Understanding Key Concepts in Kinship Studies: At a Glance

If one is to trace the history of the development of social science disciplines such as sociology and anthropology, one can see how family and kinship were perhaps the first social phenomena that were studied systematically. For over a period of nearly 200 years, kinship studies have undergone a dramatic transition, following much-needed incorporation of the study of non-traditional forms and patterns of kinship, moving beyond the usual Eurocentric approach that dominated the related fields of study.

Understanding Key Concepts in Kinship

Broadly, one must understand the standard set of concepts that are approached while studying kinships in any culture, such as family, marriage (and divorce), descent, and residential patterns. The following article will try to simplify the above-mentioned key concepts that one comes across in kinship studies in both sociology and anthropology.

Kinship Key Concepts


Family is usually the first key kinship concept that one is to study, especially from a sociological point of view, because it is the first site of human socialization that one is exposed from a very young age. John Macionis (2017) defines family as ‘a social institution found in all societies that united people in cooperative groups to care for one another, including any children’. Simply put, a family is the group of individuals that one lives with for elongated periods. Broadly, families can be of the following two types.

  1. Extended or consanguine family

Typically, a consanguine family consists of parents, their children, and other extended members related by blood. A consanguine family may include grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins as well. For a very long time, most communities around the world followed this type of kinship wherein large families lived together in the same household.

However, in present times, people especially those who live in urban communities recognize that this kind of lifestyle is not only economically draining, but also known to tear apart families due to conflicts and disagreements.

  1. Nuclear or conjugal family

The term ‘conjugal’ points to the likelihood of marriage in such a family. However, to represent families around the world, a conjugal or nuclear family usually consists of parents and their children, whether adoptive or biological. As mentioned above, nuclear families have been rapidly rising right from the onset of the 21st century in most parts of the world.

While consanguine families try to establish traditional familial and kinship patterns, it is in the nuclear family that one can hope to freely accommodate non-normative familial styles like single-parent families, live-in partners and other non-blood-related families as well.


In a broad sense, marriage consists of a set of rituals and customs that mark the union of two or more persons who get legal and social sanction to inhabit a common household and share related responsibilities (Lotha, 2021). Marriage is considered to be one of the most important social institutions in most cultures.

This notion is substantiated by the functionalist notion that marriage offers social sanction to persons for sexual relations and also a sense of community and socio-economic security. Marriage broadly can be classified into two categories based on the number of partners entering a union. They are as follows.

  1. Monogamy

Monogamy, as the name itself suggests, involves the union of two individuals, meaning that each party has only one partner. Globally, this is the most common type of marriage as in most cultures, not only is monogamy a time-honored system of kinship but it is also viewed as more desirable than its counterpart.

Usually, in a heteronormative society, in a monogamous marriage, it is expected that the couple is heterosexual and that union results in progeny. In most instances, couples who tend to not meet these societal expectations are often ostracised from their communities.

Although there are strict rules about monogamy, not every monogamous couple is known to remain partners for the end of their lives. Instances of extra-marital relations are well known among people.

  1. Polygamy

Based on the prefix ‘poly’ meaning ‘many’, one can tell that polygamy refers to the marriage of one person to two or more individuals. Polygamy has been prevalent in societies for centuries and depending on the country that one lives in, there are several rules and restrictions when it comes to polygamy.

For example, in Islamic law, a man is permitted to marry up to four women at one time. Accordingly, in countries where Muslim personal laws exist, polygamy is legally and socially sanctioned. Based on the gender of the persons entering a polygamous marriage, there are two broad types; polygyny and polyandry.

In polygyny, a man is married to more than one woman. Of the two kinds of polygamies, it is polygyny that is most commonly seen around the world and it is this type of marriage that is permitted in Islamic law. Polyandry, on the other hand, consists of marriage of one woman with more than one man. Polyandry was popular in communities where the focus was to keep men from one family within the same household (Dube, 1997). For example, the most noteworthy example is in the community of Nairs in Kerala, where owning to a matriarchal society, it was acceptable for women to entertain more than one husband at one time.

Furthermore, both polygyny and polyandry can be classified into two sub-types each, i.e sororal polygyny (wherein all the wives of the man are sisters) and non-sororal polygyny, along with fraternal polyandry (wherein one woman is married to more than one man, all of whom are brothers.) and non-fraternal polyandry, respectively.

Generally, a kinship based on marriage is commonly known as ‘affinal kinship’. Apart from the above-mentioned classifications, some other crucial phenomena are also explored under the institution of marriage such as dowrydivorce and rules of endogamy and exogamy in marriage.

While it is usually expected that marriages are long-term, several marriages are known to result in an annulment due to a plethora of reasons. Although limited these days, there is certain anxiety when it comes to divorce in most communities, especially in the case of heterosexual couples. Divorce may have certain negative connotations especially for women, but in many instances, it also means freedom from marital life or redemption from an abusive relationship.

Dowry has been a very common practice across cultures, both in the West as well as in the East. According to one anthropologist (Hendry, 1999), the nature of ‘wife-giver’ and ‘wife-taker’ determines the power-dynamics that entails dowry giving. For example, if the husband’s family is viewed as having a higher socioeconomic status, then the ‘wife-taker’ in this case is deemed as more important and therefore, meeting their demands for dowry is seen as important by the bride’s family.

However, it is essential to remember that dowry has some real gender-specific implications and in many communities in India, dowry related violence has done a great deal of damage to women’s lives. It is also a crime to give or accept dowry in India under the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 of the Indian Penal Code.


Descent is a crucial concept in kinship studies from the point of view that it has an interdependent relationship with the other concepts. Descent is simply understood to be the system through which individuals trace their ancestry. Descent is important because, to this day, it determines the nature of distribution of wealth, property as well as the taking up religion and caste of parents.

Broadly, there are three ways in which people trace their ancestry: patrilineal descent, matrilineal descent and bilateral descent.

  1. Patrilineal descent

This is the most common pattern of tracing descent among most cultures of the world. In a patrilineal descent, lineage and ancestry are traced through the male line. This ensures the passing of wealth and property only to progeny in the male line. Since this is the most common type of descent, communities have a stark inequality in terms of the economic and social rights of women.

  1. Matrilineal descent

In a matrilineal type of descent, the lineage and ancestry are traced through the female line. Several communities across South Asia and Southeast Asia are known to have matrilineal patterns of descent and it is seen in Leela Dube’s ground-breaking work. Some examples of matrilineal descent are found in the Khasi and Garo tribes of northeast India.

Even traditional Nair families traced descent from the female line, although it is not a practice continued to this day. However, this isn’t to say those matriarchal families had a better chance at gender equality. Although women were in a better social position with entitlement to property and wealth to a large extent, it was the maternal uncles in these households that wielded a considerable amount of power.

  1. Bilateral descent

In this type of descent, lineage is traced through both male and female lines. For example, according to Nur Yalman (Yalman, 1967 as cited in Uberoi, 1994), bilateral descent is found in certain south Indian communities as well as in communities in Sri Lanka. Since here the descent is traced through both parents’ lineages, an account is made of all consanguine kin of both parents.

Residential Patterns

Just as there are three broad categories of descent in any kinship, there also exists a three-fold classification of residential patterns, meaning the system of determining whose family is responsible for maintaining a household. This particularly concerns questions relating to the residence after marriage. Following are the three types:

  1. Patrilocal residence

Patrilocal residence means ‘residence near or with the husband’s family’. As mentioned before, since patriarchal society dominates the world diaspora, it is the most dominant pattern of residence. It is quite evident that in patrilocal residence, women tend to have very little say in matters concerning the household, distribution of socio-economic duties and other similar work.

Patrilocal residence also is a deciding factor for the inheritance of property. Since after marriage heterosexual couples are expected to live with the husband’s family, any female child born to that couple is very less likely to enjoy the same rights as a male child.

  1. Matrilocal residence

Matriarchal families by default are bound to practise a matrilocal style of residence. Here, post-marriage, the married couple would go to live with the wife’s family. Matrilocal residence usually suggests that women in the household had greater socioeconomic power.

This type of residence was popular not only amongst the Nairs of Kerala, but also the Muslim community in the Lakshadweep islands. Matrilocality is still a common practice in certain cultures of Southeast Asia.

  1. Neolocal residence

A neolocal type of residence is the one wherein the newly-wed couple move into a completely new household, usually away from both their families. This type of system is known to emerge in industrial societies. Neolocal residence usually is suggestive of a much more egalitarian relationship within, wherein all family members will have a say in matters concerning the household.

Kinship beyond traditional institutions of marriage and consanguinity

While it is quite easy to conclude that the world is largely patriarchal, not many people take into account that alternative forms of family and kinship exist. In an abstract sense, family is the one institution where people expect to feel love and security. Unfortunately, not every individual’s experience within the family is this stable.

Accordingly, people are known to seek out companionship that may not enter the purview of heterosexual and cis-gendered relationships. In many countries around the world where same-sex marriages are legal, couples chose to get married and ‘start a family’ by adopting children or even keeping pets at home.

In many cultures, the idea of a family still tends to rest on the trope of marriage and procreation (Ghosh & Sanyal, 2019). In India, this kind of restrictive and repressive idea has been further legislated in draconian laws like the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019.

However, it is important to understand that every individual has the right to privacy and family life and also to understand that laws like these hinder the chances for non-normative individuals to access such a life.


  1. Dube, L. (1997). Women and kinship (1st ed.). Tokyo: United Nations University Press.
  2. Ghosh, A., & Sanyal, D. (2019). How Can Families be Imagined Beyond Kinship and Marriage? Retrieved 6 April 2021, from https://www.epw.in/engage/article/how-can-families-be-imagined-beyond-kinship-and-marriage
  3. Hendry, J. (1999). An Introduction to Social Anthropology – Other People’s World (1st ed.). New York: Palgrave.
  4. Lotha, G. (2021). Marriage | Definition, History, Types, Customs, Laws, & Facts. Retrieved 9 April 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/marriage
  5. Macionis, J. (2017). Sociology Global edition (16th ed.). London: Pearson Education.
  6. Yalman, N. (1967). Under the bo tree; studies in caste, kinship. Berkeley: University of California Press in Uberoi, P. (1994). Family, kinship and marriage in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
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Yamini is a student of Sociology with aspirations for a global career as an academic researcher and pedagogue. She is deeply passionate about social justice and welfare, intersectional feminist epistemology, accessible academia, human rights and self development through self determination with an interest in digital sociology, data privacy and internet democracy. She wishes to hone her passions through the art of academic writing.