Kinship Terminology Explained


Last Updated: 11 years

The symbols, terms, and concepts used when talking about kinship relationships can be confusing to the layman. Here is a kinship terms glossary to help you out.

Genealogical Abbreviations:

B = Brother C = Child(ren) D = Daughter
F = Father GC = Grandchild(ren) GP = Grandparent(s)
P = Parent S = Son Z = Sister
W = Wife H = Husband SP = Spouse
LA = In-law SI = Sibling M = Mother
(m.s.) = male speaking (f.s.) = female speaking  



DT = Donald Tuzin (1976), A Glossary of Kinship Terms and Concepts, Unpublished ms.

ES = Ernest L. Schusky (1965) Manual for Kinship Analysis . New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

GK = Julius Gould & William L. Kolb, eds., (1964) A Dictionary of the Social Sciences. New York: The Free Press.

GPM = George Peter Murdock (1949) Social Structure New York: Macmillan.

LM = David Levinson & Martin Malone (1980) Toward Explaining Human Culture: A Critical Review of the Findings of Worldwide Cross-Cultural Research . New Haven, Conn: HRAF Press.

NG = Nelson Graburn, ed. (1971) Readings in kinship and social structure . New York: Harper and Row.

RF = Robin Fox (1967) Kinship and Marriage: An Anthropological Perspective . Baltimore,Md.: Penguin.

RK = Roger Keesing (1975) Kin Groups and Social Structure . New York: Holt,Rinehart and Winston.

Address, Terms of: Kin terms used in speaking to a kinsman or kinswoman. ES:12

Adelphic Polyandry: “The marriage of a woman to two or more brothers. Syn. “Fraternal Polyandry” ES:72.

Affinity: “Relationship by marriage ties. May include the relationship between corporate groups linked by marriage between their members. A relative by marriage is an affine (RK:147; NG-12ff.; RF-35). “Whenever the connection between two relatives…includes one or more marital links, the two have no necessary biological relationship and are classed as affinal relative.” (GPM:95). Contra. “consanguinity”, “consanguine”. (Note: The relationship of husband-wife in this context is somewhat ambiguous–a matter of some dispute amongst anthropologists.)” DT

Agamy: “The lack of any rule in regard to marriage within or without of a group; it denotes absence of marriage regulations on the part of a social unit.” ES:72.

Agnatic:“Pertaining to the reckoning of relationship by male link(s) exclusively, regardless of sex of Ego and/or Alter. An agnate, then, is a person related by patrilineal descent (RK:147).” DT. “In Roman law agnati were kin who traced their relationship by descent through males only from a common ancestor, who were under the authority of a single paterfamilias, and who resided together. Agnati could be adopted. They included women, but no kin linked through a woman.” GK:18. Contra. “uterine.”

Alliance: In kinship theory, this refers to a view of society which emphasizes marital interactions (usually repetitive) between descent groups as a basis for social integration and group definition (RF-231ff.; NG232ff.)” DT. As Keesing puts it “a system whereby descent groups or other kin groups are linked by a rule of prescriptive or recurrent marriage so that the groups remain in an affinal relationship to one another across generations” (RK:147). Contra. “descent theory”.

Alter: “The person to whom a relationship is being indicated; thus, in English kinship terminology, “male Ego refers to his FB as “uncle” and Alter reciprocates with “nephew”. DT. Contra. “Ego”.

Amilateral: “Ambilateral is sometimes used in kinship studies to refer to non-unilineal systems in whic an individual may choose to align himself with either of his parental groups. R. Firth argues that “The admission to membershilp through descent from either males or females–or both conjoined–shows that the hapu is not a unilateral group of the strict type. It may be called in fact, an ambilateral group, since both parents are eligible for the purposes of kinship affiliation” (R. Firth, Economics of the New Zealand Maori, Wellington, N.Z.:R. E. Owen 1959, p.112).” GK:22.

Amitaclan: “A clan with patrilineal descent in which unmarried females reside with a paternal aunt and bring their husbands to the father’s sister’s home. It parallels the avuncuclan, but is only theoretical.” ES:72, GPM:71. An example of inventing kinship concepts which describe no known group.

Amitalocal Residence: “The norm whereby wives take their husbands to the residence of the bride’s father’s sister. It parallels avunculocal residence, but is only theoretical.” ES:72; GPM:71. Another example of a totally invented kinship concept that has never been found in any actual human society.

Amitate: “In the amitate a sister is superior to her brother in that the paternal aunt can dictate the matrimonial destinies of her brother’s children.” ES:72, GPM:71.

Apical Ancestor (Ancestress): The ancestor/ess from whom descent is traced (the “apex” of the triangle of descendants).

Asymmetrical Alliance: “In alliance theory, a marriage system involving indirect exchange. (Patrilateral alliance is considered by some theorists to be non-existent or impossible, so matrilateral alliance–marriage with MBD or a girl classed with her–is the form commonly referred to as asymmetrical.) (RK:147)” DT. Also called “asymmetrical cross-cousin marriage.” ES:72.

Avoidance Relationships: “A pattern of complete avoidance of speech and physical contact between relatives. Murdock (1949:273) suggests that such a technique is an aspect of sex regulation in societies where sexual prohibitions are not strongly internalized in enculturation.” ES:72

Avuncular: Pertaining to “uncle”. In kinship contexts this almost invariably refers to male Ego’s MB. Contra. “nepotic”.

Avunculate: “denotes the institutionalization of authority by the mother’s brother over the sister’s son and the latter being made the heir and companion of the former.” GK:47.

Avunculocal Residence: “Postmarital residence of a newlywed couple with husband’s mother’s brother. Some have argued that the terms “viri-avunculocal” or “avuncu-virilocal” are more precise.” (RK:147)

Bifurcate Collateral Terminology: “A system which differentiates the uncles and aunts both from parents and from each other.” ES:73.

Bifurcate Merging Terminology: “A system which groups the F and FB and the M and MZ; however, the MB and FZ are denoted by distinct terms.” ES:73.

Bilateral (kinship): “Kinship traced to relatives through both father and mother. Syn. “consanguineal kinship”. “(RK: 147)

“In kinship studies this term is used in several ways. (a) All kinship is said to be bilateral in the sense that, whatever the principle of descent, an individual has kinship ties to and through both parents. (b) Only some systems are said to be bilateral; these are the non-unilineal systems, in which kinship ties traced through both parents have, or may have, equal social weight. (c) In the context of cross-cousin marriage, bilateral is used a synonym for symmetrical; i.e., bilateral cross-cousin marriage is the marriage of either kin of cross-cousin.” GK:57.

Bilocal Residence: “A norm which permits a married couple to live with or near the parents of either spouse; a factor such as relative wealth of the two families is likely to determine where the couple will reside.” ES:73.

Blood Brother: “…a relation of alliance or consociation by which individuals not related by kinship acquire ties of pseudo-kinship, the rights and duties that compose the relationship being modeled on those of brotherhood.” GK:58.

Bridewealth (or Brideprice): “Tangible items of value transferred from the groom or groom’s group to the bride’s group, the prestation serving to validate the marriage union. Cf.

Brideservice, in which the groom contributes labor and/or services to the bride’s group for validatory purposes.” DT. Contra. “dowry”.

Caste: “refers to: (a) the form of social organization found in India based on relgious beliefs in the supremacy of the Brahman, rigid ranking according to birth, and restrictions on occupation and marriage; (b) one of the Indian hereditary groups within this social system; (c) any hereditary and exclusive class elsewhere (usually pejoratively with connotations of discrimination or unfair privilege.” GK:74.

Clan: A unilineal descent group or category whose members trace patrilineal descent (patriclan) or matrilineal descent (matriclan) from an apical ancestor/ess, but do not know the genealogical links that connect them to the apical ancestor/ess (RK:148).

In the common British anthropological sense, a descent group, usually consisting of several lineages, between which shared descent from an ancestor (or ancestress) is assumed but cannot actually be demonstrated (NG-164; RF 49).

Many American anthropologists, following Murdock (1949), regard a “clan” as the localized core of a dispersed unilineal descent group (i.e., a patri- or matri-sib) or non-unilineal descent group (i.e., a sept) (NG-204). An earlier, and now obsolete usage regarded the “clan” as a matrilineal descent group, as opposed to a patrilineal descent group, which was termed a “gens” (plur. gentes; adj. gentile) (NG-37). DT.

“Clan was used originally in anthropology to refer to Teutonic and Scottish society…Different authors have used the term to refer to various types of descent group.” GK:95

Classifactory System: A mode of kinship classification in which collateral kin are terminologically equated with lineal kin (e.g., FB = F, MZ = M, etc.) (RK: 148)

Cognate: A bilateral (consanguineal) kinsman or kinswoman.

Cognatic (Descent): Sense #1: A mode of descent reckoning where all descendants of an apical ancestor/ancestress through any combination of male or female links are included (preferred sense). Sense #2: Synonymous with “bilateral” or “consanguineal”. Syn. “bilateral kinship”. RK.

Collateral Kinsmen: “The siblings of lineal relatives (parents, grandparents) and their descendants.: RK:148. Contra. “Lineal Kinsmen”

Complementary Filiation: “The collection of rights, obligations, sentiments, etc. which are attached to the immediate line opposite that by which formal descent is reckoned. E.g., complementary filiation is matrilateral in a patrilineal society (RF-233; NG-87, 169).” DT. “In the work of Fortes, Goody and others the relationship between a person and his/her maternal uncle and his lineage (in a patrilineal descent system); or between person and his/her paternal aunt/uncle and their lineage (in a matrilineal descent system).” (RK:148). Contra. “Descent”

Compound Family: “Consists of three or more spouses and their children; it may be produced in monogamous societies by a second marriage giving rise to step-relationships.” ES:74.

Consanguinity: Relationship by blood (i.e., presumed biological) ties. A consanguine is a relative by birth (i.e., a “blood” relative), as distinguished from in-laws (“affines”) and steprelatives. (NG:12ff.; RF:33; RK:148). Contra. “affinity”, affine(s)”.

Corporate(ness): A property of formally constituted social groups which concerns their continuance beyond the life of any particular individual. That is, “the decease of individual members makes no difference to the collective existence of the aggregate body, and does not in any way affect its legal incidents, its faculties or liabilities” (NG:12). DT.

Corporate Group: “A social group whose members act as a legal individual in terms of collective rights to property, a common group name, collective responsibility, and so on.” (RK:148)

Cross-cousins: The children of opposite-sexed siblings; similarly, the offspring of one’s parents’ opposite-sexed siblings. E.g., MBC or FZC. Contra. “parallel-cousins” (RF 185; NG-240). DT.

Cross-Cousin Marriage: “In alliance theory (especially in its early versions), a rule or practice of marriage between father’s sister’s child and mother’s brother’s child (a man’s marriage with MBD is “matrilateral cross-cousin marriage”; a man’s marriage with FZD is “patrilateral cross-cousin marriage”)” RK:148.

Curvilinear Hypothesis: Proposed by Blumberg and Winch (1972), it “states that: (1) the independent family is the typical family type in small hunting and gathering societies and in large, industrialized societies; (2) the extended family is the typical family type in settled, agricultural societies. Thus, there is a curvilinear relationship between family type and societal complexity.” LM:87. See Rae L. Blumberg and Robert F. Winch (1972) “Societal Complexity and Familial Complexity: Evidence for the Curvilinear Hypothesis” American Journal of Sociology 77:898-920.

Crow Terminology: ” A mode of kinship classification usually but not always associated with matrilineal descent in which a line of father’s matrilineal kin are terminologically equated across generations (mirror image of Omaha terminology).” RK:148

Deme(pronounced “deem”): “An endogamous local group in the absence of unilinear descent, especially when we are regarding it as a kin group rather than as a community.” GPM:63 “A local group lacking unilineal descent.” ES:75.

Denotative Kinship Term: “A kinship term which applies only to relatives in a single kinship category as defined by generation, sex, and genealogical connection.

Derivative Kinship Term: “A term that is a compound of an elementary kin term and another sound or phrase, e.g., “sister-in-law” or “stepson”.” ES:75.

Descent: “A relationship defined by connection to an ancestor (or ancestress) through a culturally recognized sequence of parent-child links (from father to son to son’s son= patrilineal descent, from mother to daughter to daughter’s daughter = matrilineal descent” (RK:148). In other words descent is the tracing of relationships inter-generationally through real, putative, or fictive parent-child links. Various typologies of descent have been proposed


Keesing’s Typology of Descent:


Patrilineal Descent: (or agnatic) descent from an ancestor down through a series of male links (i.e., though the ancestor’s son, his son’s sons, his son’s sons’ sons, etc.)

Matrilineal Descent: (or uterine) descent from an ancestress down through a series of female links (through daughter, daughter’s daughter, etc.)

Cognatic Descent: descent from an ancestor or ancestress thorugh a series of links that can be male or female or any combination of the two.

Double Descent: a system whereby two sets of social groups or categories exist (for different purposes) in the same society, one based on patrilineal descent and the other on matrilineal descent (so a person belongs to his/her father’s patrilineal group and his/her mother’s matrilineal group).


Tuzin’s Typology of Descent:


Unilineal Descent: The principle whereby descent is traced either through the male line (“patrilineal”) or the female line (“matrilineal”), but not both (NG-163ff.; RF-97ff.)

Double Descent: The principle whereby descent is traced through the male line for certain prescribed purposes, and through the female line for other prescribed purposes; also called Double Unilineal Descent (NG-169; RF-131, 146).

Non-Unilineal Descent: The principle whereby descent is reckoned by means other than exclusively through the father and his male ancestors or the mother and her female ancestors (RF-147; NG-200ff).

Ambilineal Descent: The principle whereby descent is reckoned through male or female links without set order (NG-198).

Bilateral Descent: The principle whereby descent is traced equally through males (i.e., father) and females (i.e., mother). Also called Cognatic. English kinship embodies such a descent principle (NG-198; RF-146ff).

Note: Principles of descent often govern recruitment to social groups (e.g., Ego is admitted to membership in a patrilineage according to the principle of patrilineal descent), but these correspondences must be verified empirically.


Descent Group: “A kin group whose membership is based on a rule of descent. Appropriate descent status (patrilineal, matrilineal, or cognatic, depending on the society) entitles a person to be a member of the group.” (RK:148). A socially recognized group of persons, all of whom trace real or putative descent from a common ancestor (or ancestress) with parent-child links between every generation. In-marrying persons (“affines”) may or may not be assimilated to this group as formal members (RF-49; NG-1).

Descent Rule: “A descent principle culturally used to define eligibility for membership in a kin group” RK:148.

Descriptive Kinship Term: “A term that combines two or more elementary terms to denote a specific relative. “My brother’s wife” is a descriptive term while “sister-in-law” is not. A sister-in-law may be either WZ or BW. One must be careful to distinguish between descriptive terminology or systems on the one hand and descriptive terms on the other. Descriptive systems separate lineal from collateral relatives. Thus, “cousin” is a term in a descriptive system. However, the term “cousin” may be called a classifactory term because it includes several different types of relatives.” ES:75. See “kin class”, “kin type”, “kin term”.

Descriptive Terminology: “Sets off the direct line of a person’s descent and the immediate relatives of his own generation from all other individuals. Lineal relatives are all differentiated from collateral relatives.” ES:75.

Direct Exchange (échange restreint): “A system of alliance (prescriptive marriage) whereby kin groups exchange wives directly (so that wife-givers are the same as wife-takers).” RK:149.

Domestic Group: “A social group occupying or centered in a dwelling house, living (and usually eating) together, and characteristically exercising corporate control over family property.” RK:149.

Double Descent: “A system whereby two sets of social groups or categories exist (for different purposes) in the same society, one based on patrilineal descent and the other on matrilineal descent (so a person belongs to his/her father’s patrilineal group and his/her mother’s matrilineal group).” RK:149.

Dowry: Tangible items of value transferred from the bride’s group to the groom or groom’s group to validate the marriage union. Often this is more properly seen as the early bestowal of the girl’s inheritance, over which she may retain considerable control. Contra. “bridewealth”

Dravidian Terminology: “A mode of kinship reckoning whereby parallel and cross relatives (or “kin” and “affines”) are systematically distinguished; characteristically, but apparently not always, associated with a rule of symmetrical alliance (direct exchange), i.e., a two-section system.” RK:149.