The study of kinship tends to be associated more closely with social anthropology than with sociology. In large part, this is a consequence of anthropologists frequently studying societies in which social and economic organization was premised to a great extent on the obligations and responsibilities that kin had towards one another. Consequently, understanding the kin ship system operating in such a society provided the anthropologist with a means of revealing the society’s dominant structural characteristics. In contrast, sociologists focused more on industrial societies in which family and kinship solidarities, while of consequence, were far less central to the overall organization of social and economic life. Indeed, often, family relationships were understood to be of declining significance within western societies. Like the collapse of community, the decline of kinship solidarities was understood as a necessary consequence of the economic specialization and bureaucratic rationalization associated with modernity and industrial development.
In focusing on kinship systems anthropologists are concerned with specifying the principles which underlie the dominant forms of kinship behavior, commitments, and solidarities occurring within the society they are studying. They examine such issues as who is recognized as kin; what the boundaries of kinship are; what the social and economic consequences of particular kinship positions are; whether some categories of kin (e.g., patrilineal or matrilineal kin) are privileged over others; how kinship groups operate to protect their economic interests; and the like. Such questions about the kinship system as a system can also be asked of western societies, even while recognizing that kinship is structurally of less importance in these societies. Indeed, in many ways, the long history of moral panics and polemical debates concerning the state of contemporary family life can be recognized as essentially debates about the character of the contemporary kinship system in the society in question.
Historically, the sociologist who has been most influential in analyses of western kinship systems is Talcott Parsons (1949, 1955). His argument, building on the work of earlier European social theorists, was that the family and kinship system emergent in developed industrial societies could best be characterized as a nuclear family system. This form of kinship system, according to Par sons, was best suited (i.e., functionally most compatible) to meet the economic requirements of industrial societies. The essence of the nuclear family system is that each individual’s primary obligations are defined as being to his or her nuclear family of spouse/partner and dependent children. Parsons argues that the absence of extensive kinship obligations outside the nuclear family facilitates mobility among the labor force and limits the extent to which kinship obligations potentially undermine dominant organizational requirements for fair and equal treatment. Other sociologists, in particular W. J. Goode in his book World Revolution and Family Patterns (1964), developed Parsons’s ideas further by attempting to demonstrate that a wide range of contemporary societies were merging towards a common nuclear family system.
In evaluating Parsons’s views of kinship, it is important to recognize that his concept of structural isolation does not equate with either social isolation or an absence of all obligations. What it does assert is that responsibilities to nuclear family members are prioritized over obligations to other kin. In other words, the argument is that within the dominant kinship system a relatively strong boundary is drawn between nuclear family members and other kin. Other writers have queried how strong this boundary really is. Litwak and his associates in particular emphasized the important role that other family members outside the nuclear family household play in sustaining social life (see Harris 1983). Certainly, there is now ample evidence that in industrial societies primary kin – mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, siblings – generally remain significant throughout a person’s life, and not just when they reside together as a nuclear family. Typically, though not invariably, these kin act as resources for one another, being part of an individual’s personal support network for coping with different contingencies.
Thus, while a person’s primary responsibilities are usually to their spouse/partner and dependent children, there remains a continuing solidarity with other kin. In particular, a parent’s concern for children does not end when the child becomes adult, and few adult children have no sense of commitment to their parents. Yet importantly, this solidarity is permissive rather than obligatory (Allan 1979). That is, within most western societies, the “rules” of kinship are not tightly framed. Typically, neither the law nor custom specifies how relationships with non nuclear kin should be ordered. Instead, there is a relative freedom for individuals to work out or “negotiate” how their kinship relationships should be patterned. Within this, of course, some groups or subcultures have stronger social regulation of kinship relations than others. For example, many migrant minority groups, especially those with a specific religious commitment, draw on kinship as a means of coping in a foreign and sometimes hostile environment, of advancing their economic interests, and of protecting and celebrating their culture.
The extent to which forms of negotiation occur between kin has been highlighted in Finch and Mason’s (1993) research in Britain. They were concerned with the nature of kinship obligation in general, but more specifically with how families determine who provides support to elderly parents as they become more infirm. Their argument is that kinship obligations and responsibilities are not culturally specified -they do not follow ”a preordained set of social rules.” Rather, in any particular instance, a process of ”negotiation” occurs through which decisions come to be made. Importantly, such negotiation does not occur in isolation, but is framed by the biographical development of the relationships in question. In other words, previous kinship behavior, as well as knowledge of the personalities and commitments of those involved, form part of the context in which the negotiation occurs. Moreover, Finch and Mason (1993) highlight three different modes of negotiation that can occur. These are: open discussions, clear intentions, and non decisions. As the name implies, the first is where two or more kin openly discuss and negotiate potential responses to the issue in question. The second is where a particular individual decides on a course of action and conveys this to other kin involved without really allowing any wider discussion. The final category, non decisions, arises where, because of the circumstances of those involved, a particular course of action emerges as ”obvious” to all without any explicit decision taking ever occurring.
The importance of Finch and Mason’s analysis is that it highlights the role of agency as well as structure in kin behavior. While there are clear patterns in the ways kin behave toward one another (e.g., in the greater likelihood of daughters rather than sons providing parents with personal care in later old age) there is also a great deal of variation. As an illustration, there is solidarity between siblings, but the ways in which that solidarity is expressed vary depending on the circumstances of the siblings, their other commitments, and the history of their relationship. So too there can be diversity in who is regarded as kin, which kinship ties are honored, and what activities and topics of conversation are seen as relevant within different kin relationships. Furthermore, all these matters are liable to change over time as people’s circumstances alter. Thus, within contemporary western society, kinship position does not of itself determine how people behave towards their kin or the responsibilities they feel.
The variation there is in people’s attitudes and behavior towards kin has been compounded over the last 30 years by significant changes in patterns of family formation and dissolution. Most obviously, there has been the substantial growth in divorce and remarriage. Of themselves, these raise questions about the categorization and meaning of kinship. For example, are exspouses categorized as kin? Under what circumstances? When, if at all, are their kin categorized as kin? Similarly, to what degree and under what circumstances does a stepparent or a stepchild become kin? Are they likely to be so regarded without co residence? Equally, what are the kinship consequences of cohabitation, a pattern of partnership which is becoming increasingly common? When do cohabitees come to be regarded as kin, either by their partner or by their partner’s other kin? Such questions do not have clear cut answers; there is a relative absence of kinship “rules” governing these matters. Instead, the nature of the relationships which develop and the extent to which they are understood as operating within a kinship frame are emergent, and in this sense ”negotiated” in line with Finch and Mason’s (1993) arguments.
One other important property of kinship is worth noting. As implied above, kinship is not just about individual relationships. The collective element of kinship is central to understanding kinship behavior. That is, kinship is a network of relationships in which each tie is influenced by, and in turn influences, the others. The effective boundaries of the network vary for different people, over time and for different contents. But typically news, information, and gossip flow readily through the network, with some individuals acting as ”kin keepers.” For example, mothers often play a key role in passing news on to their children and facilitating contact at times of family ceremonial. In part it is because kinship operates as a network that a focus on negotiation is so useful for understanding kinship processes. Similarly, the issues raised above concerning when new partners come to be regarded as kin or whether stepparents are kin are not solely individual issues. In part, what matters is whether others in the kinship network regard them as ”family,” too. In many ways it is the network properties of kinship that distinguish it most clearly from other personal ties and which encourage the ”diffuse, enduring solidarity” which Schneider (1968) defines as characteristic of American kinship – and by implication other western kinship.
- Allan, G. (1979) A Sociology of Friendship and Kinship.
- Allen & Unwin, London. Allan, G. (1996) Kinship and Friendship in Modern Britain. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- Finch, J. & Mason, J. (1993) Negotiating Family Relationships. Routledge, London.
- Harris, C. C. (1983) The Family and Industrial Society.
- Allen & Unwin, London. Harris, C. C. (1990) Open University Press, Buckingham.
- Parsons, T. (1949) The Social Structure of the Family. In: Ashen, R. (Ed.), The Family. Haynor, New York, pp. 241 74.
- Parsons, T. (1955) The American Family. In: Parsons, T. & Bales, R. (Eds.), Family: Socialization and Interaction Process. Free Press, Glencoe, IL, pp. 3 33.
- Schneider, D. (1968) American Kinship: A Cultural Account. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
- Simpson, B. (1998) Changing Families. Berg, Oxford.
- Stack, C. & Burton, L. (1994) Kinscripts: Reflections on Family, Generation and Culture. In: Glen, E., Chang, G., & Forcey, L. (Eds.), Mothering: Ideology, Experience and Agency. Routledge, London.