Moving a little out of my bioanth comfort zone here…kinship is a key component of cultural anthropology.
Kinship is classically defined as the relationship between people through marriage, family, or other cultural arrangements. There are two types of kinship: consanguinal (by blood) or affinal (by law or marriage) although these are terms used by the anthropologist, not necessarily by the subjects. In some societies, any male adult friend of the family is referred to as “uncle” and the society might consider that family (consanguinal) when they aren’t related by blood or law.
So, why can kinship be so confusing?
Here are the big symbols used in the kinship charts. First, most of us Westerners would associate the triangle with female (thank you bathroom signs). At least, that’s what happened in my classes, maybe you all are different.
Second kinship can be divided by lineal and collateral (direct relation vs. related by law) so kinship charts can be enormous in order to incorporate the family of the subject (called ego).
Here is what a typical chart in my textbooks looked like:
And no one says “aunt” or “uncle” or “cousin.” It’s all mother’s brother’s daughter (cousin) or father’s sister’s husband (uncle by marriage) or mother’s father’s brother’s wife (grand-aunt). It might be easy to follow written out but in a lecture, you lose track pretty quickly.
When all is said and done, though, I love studying kinship. Learning about how other societies define family both helps me appreciate mine and gives us insight into some of the pillars of any society.
In regards to writing, most Western authors will stick to the good old Western kinship rules–in fact, this is so common that when two unrelated individuals form a family-like bond, it’s practically novel or the relationship is considered more significant or special. The idea that two people not related by blood may see each other as family is a rare and special thing to us. But in some cultures, it’s normal.
So, how do your characters see kinship? For me, this is actually a big theme. My main characters grow up as orphans and so kinship and a sense of family is extremely important to them. I have developed a paradigm that they use in the book that actually becomes relevant not just to use in the background but to bring up in dialogue. I’m being very careful with how I write these sections, though, because it’s something my readers may not be able to relate to as easily but the idea that we choose our inner circle is a major theme for the book as a whole.
How do your characters view their family? Do you draw wittingly or unwittingly on non-Western models of kinship? Let us know in the comments!