Is kinship back?

In the last issue of Science (25 May, 2012), a plea by Stephen Levinson [´´1] for the study of kinship terminology, and an article by Charles Kemp and Terry Regier [2] making a novel contribution to that study.

Levinson writes:

“In 1860, Lewis Henry Morgan heard an Iowa man on a Nebraska reservation describe a small boy as “uncle.” Fascinated, he embarked on lifelong research into the kinship systems of the world’s cultures, which culminated in a typology of kin categories. Work on kinship categories flourished for a hundred years, but then became unfashionable. Yet, kinship is crucial to the transmission of human genes, culture, mores, and assets. Recent studies have begun to reinvigorate the study of kinship categories. … Kinship is a fertile domain in which to ask a question at the heart of the cognitive sciences: Why do humans have the conceptual categories they do? … There are more than 6000 languages, each with a different system of kin classification, at least in detail. … What constrains this exuberant diversity of systems?”

In their article entitled “Kinship categories across languages reflect general communicative principles”, Kemp and Regier argue:

“Languages vary in their systems of kinship categories but the scope of possible variation appears to be constrained. Previous accounts of kin classification have often emphasized constraints that are specific to the domain of kinship and are not derived from general principles. Here we propose an account that is founded on two domain-general principles: Good systems of categories are simple, and they enable informative communication. We show computationally that kin classification systems in the world’s languages achieve a nearoptimal tradeoff between these two competing principles. We also show that our account explains several specific constraints on kin classification proposed previously. Because the principles of simplicity and informativeness are also relevant to other semantic domains, the tradeoff between them may provide a domain-general foundation for variation in category systems across languages.”

It seems to me that Kemp and Regier’s ‘simplicity’ and ‘informativeness’ taken together play the same role as ‘relevance’ defined in relevance theory as a negative function of processing efforts and a positive function of cognitive effets, and that their findings are consistent with predicitions following from the theory’s ‘cognitive principle of relevance’. Be that as it may, this thought-provoking paper may indeed contribute to a new start in work on kinship terminologies, and on categories systems more generally, based on sound pragmatic principles.

PS: Of related interest in this issue of Science, an article by Michael C. Frank and Noah D. Goodman entitled “Predicting Pragmatic Reasoning in Language Games” [3].

[1] Levinson, S. C. (2012). Kinship and human thought. science336(6084), 988-989.

[2] Kemp, C., & Regier, T. (2012). Kinship categories across languages reflect general communicative principles. Science336(6084), 1049-1054.

[3] Frank, M. C., & Goodman, N. D. (2012). Predicting pragmatic reasoning in language games. Science336(6084), 998-998.


  • comment-avatar
    Benson Saler 31 May 2012 (15:22)

    My thanks to Dan Sperber for passing on the good news about Levinson and Kemp and Regier. While kinship studies were never totally eclipsed in anthropology, thanks not only to the persistence of scholars such as Harold Scheffler but to pragmatic ethnographic needs in studying social organization among numbers of populations, the sharp decline of interest in the subject in recent decades betokened, in my opinion, a fan of lamentable shifts in the theoretical and analytical perspectives and concerns of many anthropologists. A rise in the importance accorded to kinship studies, in contrast, is very likely to betoken a rise in analytical rigor and scientific aspirations. Welcome back!

  • comment-avatar
    Carles Salazar 31 July 2012 (23:26)

    I fully endorse Benson’s views on the return of kinship studies. It is to be expected that anthropology will gradually shed its post-Schneiderian relativistic paranoia and reinvigorate one of the founding subjects of the discipline. Arguably, kinship has never been fully absent from current anthropological research, yet mainstream social constructivist approaches turned it into sterile theoretical discussions and mere ethnographic butterfly collecting. Anthropologists have ignored (or misrecognised) for too long the biological and evolutionary foundations of kinship bonds and it is time to make up for this unpardonable neglect. There is much to be gained from an evolutionary and biocultural approach to kinship and for interdisciplinary collaboration with psychologists and biologists in that laudable enterprise.

  • comment-avatar
    Dwight Read 30 March 2013 (06:55)

    Yes, kinship is back — or more accurately, it is reclaiming its original vigor. Haven’t you heard of the Kinship Circle? For each of the past three years, and as part of this year’s annual meeting of the Amerian Anthropological Association as well, we have had highly successful sessions on kinship. The sessions have been integrated with the themes of each of the meetings. We have had an international group of scholars from Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, England, France, Germany, Italy, Qatar and the United States, presenting a wide range of papers, ranging from more “classic” questions about kinship systems to current research that is challenging some of our theoretical ideas about what constitutes kinship. The papers from the first two sessions will be published shortly.
    Dwight Read
    Fadwa El Guindi

  • comment-avatar
    Dwight Read 30 March 2013 (09:17)

    In respect to kinship terminologies, Levinson’s question, “What constrains this exuberant diversity of systems?”, is not answered by Kemp and Regier’s analysis for one simple reason: Terminologies have a structure and logic, like grammars for language, that determine the possible range of kinship terminologies. Kemp and Regier assume any partition of the space of genealogical relations is a potential terminology and then show that existing terminologies occupy only a small portion of this space due, they assert, to a tradeoff between simplicity and usefulness. This would be like saying a sentence can be any subset of all possible vocabulary words, then asserting that the realized languages have sentences that are a tradeoff between simplicity and usefulness, but ignoring the fact that the simplicity and usefulness of sentences is created through the grammar of the language that constrains what are admissible sentences. The same is true for kinship terminologies, and the answer to Levinson’s question has already been made by showing that kinship terminologies have a generative structure that determines the corpus of kinship terms, starting from the primary kin terms of a terminology, along with kinship concepts that are expressed in the terminology (such as reciprocity of kin terms), and the kinship structural properties embedded in a particular terminology (Read 1984, 2001, 2007, 2009; Read and Behrens 1990; Leaf and Read 2012, among others). For example, the difference giving rise to the fundamental division of terminologies into descriptive versus classificatory (bifurcate merging) terminologies derives from two different ways that sibling relations are conceptualized in different societies: (1) a sibling is the child of my parent other than myself (descriptive terminologies) or (2) siblings are those persons who have parents in common (classificatory terminologies) (Bennardo and Read 2007; Read, Fischer and Leaf 2013). Trying to understand kinship terminologies (and hence kinship systems) without first working out the generative logic of a terminology is like trying to understand languages without working out the grammar of a language. Extensive work has already been published on the generative logic of kinship terminologies and this work makes evident what constrains the variability in kinship terminologies that Levinson asks about.


    Bennardo, G. and D. Read 2007. Cognition, Algebra, and Culture in the Tongan Kinship Terminology. Journal of Cognition and Culture 7: 49-88.

    Leaf, M. and D. Read. (2012) Human Thought and Social Organization: Anthropology on a New Plane. Lanham: Lexington Press

    Read, D. l984. An algebraic account of the American kinship terminology. Current Anthropology 25: 4l7-440

    Read, D. 2001 What is Kinship? In The Cultural Analysis of Kinship: The Legacy of David Schneider and Its Implications for Anthropological Relativism, R. Feinberg and M. Ottenheimer eds. University of Illinois Press, Urbana. Pp. 78-117.

    Read, D. 2007. Kinship Theory: A Paradigm Shift. Ethnology 46(4):329-364

    Read, D. 2009. Another Look at Kinship: Reasons Why a Paradigm Shift is Needed. Algebra Rodtsva 12:42-69.

    Read, D. and C. Behrens. 1990. KAES: An expert system for the algebraic analysis of kinship terminologies. J. of Quantitative Anthropology 2:353-393.

    Read, D., Fischer, M. and M. Leaf. 2013. What are kinship terminologies, and why do we care? A computational approach to analyzing symbolic domains. Social Science Computer Review 31(1): 16-44.