Kinship Terminology

 "Cross-cultural comparisons of categories of kin terms (words used to identify relatives) can sometimes reveal basic similarities and differences in worldview and experience" (Bonvillain 2010: 201). Terminology systems take a myriad of things into account (although they may not take all of these things into account):

  • paternal vs. maternal kin
  • generation
  • differences in relative age
  • sex
  • consanguine vs. affinal ties
  • person's descent line vs. linked
  • descent line
  • sex of linking relative

Terminology Systems

While the actual form of the words vary from culture to culture, anthropologists have identified only six terminology systems.

The Hawaiian System. This system is the simplest in that it has the fewest terms. The key distinctions are generation and gender. For example, all the males of the biological father's generation are called father, while all the females are called mother. The Hawaiian system is common where nuclear families are dependent on other kin; the system emphasizes cohesion of the extended family. It is common among Pacific Island peoples.

The Eskimo System. The nuclear family is emphasized in this system. Relatives outside of the nuclear family are distinguished by gender. Terms like mother, father, sister, and brother not used for relatives outside of the nuclear family. On the other hand, terms for aunt, uncle, cousin, grandfather and grandmother are used for both sides of family. The Eskimo system is associated with societies where nuclear family is economically independent.

The Omaha System. In this system, terms create a contrast between paternal and maternal relatives. It is found in patrilineal societies and has a small number of terms to refer to many different kin. On the father's side of the family, members are groups by sex and generation. On the mother's side of the family, members are lumped by sex only; there are no generational distinctions.

The Crow System. This system is the flip side of the Omaha system. It is associated with matrilineal societies. In this system, relatives on the mother's side of the family are lumped by sex and generation, while on the father's side, people are categorized by sex only.

The Iroquois System. The Iroquois system, found only in matrilineal societies, has different terms for maternal and paternal relatives based on sex and generation. It makes distinctions between parental siblings of opposite sexes. What this means is that any sisters the mother has are also called mother and any brothers of the father are called father. However, brothers of the mother are called uncle and sisters of the father are called aunt. Offspring of the mother's sister or father's brother are consider siblings, while children of the parents' siblings of the opposite sex are called cousin.

The Sudanese System. This is the largest terminology system. It has a descriptive term for each relative. There are nuclear family terms as well as terms for both maternal and paternal uncles, aunts, and cousins. This type of system is used in cultures that have both class stratification and occupational specialization along with political complexity (Ember and Ember 2011).

Some anthropologists recognize fictive kin (Bonvillain 2010), or people who are not relatives by descent or marriage. This type of kin may include adopted relatives, ceremonial relatives such as godparents and occupational brotherhoods and sisterhoods.


Bonvillain, Nancy. 2010. Cultural Anthropology, 2nd edition. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

Crapo, Richley. 2002. Cultural Anthropology: Understanding Ourselves and Others. Boston: McGraw Hill Higher Education.

Ember, Carol R. and Melvin Ember. 2011. Cultural Anthropology, 13th edition. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

Harris, Marvin and Oran Johnson. 2007. Cultural Anthropology, 7th edition. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

Lavenda Robert H. and Emily A. Schultz. 2010. Core Concepts in Cultural Anthropology, 4th edition. Boston: McGraw Hill Higher Education.

Rassumussen, Susan J. 1996. Tuareg. In Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Vol. 9., Africa and the Middle East. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, p. 366-370.

Schwimmer, Brian. Turkish Kin Terms. 1995., accessed February 24, 2015.

Schwimmer, Brian. 2001. Systematic Kinship Terminologies., accessed February 24, 2015.

Licenses and Attributions

More Study Resources for You

Show More