What Is the Relationship Between “Biology” and Kinship Systems?

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  • Topic: Anthropology, Kinship, Kinship terminology
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Q. What is the relationship between “biology” and kinship systems?

A. Kinship can be defined as society acknowledging biological connections between people. This view however has been challenged because kinship systems are regarded now as too complex. C. Levi-Strauss (1963) argued; “Kinship…only exists in human consciousness.” The correct way of studying the relationship between biology and kinship systems can only be made by looking at particular societies and cannot be made universally.

Biology may have very little to do with kinship when you look at cultures which ‘play with facts.’ However, once you take ethno biology into consideration, everything about kinship can be linked to biology. W. River’s (1965) work on kinship and reproduction argued that “kinship is the social recognition of biological ties.” In contrast, Malinowski’s studies on the Trobrianders shows their belief that there is no connection between conception and sexual intercourse. Furthermore, paternity was only recognised in a social sense and not a biological one. This was still classed as kinship. The Trobriander tribe distinguished between concepts of parents. Fathers had a social role (pater) and a physical role (genitor.)The genitor does not imply actual biological relationships but refers to the socially held belief that the father is physically related.

The European idea of descent fixed on biological blood relations was directly opposed when D. Schneider (1984) researched the Yap tribe. The relationship between father and child is not like the relationship in the West. His findings contradict the western view "You can choose your friends but you sho' can't choose your family, an' they're still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge 'em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don't." (Harper Lee, 1960.) According to Schneider’s study, anyone can be considered a child of an older man providing they respect his authority and care for him. This will grant the child membership into the lineage and places them in line for inheritance when their ‘father’ dies. Also, ‘real’ children can lose their membership in the lineage if they do not fulfil obligations of the lineage which would terminate their membership. This highlights the rejection of the European view that decent is based on biological ties as emphasis is placed on the relationship between social roles and kinship.

In the Nuer tribe, E. Pritchard (1951) notes that if a widow has a lover outside of her deceased husband’s kin group, the deceased husband remains to be the child’s father. Parenthood is therefore considered more as a relationship than a biological event. In other cultures like the Lakher of Myanmar (Burma) hold the belief that two children with the same genetrix (mother) but different genitors are not considered kin. These examples support R. Parkin’s (1997) definition of kinship systems. “Kinship is not biology, but…cultural recognitions of the biological universals.” His argument states that western views are no more dominant than non western views. For example the emphasis of parenthood in the west is based on biology however there have been problems in society proving the genetic father. Therefore kinship systems should emphasise on the social role as the superior factor in terms of kinship and not biological roles.

There has been conflicting theories regarding biology’s relationship with kinship. Certain anthropologists have proposed that decent theory which explores how blood relations are structured in societies should determine kinship. However C. Levi –Strauss (1949) argued this was not an adequate explanation and proposed an alliance theory. Unlike decent theory, emphasis is placed on a social role and not a biological one. One marries outside close relatives to establish marriage ties between lineages. Kinship systems offer benefits which cannot be created through inbreeding within the lineage. Lineages would exchange between them. An...
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