dimensions that truly defines the intricate bonds of kinship.


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