anthropological research, resources and documentation on the Aborigines of Australia

Kinship: an introduction (by Laurent Dousset)

Table of Contents | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Part 2: Symbols used to represent kinship relations

Anthropologists and other specialists of genealogies usually use a simple set of symbols to represent persons and connections. These symbols were largely inherited from the International Federation of Eugenic Organizations in 1932 by the Sociological Research Committee of the Royal Anthropological Society of Great Britain (see Man 1932, vol 32: 120-121) in a paper that was termed The Standardization of Pedigree Charts. Since, symbols and rules have somewhat changed, and every field researcher uses his own set of particular symbols that are appropriate for the conditions in which he works. However, the general set of symbols discussed below are generally accepted. Two sets of symbols have to be distinguished. The first set represents persons; the second set draws the types of relations between these persons. The latter symbols are called connections.

Following are the symbols used to represent persons. A male, whether boy or man, is usually represented as a triangle. A female, whether girl or woman, as a circle. Additionally, there is a third symbol, the square, which means that gender difference is not of any importance, that the person can in a specific context be a male or a female. For example, the English word "cousin" can be applied to a female, as well as to a male cousin. If we want to represent what type of persons the word "cousin" designates, a square, instead of a triangle and a circle, is sufficient.

This draws us to the first important rule to remember in kinship studies and genealogical representations. It is the rule of economy: graphic representations and verbal descriptions should always use the shortest and most efficient way and symbols to describe a relationship, unless other ways and symbols add information that change substantially the understanding of the relationship.

Additionally, anthropologists may need to stress if a person is still living, or if he or she is deceased. In this case, the triangle, circle or square is coloured in black or crossed out.

Illustration 3: Representing persons in genealogies

The symbols representing persons do not tell us much so far. We need to add symbols that allow to show how these persons are connected to each other. There are three types of connections: two persons are connected because they are married, two persons are connected because they are siblings (brothers and sisters), and two persons are connected because one is the parent (father or mother) of the other. The latter type of relationship is called filiation.

A marriage connection, also called alliance, is represented as a line that goes from below a person to below another person. A sibling connection is represented as a line that goes from top of a person to the top of another person. A filiation (parent-children) connection is represented as a line that goes from below a person to the top of another person. Additionally, you may want to represent adoptions in genealogies. This connection goes from the bottom of a person to the top of another person, just as is the case with filiation, but using broken lines. In the illustration below you can see how the three basic connection types are represented.



Illustration 4: Representing connection types


These connections are of course combined in genealogies, and every person is linked to one other person through at least one of these connection types. This leads us to the second rule I call the rule of multiple connectedness: so to make genealogies informative, each person has to be connected to at least one other person; and the information becomes more informative with every distinct connection type that is added to each person. In other words, the genealogy provides more substance for interpretation if a person is connected to multiple other persons, but even more, if every person is connected to other persons through different connection types (filiation, siblingship and marriage).

When these connection types are combined, the lines don’t have to lead directly to a person, but may plug into another connection type. For example, a mother, a father and their children, a social unit called the nuclear family, is represented as follows:



Illustration 5: Representing a nuclear family


As you can see, the two lines of filiation that should go from the parents downwards to each child are united into one line and lead to the sibling connection between the boy and the girl, as well as to the marriage connection between their parents. A connection line can only lead either directly to a person, or to another connection line that is not of the same type.

As a last example, let us add the father’s sister of the above nuclear family, and hence describe what Lévi-Strauss called the atom of kinship, that is the minimal social unit from which kinship system types can be extrapolated:

Illustration 6: Atom of kinship


Along the graphical representation of genealogies, anthropologists also use linguistic abbreviations to describe persons and relations. These abbreviations seem to confuse beginners more than help them, even though they are pretty straightforward. I will nevertheless summarise them here, as most books and papers on kinship apply them.

The driving idea for these conventions is the fact that kinship terms cannot be translated from one system or culture to another. The English word "uncle", for example, does not have any exact equivalent in the Aboriginal Australian Western Desert language, because the word does not cover the same categories of persons. Indeed, an "uncle" is your mother’s, as well as your father’s brother in English. In the Western Desert, however, these two persons are called with different words and constitute different types of relatives. Anthropologists therefore use abbreviations that are descriptive, that is, they are not a translation of a specific kin term ("uncle"), but are based on primary or "biological" relations (such as mother, brother etc.). Below is a table that summarises these conventions and the corresponding relationship.

any person’s Father
any person’s Mother
any person’s Brother
any person’s Sister (Z is used for sister in order to avoid confusions with Son)
any person’s Son
any person’s Daughter
any person’s Husband (the person can obviously only be a female)
any person’s Wife (the person can obviously only be a male)
Husband and/or wife
Additional abreviations
eB, for example, is the eldr Brother
yB, for example, is the younger Brother


Illustration 7: Conventions for describing kinship relationships

These abbreviations or conventions are combined, just as we combined connections in the graphical representation of genealogies. Hence, an "English" "uncle" can be a MB or a FB, that is, a Mother’s Brother or a Father’s Brother. In the Western Desert, however, MB (Mother’s Brother) and FB (Father’s Brother) are not called with the same word, and do not imply the same type of relationship. The combination of these abbreviations can sometimes become rather complex. For example, a second cousin would, among others, be labelled MMBDS: your Mother’s Mother’s Brother’s Daughter’s Son, where your Mother’s Mother is obviously one of your grandmothers.

I have foreshadowed that there are important differences between kinship systems: an "uncle" is not simply an uncle. Exactly how important these differences are, and what they involve, depend on the culture and the kinship system one is studying. In the following section (which will appear on this page sometime in the future), I will clarify what the principal differences between a Euro-American and a Western Desert kinship system are. These differences are reflected through the concepts of classificatory and descriptive kinship.

Indeed, in the Western Desert, persons that are not directly genealogically linked, that is they are for Europeans not of the "same blood", can be considered as being part of the same "family", as being kin, provided they have something else in common. Sometimes, living long enough in the same community is enough to establish strong links between the people so that they consider themselves as being part of the same walytja (lit. family, but we will come back to this concept in a later section). Of course, husband, wife and children are, in the Western Desert, too, important features, as they would camp, cook and eat together, but kinship does not limit itself to the nuclear or extended family, as it usually does in European society, it goes far beyond because Aboriginal Australian kinship systems are what is called classificatory and universal.

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