Marriage and Kinship

Marriage and kinship are issues that exist in every society and they are an important part of a society. Yet both can be shaped in many different ways. That is why marriage and kinship are important themes in anthropology, which can tell us a lot about other societies and our own society.

Marriage and kinship

Kinship is a basic principle of organization for people. Forms of marriage and kinship exist in every society. In modern society the importance of both has decreased, people are less dependent on each other, but there too the nuclear family is the basis of society, the place where most of the education and consumption takes place. In less industrialized societies, marriage and kinship play much more important roles.
In different societies, kinship is derived in different ways. Ancestry is not viewed in the same way in every society. Different cultures use different rules to determine parenthood and ancestry; and depending on the status one acquires in this way, one is part of social categories and is assigned a certain role.

Unilinear and cognatic systems

There are two major groups of descent systems: unilineal and cognatic systems. In unilineal systems, descent is determined by parents and ancestors of one sex. In cognatic systems, descent is determined by both parents. Cognatic systems are mainly common among Europeans, while unilinear systems are common in other parts of the world. This concerns patrilineal (via the father) or matrilineal (via the mother) descent. In many of these societies, land ownership, aid and, for example, political delegation are determined in this way. Patrilineal systems are approximately twice as common as matrilineal ones. In some societies both systems coexist.


Every society has its own vocabulary used to refer to relatives. This goes further than just using another language. While a Dutch person calls his father’s brother and his mother’s brother both uncle, an Arab has different names for his maternal uncles and paternal uncles. In still other societies, the paternal ‘uncle’ may be addressed by the same title as the father. Societies clarify social roles in this way.


Marriage is another thing that exists in every society. In this way, care for children is arranged, sexual competition is channeled, alliances are entered into between different groups, work is organized on the basis of sex and individuals become members of a certain group, with a certain status.
Although these facts apply more or less in all societies, the diversity in which marriage between cultures is shaped is enormous. The preference for certain partners, the prohibition of other partners, polygamy, bride prices and treasure, arranged marriages, are just some of the variations that occur. A researcher must be careful not to get stuck in his/her own preconceived ideas about what marriage entails, as many important data can be overlooked.

Endogamy and exogamy

Important points regarding marriages are endogamy and exogamy. Some form of exogamy occurs in all societies; people who are excluded as marriage partners, which is related to incest taboos. In all societies, marriages between parents and children and brothers and sisters are taboo. Most societies add other relatives to this, but this can vary widely by culture. Exogamy promotes the proliferation of contacts, which strengthens ties with other groups.
Endogamy is also common in most cultures, where people are more or less forced to marry within a certain group. Endogamy strengthens within-group identity and status relative to other groups that discourage marriage. There are four types of endogamy: endogamy within a village, within a line of kin, within a caste and within a class.


The household is an important unit in all societies in social and economic areas and often also in political and religious areas. Most daily activities take place within the household. In non-industrialized societies, the household is often also a production unit. Even in the West, the household is still the place where most of the consumption takes place and where children are raised, at least during the first few years. The household is the social context in which values, relationships and character are largely formed. Defining what exactly a household is is very culture-dependent.

Location after the wedding

Another area where great variation is found is what happens after marriage. Where do people live after they get married?

  • Neolocal residence , where each spouse leaves his/her family behind and forms a new household, this is a nuclear family. This is the basic pattern in the west.
  • Patrilocal residence , in which the man continues to live in his father’s house and the woman moves in with him. Children born from this relationship then become part of the patrilineal unit.
  • Matrilocal residence , where the woman continues to live in her mother’s house and the man moves in with her. Children born from this relationship then become part of the matrilineal unit.
  • Matrifocal residence , where a woman lives with her children and possibly the children of her daughter. The difference with the above type is that there are no men living there, this is often the result of economic situations.
  • Avunculocal residence , where a woman moves in with her husband’s family, just like the patrilocal residence. However, when a couple’s sons reach adulthood, they go to live with the mother’s brother. Such a family consists of men with their wives and their children who have not yet reached adulthood and the adult sons of their sisters.
  • Ambilocal residence , where the partners choose whether they will live with the woman’s or the man’s parents. Often it is tradition that determines the choice.
  • Natalocal residence , where the partners continue to live with their parents. When children are born and they remain with the mother, they form a matriline to which both sons and daughters belong.
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