African Systems of Kinship and Marriage : Radcliffe Brown

Kinship eventuated from the primitive and most traditional societies. It has its roots in simple societies which were not so complex. Communities and social bonds are necessary attributes for kinship systems.

Introduction to Kinship

african kinship

In order understand a society, community or its culture, one should have an adequate knowledge about its past or history, but social anthropologists could not gather much information about the history of Africa in order to study its institutions. African historical records were certainly scanty and could only accumulate information of immediate past. Thereby, Social anthropologists used and focussed on research methodologies, that of comparison and analysis.  As a social scientist, the anthropologist gathers the theoretical perspective, which he gets by studying any social system.

Kinship system and marriage can be understood by the everyday social reality where individuals are living together in coordination and co-operation, maintaining social ties, which is also seen as a working and functioning system. In a more literal sense, kin a terms denotes  a relation where one is related to another in a sense that one person is descended from another, for example ( relation between a grandparent  and a grandchild), it is also called cognates or cognatic kin which means that a relation has a common ancestor, it can have lineage from both males and females. Kinship is more of a social relation between the two people. Sibling is another relation, whereby a male sibling is a brother and a female sibling is a sister. A group consisting of father, mother and children is regarded as a family and is named as the elementary family, but it is different from biological family, where usually there is a genetic relationship between the parents and children. Compound families  are such where , a widow or widower, with a child moves into a second marriage into which children are also born, in such case, terms such as step-parent and half-siblings are a result of it. Compound families are also formed, where polygynous marriages are permitted, such as a man has several wives ( more than two).This kind of families is common in Africa. Another type is called parental family, whereby a family exists of parents and their unmarried young children. Patrilineal extended family, where sons marry and bring their wives in the same household so that their children will belong to the same family. Kinship in simple terms means a connected network of the relations and relationships, it also has ordered as to differentiate between the variety of relations.  The first order involves relations in elementary family that is ( mother, father, children & relation between them). The second order involves secondary relations which are connected to the first order that is father’s father, sister’s husband, brother’s wife etc. We can progressively connect the relations to third, fourth, fifth order so on and so forth and the kinship orders can be increased by marriage of the related cognates.

In African kinship system, according to Morgan ‘classificatory system, where parallel cousins and cross cousins are defined. Parallel cousins are classified as cousins which are related from both the sides such as  mother’s sisters children and father’s brother children whereas ,  cross-cousins are cousins which are associated with secondary  relation such as mother’s brothers children and father’s sister children.

There is also a degree of near and distant relations where it is prohibited to marry the near cousins but is allowed to marry a cousin from a distant relation. There are certain norms, rules, and regulations in the kinship systems. An affective element is regarded as the personal behaviour attached to an emotional sentiment that is a relation between mother and child. A jural element is another, in which the relations have moral rules and duties imposed upon each other that is ( in African families husband and wife has personal rights and duties imposed upon each other).

Kinship is based on the “descent”, whereby descent is the social relation between parents and children, not the physical relation and one can trace one’s kin or descendants by going back and counting the generation that is of the great-grandparents. Agnates a term similar to cognates, where one traces back the lineage through male links of the male ancestor (a system to ordering the kins in ancient Rome). Another is matrilineal kin, which is traced back to female links of the common female ancestor.

“Sib” is an another term which is related to cognatic relations but has more of a social character. There were rules of inherited property amongst the sib.


‘MENYE’ is a term which Masai people use to denote, the father, the father’s brother and grandfather’s brother’s son with the same term. Their lineage is agnatic (descendants from the same male ancestor). There is a difference in Masai kinship system that of agnatic and other kindred relation. There are various terms used to denote different kinship relations, but the most important is of ol-e-sotwa and en-e-sotwa, which means peace or relative. There are restrictions on a marriage of the masai , that is , one should not marry with a woman in his agnatic clan and second one should not marry with near cousin, for example, mother’s sister’s daughter etc.

A stock is regarded as a  combination of tracing descendants from both male and female sides. Sibling group is regarded as a total number or  unity of brothers and sisters in a clan, but in most African tribes there is also a distinction of junior and senior brothers. In Bantu tribes, mother’s brother is also regarded s male mother (because is it in relation of mother), and fathers sister is regarded as female father ( because it is in relation of father). In African tribes, the sister takes place of the deceased wife and this is called by the term sororate and  brother takes place of the deceased man and is known as levirate.

KINSHIP AND  GENERATION                                                                                                                                                

 There is always a difference between the generations. Parents are regarded as a generation which is prior to the next generation which is that of their children, this consists of the relation of superordination and subordination, where children are dependent on their parents and should respect their parents. There is a marked relationship between grandparents and grandchildren. Grandparents are more close to their grandchildren. There is also a relation between great grandparent and son’s son where the entry of great-grandson by birth, is a sign of approaching death of great-grandfather. The great-grandson is sometimes named after the great-grandfather and is often represented as to the incarnation of his great-grandfather. This is a common attribute of the melanesian tribes. In most of the African tribes such as Kaonde and Ngonde , grandmothers and granddaughters are regarded as ‘wife’, whereby it is also legal and allowable to marry granddaughters, and brother’s daughter, but not to marry his  sister’s daughter.  As a custom , a man has to marry his grandmother, after the death of his grandfather in order to provide support and assistance, this usually happens in Ngonde tribe.

There are two types of relationships, first symmetrical relationship, where the two individuals involved have the same pattern of mutual behavior towards each other that is a relation between a father and son. Second, asymmetrical relationship, where the two individuals involved observe different behavior, both share different behavior towards each other.

In Nandi tribe of East Africa, the term kamet refers to mother and her sisters and also to mother’s brother’s daughter, which is the next generation. Similarly, the term imamet refers to mother’s brother and mother’s brother son.  The various terms and terminology referred to the kinship and their relations are called as OMAHA type by the anthropologists. In the Nuba tribe, mother’s brother is referred to as grandfather, and also which is related to matrilineal lineage. Mother’s brother has sometimes a superior rank.

The clan is a term devoted to the lineage which can be both through mother’s side and father’s side, where lineage through mothers side is known as the matrilineal clan (matrilineage) and lineage through fathers side are regarded as the patrilineal clan (patri-lineage). One enters into a certain clan by birth but Adoption is also another attribute whereby the clan into which the person is adopted is considered as his main clan. A clan may be further divided into sub-groups which are different for different tribes, and are differ in social, political, religious life of the tribes. There are certain groups which perform rites and which are referred to as corporate groups. Corporate groups are the main feature of the Central Africa. Corporate groups also control the land, whether it is for hunting, killing , or various activities, corporate groups also look after religion, religious cults , totem, and rites of passage and also several social activities connected with the particular lineage.


In order to understand marriage customs and rules of African societies, one should also understand that by marriage certain pre-existing relations are changed, new ones are also formed, it not only changes the relationship between two individuals but also it changes and forms new bonds and relations with the family and kinship ties. In African systems of marriages, religion plays only a small part. Marriage only involved consent of the bridegrooms  kinsmen and they promise to make payment to the bride’s father or the guardian of the bride, which is called marriage payment and they have to also declare a gift or present which is to made by groom to bride on the first night or the bridal night, it is also known as ‘morning gift’. The wealth or portion of dowry is to be discussed whereby if the husband dies before the wife, the wife would be using it in her entire lifetime.

There is also a counter payment which is paid to the grooms’ kinsmen by brides kinsmen. However , during divorce, both the payments, marriage payment and counter payment has to be returned. When a woman is not married, all her responsibility is taken by the guardian or his father, as soon as she enters into another family through marriage, the responsibility is shifted to her husband. During an accident, death or any injury to women by her husband, the guardian of the woman can claim indemnity (insurance). Marriage moves into the process of development where both husband and wife give birth to their first child.

In many African societies, it is a custom that a man should marry his cross-cousin that is the daughter of his mother’s brother, in these marriages families are already related to each other and make the new bond more strong. There is also a joking relationship, where the relationship can be between two individuals, related or not related, it can be between grandparent or grandchild, this kind of relation creates not the serious abusive relation, it can be a result of hostile behavior and sometimes with the avoidance behavior. It is also evident between son in law and wife’s mother, there are often quarrels and by custom avoidance of certain things, avoidance of eating food together, avoidance of eye contact etc. Sometimes it is also associated with shyness or shame observed in son in law in regard to wife’s family.

There are certain rules regarding marriages in Africa, whereby one on hand there is social proximity, where one should not marry closely related kin, on the other, it is allowed to marry cross-cousins. which is known as preferential marriage. There are rules observed for sexual intercourse, such as incest (sexual intercourse with close relatives) is considered as a sin and crime. Parricide(killing of mother or father) is another human action which is considered as sin or crime. In Africa incest and sorcery(dealing with the supernatural powers) are connected and is regarded as witchcraft.

Apart from African kinship system, the Nayars of south India also has a prominent position, the Malays and the Khasi of Assam have a prominent position in kinship, the common aspect of the above three are that they follow matrilineal lineage.

There is a difference between father- right and mother-right, a woman from the beginning, stays with her family and siblings and have a close relationship with them, they remain united by sharing common property rights etc. So, mother-right (expressed that in nayars) consists of the legal rights which are shared with her children and also in which father has no legal rights over it. On the other hand father- right is the complete opposite of the mother-right, where mother and mother’s brother have no right over children.

In order to understand the term kinship thoroughly, one needs to understand social structures as well as social realities. According to A.R Radcliffe brown, when we talk of structures, we refer to some part or component, here kinship is a social structure, and human beings, their web of relations acts as a component which complements its structure. Marriage, an institution also acts as  a component of the social structure.


Radcliffe – Brown, A. R and D.forde (eds.),1950 ,African systems of Kinship and Marriage ,London : Oxford University Press, Introduction , Pp 1- 39

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