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

Introduction to Australian Indigenous Social Organisation: transforming concepts.

This is a very old text and discussion of 2002. I would change many elements and reasonings today. This text is only left here for historical reasons.

Social organisation and kinship are complex subjects. We'll have only the place to touch some general questions. What is important, basically, is that you understand that there are, even for specialists, many unanswered questions.

Why talk about social organisation, when studies of social organisation and kinship have not been very fashionable subjects in Anthropology since the 1970s -- although, I must add, that this domain of research has again risen from its ashes lately with numerous and important research projects and publications.-- So, why social organisation?

Peter Sutton, a prominent Australian anthropologist involved in Native Title issues, wrote recentlythe following revealing paragraph:

"For indigenous claimants to prove their native titles in Australia, among other things they need to show not only that they have rights in country according to their own system of laws and customs, but also that such a system is a rightful descendant of an organised society which occupied the relevant area at the time when British sovereignty was established (Sutton, 1999:41)".

SUTTON P. 1999. The system as it was straining to become: fluidity, stability, and Aboriginal country groups. In J.D. Finlayson, B. Rigsby & H.J. Bek (eds), Connections in Native Title: Genealogies, Kinship and Groups. Canberra: ANU, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, p. 13-57.

What one remarks in this quote is the word organised, which was underlined by Sutton himself. It is remarkable that such an exigency is placed onto Indigenous culture. Because, how can a society be without being organized? Can one seriously expect that there are societies or cultures that do not have one form or another an organisation?

However, and in many cases as history has shown, Indigenous society was and is indeed, and in fact, conceived by the colonial power and by the legal system as a non-society, as composed by un-organised and primitive bands wandering about Ð Let's have a look at what Paul Hasluck, Minister of Territories from 1951-1963 wrote in 1988:

"There was nothing that could be recognized as a homogeneous and integrated aboriginal society. Here and there throughout the continent there were crumbling groups of aboriginal people bound together by ancient tradition and kinship and living under a fading discipline. There were also scattered groups who, having lost the cohesion of tradition, were kept together by tattered threads of kinship and the influences they felt in their common lot of dwelling on the fringes of the Australian community. None of these groups could be identified as a society in the same way as the rest of the people in Australia could be identified as a society. Such considerations as these had led realistically to the conclusion that the problem was not one of finding ways in which two or more societies could live side by side in the same continent but of finding the way in which the remnants of the aboriginal race could best become members of a single Australian society (Hasluck, 1988: 131)".

HASLUCK P. 1988. Shades of Darkness: Aboriginal Affairs, 1925-1965. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Ironically, Hasluck was responsible for many first contact situations in the Western Desert. How can he describe a society as non-existent, while he is responsible for their first contacts with Western Culture? How can he dismiss a society, and how can one claim that a society might not be organised?

We therefore need to give some meaning to the word organised and organsation, we have to give it some culturally acceptable content, a content that is acceptable to the Australian legal system as well.

Why is it important to understand social organisation?

- Considerations on social organisation and kinship were among the first social elements studied in the early days of anthropology and have considerably influenced the discipline, as well as Western views on Indigenous cultures

- Social organisation and relationships based on kinship were and still are one of the most important organising institutions in Australian Aboriginal culture; but are also important in processes of Indigenous cultural recognition.

The notion of organised society as quoted earlier from Peter Sutton refers to various concepts here. One is that the society has to know a commonly accepted law, a law that is in some respects implicit. These are social norms and rules that are shared among the members of a society -- it is what is weakly termed "culture". Others are explicit, and these are grounded, in Aboriginal Australia, in two interwoven domains, one is the religious complex of the Dreaming -- or the Law --the other is kinship and social organisation or social categories that everywhere play an important role in everyday as well as religious life.

There are two principle reasons why we should discuss the development of anthropologist's understanding of what kinship and social organisation in Australia is. The first reason is that:

1) Modern anthropology was born with the study of human kinship systems, among subjects. Kinship, was one of the most important domain of research for about 90 years. It has been the domain through which both, the universality of humanity was underlined, and cultural specificities were demonstrated. It allowed to show that all human societies or cultures have universally recognised characteristics, but it also allowed to demonstrate that each culture has its own specificity. An introduction into the study of social organisation helps to understand current issues in anthropology, as well as the nature of Indigenous identity and culture. The birth of kinship studies at the end of the 19th century is closely linked to Australian Aboriginal anthropology, one reason more to spend some time on the subject.

2) The second reason is that, as already foreshadowed in Sutton's quote, Indigenous peoples today, whether in Australia or in the USA, Canada and elsewhere, are required to demonstrate their cultural identity and its transmission, do they want to be able to claim a cultural recognition. Kinship and social organisation are, in this respect and certainly in Australia, the privileged domain through which such recognition can be accomplished, either because it is implicitly expected by the legal system, or because it is one of the most efficient mechanisms for the inclusion of members among indigenous groups themselves.

Kinship is the starting point of social organisation, it is where the principles of social organisation are defined. As Robin Fox puts it in his famous quote:

"Kinship and marriage are about the basic facts of life. They are about 'birth, and conception, and death', the eternal round that seemed to depress the poet but which excites, among others, the anthropologist. [...] Man is an animal, but he puts the basic facts of life to work for himself in ways that no other animal does or can (Fox, 1996 [1967]: 27)".

FOX R. 1996. Kinship and Marriage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press [Penguin Books Ltd], [1967].

To be able to understand the complex notions and mechanisms that are involved in such processes , it is important to generate some background information.

While kinship study and theory was criticised from the 1970s onwards by prominent scholars such as David Schneider and Rodney Needham, the last couple of years, since 1997 approximately, are the testimony for a revival in such studies, albeit under a distinct form and using new theoretical tools. One important engine in the revival of kinship studies is the observation that "kinship", as it was defined and used in classic anthropological currents, is problematic because based on a Euro-American-centered conception of relatedness. David Schneider as well as Rodney Needham claimed that kinship does not exist as such in other cultures than Euro-American societies, that it was an "invention" based on Euro-American understandings of relatedness.

However -- it is now again acknowledged -- kinship if defined in a different and more broader perspective is everywhere one of the grounding stone of social formations and organisations. When discussing such notions as gender, identity, representation, authenticity, and so on, themes that seem to interest anthropology today, kinship always plays a role, and has to be taken into account. Broadly speaking, it defines a person's position inside the network of relations. It attributes meaning to such ideas as being related, transmission of goods and substances, and so on through generations. Kinship often is a criterion for closure or exclusion. Those that are not in the network are considered distinct, different, foreigners.

There's no way a society can escape the "eternal round" we just saw in Robin Fox's quote, and there's no way this "eternal round" cannot be invested with meanings and symbols that warrant and legitimate social continuity. There's no way a society cannot be organised in terms of vesting meaning into the basic facts of life.

Kinship today is understood as a much more broader domain as it was 30 years ago, where genealogies and formal models were supposed to demonstrate cross-cultural similarities, while, at least for some researchers, underlining simultaneously cultural specificities. Since at lest Julian Pitt-Rivers' introduction of the notion of consubstantiality, as well as the gain in importance of practice theory (Pierre Bourdieu), the domain has been substantiality modified. Relatedness or kinship, it is now argued, can be established through other means than simply being born into a specific family or marrying into another family.

Indeed, in New Guinea, two persons that regularly drink from the same cup and eat the same food become brothers. They share substance, they establish kinship through consubstantiality. Among the Inuit or Eskimos, you do not always have to hunt with or fish with your kin, but an unrelated hunting partner may end up as your kin, nonetheless. In Aboriginal Australia, in many groups, people that live together for prolonged periods in the same community may well become close relatives, as if they were born by the same mother. Among Noongars, as Chris Birdsall shows, rearing up is an important mechanism in the establishment of kin ties. Of course, those who are reared up together do not have to be what Euro-American culture calls blood relatives.

Now, you may reject that: well, this is symbolic kinship, not true or real kinship, because they're not really from identical parents or ancestors, they simply became related because of their shared experiences, because of some practice. This exactly is the sort of reasoning anthropology has been able to detach itself from in the last couple of years.

If you go into the deeper meaning of such a reasoning, you will agree that it is based on an Euro-American conception of kinship; a conception in which the notion of direct kin, or in fact the transmission of "blood" or genetic material, is considered the unambiguous and only determinant for a person's place in the network of relations. Shared experiences or substances other than blood and genetic material are integral parts of cultural constructions and conceptions. Blood is simply one among many substances or features that can be shared among people, and that can give rise to specific definitions of relatedness.

Unfortunately, these are not questions that are asked by and in legal processes in Australia with regard to Native Title, for example, or simply with regard to cultural recognition. Indeed, while it is not expressed in such explicit terms in the legislation, it still is expected that a group wanting to demonstrate a Native Title needs to conform to a pre-conceived definition of kinship that relies on ties of blood, and blood only. As Finalyson, Rigsby and Bek, anthropologists that are involved in the applied field in Australia, wrote:

"The terms kin and kinship do not actually appear in the Mabo No. 2 decision, the Native Title Act or the Native Title Amendment Act 1998. Anthropologists think them important, however, in understanding and describing how individuals and groups come to have or acquire native title rights and interests in land and waters (1999:4)".

FINLAYSON J.D., RIGSBY B. & BEK H.J. 1999. Introduction. In J.D. Finlayson, B. Rigsby & H.J. Bek (eds), Connections in Native Title: Genealogies, Kinship and Groups. Canberra: CAEPR, Research Monograph No. 13, p. 1-12.

The continuity of Native Title, which reflects and is based on cultural continuity, is linked to the existence of a group; and this group is largely defined in terms of biological kinship or, as we have just seen, in terms of shared blood. How relevant "blood" effectively is in this respect, however, is not really challenged.

And what is kinship after all?

Kinship encompasses the norms, roles, institutions and cognitive processes referring to all the social relationships that people are born into or create later in life, and that are expressed through, but not limited to, an etic biological idiom.

Kinship is everywhere seen as fact of nature. But the nature of this Nature is not universal. The "not limited to" part in this definition refers to the all-overarching character of Australian Aboriginal kinship and is particularly important. What we call the biological idiom with the terms and relationships such as father, mother, brother daughter, son etc. are extended towards the entire society and, in theory at least, to human kind in Indigenous society.

This was a character recognised from the very beginning of kinship studies, when it was "invented", as some have said , by Lewis Henry Morgan.

Lewis Henry Morgan

An american lawyer, and is considered to have "invented" the anthropological study of kinship.

His was primarily interested in kinship, social organisation, and cultural evolution

MORGAN L.H. 1997. Systems of consanguinity and affinity of the Human Family. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press [Smithsonian Institution volume 17], [1871].

MORGAN L. H. 1965. Ancient Society. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, [1877].

Morgan grew up in New York State, in the expropriated country of the Iroquois Indians, where, as a young man already, he campaigned for their rights and against their deportation. The Iroquois were a confederation of 5 tribes, resisting successfully European invasion for about 2 centuries. Each tribe was made up of clans with common totems. A totem is a mythical ancestor, or a metaphor for a group or a person, usually embodied or represented through an animal or vegetal form. Clan members regarded themselves as blood relatives. The confederation was held together by chains of brotherhood.

Morgan believed that it was this particular feature, this specific kinship system, that allowed the Iroquois confederation to be able to resist invasion from neighboring tribes as well as European society. Morgan studied their kinship system and first thought it unique. He then discovered, however, that kinship systems of all American tribes were based on similar principles. More, from correspondents, he found out that Tamil groups in South India had the same system, and later again he received similar reports from Australia.

What is so particular, and at the same time so widespread in these kinship systems? We will rapidly look at this features from two points of view. First from the kinship system itself, secondly from the nature of social organisation that is linked to the particularity of the kinship system.

In the Iroquois, as well as all Australian Aboriginal kinship system, the way of classifying kin differs from the European way of doing it.

In the Australian system, collaterals and lineals are merged. What does this mean? Let us look at the figure representing the two kinship systems.

Euro-American kinship terminology (called Eskimo terminology)

Dravidian or Australian terminology

If you do not understand the diagram, the way of representing genealogies, please check the 2nd part of this tutorial

On top is the Eskimo system. As you know, in the parent's generation, Europeans do not distinguish if an aunt is on the mother's side or the father's side. The same is true for uncles, cousins, and grand-parents. All children of my parent's siblings are cousins. -- Moreover, the terms uncle, mother, father, etc. are usually applied only to those persons represented here in the diagram.

Now look at the second diagram which represents the classic Australian system. The first thing you notice is that an aunt can only be the father's sister, and an uncle only the mother's brother. The mother's sister is called "mother" as well, and not "aunt". The father's brother is called "father", not uncle.

Now it goes further. Because Ego calls woman A "mother", he will obviously call that woman's children "brother and sister", and not cousin. This is because the children of a mother are siblings, obviously. The same is true for your father's brother's children. The only persons called "cousins" are what anthropologists call cross-cousins. These are the children of your Mother's Brother and your Father's Sister.

This system is extended to all persons in the society and beyond. Consider the red woman left of the uncle. This woman will call the women "named" grandmother in the figure with the gloss "mother", because it is her mother's sister (and not her aunt). Again, she will therefore call the woman on her left "sister", and not cousin. Now you can see that if Ego calls that woman "mother", and that woman calls the woman on her left "sister", then Ego will call the latter a "mother" as well. If the far left grandmother was a man, on the other hand, then his daughter would be "aunt" and her children "cousins", not brothers or sisters. This principle is extended and extrapolated to the entire society where everybody stands in a very distinct and clearly calculated kin category to everybody else. Only persons of the cross-cousin category can be Ego's spouses. Not actual cousins of first cousins, usually, but people of the category "cousin" that are genealogically removed or distant.

This general pattern of extending and classifying kin is called bifurcate-merging, and the system is a classificatory system of relationship.

Morgan coined the expression classificatory systems of relationship. This notion is particularly important in Australian social organisation.

Moreover, Australian kinship systems are also "universalistic": in theory, every human being is included in the kinship system.

The importance of kinship in Aboriginal Australia and other hunter-gatherer societies has lead some researchers to call these kin-based societies.

Classificatory kinship is all-encompassing, because every known person is in a certain category of kin, and can be addressed or referred to with a kin term. More importantly, kin categories define behavioral expectations. You would show respect to your fathers and mothers, avoidance towards your aunts and uncles, a close and reciprocal relationship towards your cousins and so on. You have to share with your aunt and uncles material goods if they demand it, but you would expect a reciprocal behavior from your cousins, and expect sharing from your nieces and nephews. Kinship therefore also regulates, to a certain extent, the politics and economics in Aboriginal society, as it organises and defines behavior, rights and duties. Because, in these societies, kinship has been conceived as one of the dominant organising institution, they, Aboriginal Australia included, have often been termed "kin-based societies".

The other aspect that interested Morgan was social organisation. In kin-based societies, social organisation always is to a certain degree based on the structure of the kinship system. In this respect, Morgan was an evolutionary anthropologist. He was interested in showing that the various cultural forms observed in the world were in fact the mirrors of the various stages of human social organisation. An organisation that started, according to Morgan, with bands of people engaging in promiscuous intercourse, without much organisation, towards a tribal organisation which allowed group marriage, that is, two groups of men (or brothers), were marrying each other's sisters -- this is how he conceived many Australian systems --, to the barbarian family with a strong head or chief and extended families, but where the tribe still has a great importance; towards, as final step, the development of the polis, the pre-existing form of nations or states, with first the patriarchal family such as among the Romans, and then the monogamous family as today in Europe. Morgan linked the social organisation of a society with the evolution of human society in general.

Morgan's informants in Australia were Howitt and Fison, both of which have published widely independently of Morgan's requests and queries at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Morgan, Howiit and Fison are all three responsible for some of the most important concepts used today, even though, of course, the evolutionist aspects of their work has been abandoned and has been demonstrated as being wrong.

Classic model of Australian social and territorial organisation

The classic model of Australian Aboriginal social and territorial organisation. (Lewis Henry Morgan, Lorimer Fison, Alfred Howitt, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown and others; predominantly in use until Lester Hiatt's study in Arnhem Land).

Tribe with territorial boundaries, surrounded by other tribes.

The tribe is composed by usually patrilineal landholding clans living on their land.

A clan is group of kinsmen and kinswomen that recognise a common mythical ancestor.

Clans are linked together through marriage and the recognition of consanguinal ties.

In those author's terms, Aboriginal Australia was organised in tribes. A tribe was seen as the largest territorial and social unit. Members of a tribe collectively owned the land, had the same language, adhered to identical customs, of which the kinship system is one, had some sort, albeit primitive, political unit by following some generally accepted laws, and did usually not marry outside. In other words, the tribe was endogamous.

There have been tenth of definitions of the notion of tribe throughout the anthropological history. These basic features, however, seem to have been accepted quite generally. Lately, however, and especially for some regions in Australia, anthropologists have found that there was and still is much confusion between the notion of tribe and the notions of language and dialect, especially. A tribe in Australia cannot be distinguished so neatly as often expected.

The tribe itself was considered divided into a certain number of hordes or clans. It was Howitt. who gave one of the first definitions of these terms.

A horde, according to Howitt, is a group that lives on country that is inherited through the father's line, that is patrilineally, while they recognise a totem as ancestor that is inherited through the mother.

A clan is a form of social organisation in which both, totem as well as landownership is transmitted through males only.

Most often, the clan model has been privileged among anthropologists until the 1970s, although matrilineal inheritance was generally recognised as well. Here again, later anthropologists have challenged this view, and have tried to show that social organisation, clans or totemic groups, do not have to be linked to landownership. Lester Hiatt has shown that in Arnhem Land, clans do exist, do inherit totemic affiliations, but are not residential groups. That is, a clan does not have to be a group that can unambiguously been identified in the landscape.

The clans or hordes were themselves seen as being divided into marriage classes. These marriage classes are what are called sections, subsections or moieties today, often also termed skinnames.

Remember that we said that every person in the society is classed into a kin category such as mother, father, aunts, uncles etc. Sections or skinnames group some of those various kin classes into more global groups. There are various such systems in Australia, one is the four section system, as illustrated here:

Australian societies often have a social category system. These systems are labeling devices usually compatible with the structure of the kinship system and general guides for behavior.

There are various different such systems and these are:

4 section systems

8 sub-section systems


Patri- or Matrimoieties

Generational moieties

These systems have often been termed marriage classes

Example of the four section system

You can see that there are four general categories of kin. One is Ego and his brothers and sisters, another are those Ego calls cousins, in which he or she will also find his potential spouses, a third is the class of his mothers and mother's brothers, and the last category comprises his fathers and his fathers' sisters.

In the second figure, these four categories are put into relation. Your mothers and mother's brothers marry people from the class of you fathers and fathers' sisters. You and your siblings in B1 marry people of the class of cousins. This is the reason why social category systems such as this one, the four section system, have been termed marriage classes.

In the second figure, arrows mean mother-child relation, equal signs mean marriage. These four categories have Indigenous names that vary from language to language and from region to region. I have added in the figure those names used in some eastern parts of Western Australia.

Here again, however, later anthropologists have shown that these category systems such as sections do not regulate marriage pattern, but are a global and general guides for the classification of kin into meaningful categories.

These is the general pattern of social organization in Aboriginal Australia. This pattern has, in some cases, undergone much transformation.

The first type of transformation is linked to anthropology's changing views and concepts. Ethnographic work has shown that the notion of tribe is not everywhere applicable, and that it is difficult to define the concept so that it reflects all realities. Such work has also shown that there is often no strict relationship between kinship or social organization and territorial organization or land ownership. The classificatory nature of Australian Aboriginal kinship systems already extends the field of what people of Euro-American culture would recognise as being kin, and therefore as sharing rights and duties. However, anthropology recognises that there are many more concepts that have to be taken into account when describing a society's organisational principles. Notions such as consubstantiality, that is the sharing of common substances, is one of these concepts.

The second type of transformation is linked to colonial history. While in certain regions, such as the Western Desert or Arnhem Land in the Top End, what could be called the "traditional" system is still in place, other regions have suffered demographic decline and alienation of their traditional living areas. These changes have influenced social organization in sometimes important ways. The classic model, if ever effectively applied, cannot be operational in these conditions. However, because of the complex concepts and mechanisms that allow Aboriginal people to define and enact relatedness, these have taken prevalence. A group always is organised in one way or another, and it is the anthropologist's task to describe its principles.

Without going into too much detail, we have seen in this part that

Kinship and social organisation are domains that are well structured in Aboriginal Australia, that organise social life and individual behaviour. The principle lies in the fact that kinship is extended to every person of the society; it is a political as well as an economic tool for regulating behaviour and structure. Kinship is therefore one of the most important aspect to be considered when justifying that Indigenous society is and was, indeed, an organised society.

Kinship has been an important domain in anthropological research, especially in Australia and other kin-based societies. It has moulded anthropology at some stage, by showing that there are universal features present in all cultures, but that there are also important local and cultural specificities. Kinship has lost of importance in the anthropological discipline because researchers realised that they were applying the Euro-American conception of kinship onto societies that had a distinct understanding of notions such as consanguinity, family, relatedness etc. Lately, however, kinship has regained of importance, albeit armed with new tools and concepts, showing that, indeed, kinship is also recognised from the inside of a culture or group, although its definition and understanding may not always be identical.

Following are some additional references for those interested to investigate further some of the notions mentioned above.

Some additional bibliographic notes

On the notion of consubstantiality:

PITT-RIVERS J. 1973. The kith and the kin. In J.R. Goody (ed.), The character of kinship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 89-105.

Also see the following:

HOLY L. 1996. Anthropological Perspectives on Kinship. London, Chicago: Pluto Press.

An excellent overview of the discussions past and present about Aboriginal Australian Social Organisation

HIATT L.R. 1996. Arguments about Aborigines: Australia and the evolution of social anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Introductory chapters on social organisation and kinship :

BERNDT R.M. & BERNDT C.H. 1992. The World of the First Australians. Aboriginal Traditional Life: Past and Present. London: Angus & Robertson, [1964 ].

ELKIN A.P. 1979. The Australian Aborigines (revised edition). London, Sydney: Angus & Robertson Publishers, [1938].

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