Representing Anthropological Knowledge: Calculating Kinship
Michael D. Fischer
Analyzing and Understanding Cultural Codes


Kinship Introduction
Learning Kinship with
the Kinship Editor
Use the Kinship Editor
Kinship Editor Results

Kinship Contents

Kinship Contents

Learning kinship with the kin editor

Notes for Students

The suggested sequence is as follows: save a copy of the kin editor program in your own file space - this may be on your own computer or in your personal part of a university computer system. In the interests of tidiness it may be a good idea to place it in a directory (aka folder) called something sensible such as kinship.

The online demo version behaves in the same way as the stand-alone version except only the separate program can save and load files due to restrictions in browsers. Instructions on how to use the program are included on the page with the online demo, so they will not be discussed here. There is also a brief help facility that covers all the essential points.

First you must enter in your own family tree. The detail to which you do this is left up to you. It is best if you enter information about at least twenty people. There are a few students who do not know that number of kin in which case they can either invent a few, or draw the family tree of a suitably messy soap opera - the BBC series Eastenders poses a real challenge!

The information to include is name, date of birth, date of death (if relevant) and then any other information you care to give. By adding dates the program can be made to play back the development of the family over time.

Next save a copy of the data file with a new name and rearrange it as if your society were strictly patrilineal, then save a further copy and rearrange as if strictly matrilineal. Definitions of these terms can be found in Keesing's text on pages 223 and 230.

Finally, start a brand new file and enter a diagram that represents not your kin but the 'pattern' formed by the kin terms of one of the languages that you speak. So, relative to you (if you speak English), the term father can be entered as the name of the male individual joined in a union to a female 'mother'.Your siblings can be recorded as being brother and sister, and so on (whether or not you actually have any siblings you know how to speak the language...) You end up with a diagram that represents the relationships implicit in the terminology that you speak (e.g. 'daughter-mother').

Now, you should compare the diagrams of your family tree with that of your kinship terminology. If other students in your group speak other languages compare different kin term diagrams. Do these relate in any way to different family structures?

Students should note that the issue of how these relate has been controversial for more than a hundred years of anthropology. We cannot give “THE Answer'” (there probably isn't one), but we can alert you to some of the issues that bring anthropologists back to the same questions time and time again.

Notes for Teachers

Unions not Marriages?

The flexibility of the programme provides a graphic demonstration of the social construction of 'marriage'. The programme allows any two (or more) individuals to be linked in a 'union'. So, to take a controversial, and purely hypothetical example, were the ruler of a large superpower to have an illegitimate daughter, that would be the result of a second union. The students might want to discuss how a legitimate daughter (lets call her 'Mayfair' for the sake of argument) might be related to this hypothetical offspring? How do 'adulterous' relationships differ from those resulting from divorce and remarriage? Or same-sex unions. Are these significantly different from mixed-sex ones? Nuer 'ghost marriage' can also be represented - in Evans-Pritchard's classic description this is where when a man dies leaving no offspring his widow remarries another woman. Any children that either of them may have are deemed to be the deceased man's offspring... Another revealing problem case is that of adoption. The problems of trying to represent such complex relationships with he program provide natural starting points for discussion of the meaning of the relationships, and how society constructs them (recall that under British law it is entirely legal for two full siblings who have been adopted by different families to wed and have children. At this point we reach the limits of what can easily be represented (though we are working on this). But to appreciate that you need to have gathered quite a lot of basic knowledge about kinship and how it varies...

Notes for Genealogists

The kin editor can, of course, be used for storing and presenting family trees or genealogies. The graphical conventions we follow are broadly those of social anthropology which are rather different from those used by genealogists. No assumptions are made about the central importance of any single individual or family group, nor are there assumptions about the structure of 'families'. We allow more than two partners in a union, and assignment of offspring to these n-somes.

In the long term we plan to include import facilities from standard exchange formats such as Gedcom or a simple text based format. It should be noted that the data is stored as XML files, a general-purpose format for representing information. These should not, repeat not, be edited by hand- doing so will confuse the editor so it will cease to correctly display the information. If any one would like to write a converter from Gedcom to our data format we would be delighted.

Next section: Use the Kinship Editor