Fictive kinship

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Fictive kinship is a term used by anthropologists and ethnographers to describe forms of kinship or social ties that are based on neither consanguineal (blood ties) nor affinal ("by marriage") ties. It contrasts with true kinship ties.


To the extent that consanguineal and affinal kinship ties might be considered real or true kinship, the term fictive kinship has in the past been used to refer to those kinship ties that are fictional, in the sense of not-real. Invoking the concept as a cross-culturally valid anthropological category therefore rests on the presumption that the inverse category of "(true) kinship" built around consanguinity and affinity is similarly cross-culturally valid. Use of the term was common until the mid-to-late twentieth century, when anthropology effectively deconstructed and revised many of the concepts and categories around the study of kinship and social ties. In particular, anthropologists established that a consanguinity basis for kinship ties is not universal across cultures, and that—on the contrary—it may be a culturally specific symbol of kinship only in particular cultures (see the articles on kinship and David M. Schneider for more information on the history of kinship studies).

Stemming from anthropology's early connections to legal studies, the term fictive kinship may also be used in a legal sense, and this use continues in societies where these categories and definitions regarding kinship and social ties have legal currency; e.g. in matters of inheritance.

As part of the deconstruction of kinship mentioned above, anthropologists now recognize that—cross-culturally—the kinds of social ties and relationships formerly treated under the category of "kinship" are very often not necessarily predicated on blood ties or marriage ties, and may rather be based on shared residence, shared economic ties, nurture kinship, or familiarity via other forms of interaction.

In sociology of the family, this idea is referred to as chosen kin, fictive kin or voluntary kin. Sociologists define the concept as a form of extended family members who are not related by either blood or marriage. The bonds allowing for chosen kinship may include religious rituals, close friendship ties, [1] or other essential reciprocal social or economic relationships. [2] Examples of chosen kin include godparents, informally adopted children, and close family friends. [3] :31–32 The idea of fictive kin has been used to analyze aging, [4] foreign fighters, [5] immigrant communities, [1] and minorities [6] [7] in modern societies. Some researchers state that peers have the potential to create fictive kin networks. [8]


Types of relations often described by anthropologists as fictive kinship include compadrazgo relations, foster care, common membership in a unilineal descent group, and legal adoption. A noted Gurung tradition is the institution of "Rodi", where teenagers form fictive kinship bonds and become Rodi members to socialize, perform communal tasks, and find marriage partners. In Western culture, a person may refer to close friends of one's parents as "aunt" or "uncle" (and their children as "cousin"), or may refer to close friends as "brother" or "sister", although this is just a mere courtesy treatment and does not represent an actual valuation as such. In particular, college fraternities and sororities in some North American cultures usually use "brother" and "sister" to refer to members of the organization. Monastic, Masonic, and Lodge organisations also use the term "Brother" for members. "Nursing Sister" is used to denote a rank of nurse, and the term "Sisterhood" may be used for feminists. Fictive kinship was discussed by Jenny White in her work on female migrant workers in Istanbul. [9] In her work, she draws on ideas of production and the women she works with being drawn together through "webs of indebtedness" through which the women refer to each other as kin. These relationships are, however, less frequent than kin relationships, and serve purposes that are neither comparable to nor exclude a natural family.


Recently, many anthropologists have abandoned a distinction between "real" and "fictive" kin, because many cultures do not base their notion of kinship on genealogical relations. This was argued most forcefully by David M. Schneider, in his 1984 book A critique of the study of kinship. [18] In response to this insight, Janet Carsten developed the idea of "relatedness". She developed her initial ideas from studies with the Malays in looking at what was socialized and biological. Here she uses the idea of relatedness to move away from a pre-constructed analytics opposition which exists in anthropological thought between the biological and the social. [19] Carsten argued that relatedness should be described in terms of indigenous statements and practices, some of which fall outside what anthropologists have conventionally understood as kinship. [20]

This does not imply, however, that human non-kin relationships, such as in tit-for-tat situations, even within a friendship relation, are more important than kin relationships, since their motivation is also related to one's survival and perpetuation, or that people are necessarily bound to the culture they are inserted in, nor can it be generalized to the point of claiming all individuals always undervalue kinship in the absence of nurturing. Herbert Gintis, in his review of the book Sex at Dawn , critiques the idea that human males were unconcerned with parentage, "which would make us unlike any other species I can think of". [21] Such individuals can be considered out of the natural tendency of living beings for survival through offspring.

In response to a similar model advanced by E. O. Wilson, Rice University’s David Queller said that such new model "involves, and I suspect requires, close kinship". [22] The theory also overlooks phenomena of survivalist non-kin or not close kin such as the one that can be seen on tribalism or ethnic nationalism.

Use in sociobiology

In the biological and animal behavioural sciences, the term "kinship" has a different meaning from the current anthropological usage of the term, and more in common with the former anthropological usage that assumed that blood ties are ontologically prior to social ties. In these sciences, "kinship" is commonly used as a shorthand for "the regression coefficient of (genetic) relatedness", which is a metric denoting the proportion of shared genetic material between any two individuals relative to average degrees of genetic variance in the population under study. This coefficient of relationship is an important component of the theory of inclusive fitness, a treatment of the evolutionary selective pressures on the emergence of certain forms of social behavior. Confusingly, inclusive fitness theory is more popularly known through its narrower form, kin selection theory, whose name clearly resonates with former conceptions of "kinship" in anthropology.

Whilst inclusive fitness theory thus describes one of the necessary conditions for the evolutionary emergence of social behaviors, the details of the proximate conditions mediating the expression of social bonding and cooperation have been less investigated in sociobiology. In particular, the question of whether genetic relatedness (or "blood ties") must necessarily be present for social bonding and cooperation to be expressed has been the source of much confusion, partly due to thought experiments in W. D. Hamilton's early theoretical treatments. In addition to setting out the details of the evolutionary selection pressure, Hamilton roughly outlined two possible mechanisms by which the expression of social behaviors might be mediated:

The selective advantage which makes behaviour conditional in the right sense on the discrimination of factors which correlate with the relationship of the individual concerned is therefore obvious. It may be, for instance, that in respect of a certain social action performed towards neighbours indiscriminately, an individual is only just breaking even in terms of inclusive fitness. If he could learn to recognise those of his neighbours who really were close relatives and could devote his beneficial actions to them alone an advantage to inclusive fitness would at once appear. Thus a mutation causing such discriminatory behaviour itself benefits inclusive fitness and would be selected. In fact, the individual may not need to perform any discrimination so sophisticated as we suggest here; a difference in the generosity of his behaviour according to whether the situations evoking it were encountered near to, or far from, his own home might occasion an advantage of a similar kind. [23]

Traditional sociobiology did not consider the divergent consequences between these basic possibilities for the expression of social behavior, and instead assumed that the expression operates in the "recognition" manner, whereby individuals are behaviorally primed to discriminate which others are their true genetic relatives, and engage in cooperative behavior with them. But when expression has evolved to be primarily location-based or context-based—depending on a society's particular demographics and history—social ties and cooperation may or may not coincide with blood ties. Reviews [24] of the mammal, primate, and human evidence demonstrate that expression of social behaviors in these species are primarily location-based and context-based (see nurture kinship), and examples of what used to be labeled as "fictive kinship" are readily understood in this perspective. Social cooperation, however, does not mean people see each other as family or family-like, nor that people will value those known not to be related with them more than the ones who are or simply neglect relatedness.

See also

Related Research Articles

Anthropology Scientific study of humans, human behavior and societies

Anthropology is the scientific study of humans, human behavior and societies in the past and present. Social anthropology studies patterns of behaviour and cultural anthropology studies cultural meaning, including norms and values. Linguistic anthropology studies how language influences social life. Biological or physical anthropology studies the biological development of humans. Visual anthropology, which is usually considered to be a part of social anthropology, can mean both ethnographic film as well as the study of "visuals", including art, visual images, cinema etc. Oxford Bibliographies describes visual anthropology as "the anthropological study of the visual and the visual study of the anthropological".

Cultural anthropology Branch of anthropology focused on the study of cultural variation among humans

Cultural anthropology is a branch of anthropology focused on the study of cultural variation among humans. It is in contrast to social anthropology, which perceives cultural variation as a subset of a posited anthropological constant.

An incest taboo is any cultural rule or norm that prohibits sexual relations between certain members of the same family, mainly between individuals related by blood. All human cultures have norms that exclude certain close relatives from those considered suitable or permissible sexual or marriage partners, making such relationships taboo. However, different norms exist among cultures as to which blood relations are permissible as sexual partners and which are not. Sexual relations between related persons which are subject to the taboo are called incestuous relationships.

Kin selection The evolutionary strategy that favours the reproductive success of an organisms relatives, even at a cost to the organisms own survival and reproduction

Kin selection is the evolutionary strategy that favours the reproductive success of an organism's relatives, even at a cost to the organism's own survival and reproduction. Kin altruism can look like altruistic behaviour whose evolution is driven by kin selection. Kin selection is an instance of inclusive fitness, which combines the number of offspring produced with the number an individual can ensure the production of by supporting others, such as siblings.

Kinship Human relationship term; web of social relationships that form an important part of the lives of most humans in most societies; form of social connection

In anthropology, kinship is the web of social relationships that form an important part of the lives of all humans in all societies, although its exact meanings even within this discipline are often debated. Anthropologist Robin Fox states that "the study of kinship is the study of what man does with these basic facts of life – mating, gestation, parenthood, socialization, siblingship etc." Human society is unique, he argues, in that we are "working with the same raw material as exists in the animal world, but [we] can conceptualize and categorize it to serve social ends." These social ends include the socialization of children and the formation of basic economic, political and religious groups.

Godparent Person who sponsors a childs baptism

A godparent, in many denominations of Christianity, is someone who bears witness to a child's christening and later is willing to help in their catechesis, as well as their lifelong spiritual formation. In the past, in some countries, the role carried some legal obligations as well as religious responsibilities. In both religious and civil views, a godparent tends to be an individual chosen by the parents to take an interest in the child's upbringing and personal development, to offer mentorship or claim legal guardianship of the child if anything should happen to the parents. A male godparent is a godfather, and a female godparent is a godmother. The child is a godchild.

Group selection Proposed mechanism of evolution

Group selection is a proposed mechanism of evolution in which natural selection acts at the level of the group, instead of at the more conventional level of the individual.

Napoleon Alphonseau Chagnon was an American cultural anthropologist, professor of sociocultural anthropology at the University of Missouri in Columbia and member of the National Academy of Sciences. Chagnon was known for his long-term ethnographic field work among the Yanomamö, a society of indigenous tribal Amazonians, in which he used an evolutionary approach to understand social behavior in terms of genetic relatedness. His work centered on the analysis of violence among tribal peoples, and, using socio-biological analyses, he advanced the argument that violence among the Yanomami is fueled by an evolutionary process in which successful warriors have more offspring. His 1967 ethnography Yanomamö: The Fierce People became a bestseller and is frequently assigned in introductory anthropology courses.

Inclusive fitness A measure of evolutionary success based on the number of offspring the individual supports

In evolutionary biology, inclusive fitness is one of two metrics of evolutionary success as defined by W. D. Hamilton in 1964:

In sociology, the term ethnic nepotism describes a human tendency for in-group bias or in-group favouritism applied by nepotism for people with the same ethnicity within a multi-ethnic society.

The compadre relationship between the parents and godparents of a child is an important bond that originates when a child is baptized in Iberian, Latin American, and Filipino Christian families. The abstract noun compadrazgo, compadrio, both meaning "co-parenthood," is sometimes used to refer to the institutional relationship between compadres.

Kin recognition, also called kin detection, is an organism's ability to distinguish between close genetic kin and non-kin. In evolutionary biology and psychology, such an ability is presumed to have evolved for inbreeding avoidance.

Philippine kinship uses the generational system in kinship terminology to define family. It is one of the more simple classificatory systems of kinship. One's genetic relationship or bloodline is often overridden by the desire to show proper respect that is due in the Philippine culture to age and the nature of the relationship, which are considered more important.

Milk kinship, formed during nursing by a non-biological mother, was a form of fostering allegiance with fellow community members. This particular form of kinship did not exclude particular groups, such that class and other hierarchal systems did not matter in terms of milk kinship participation.

The nature–culture divide refers to a theoretical foundation of contemporary anthropology. Early anthropologists sought theoretical insight from the perceived tensions between nature and culture. Later, the argument became framed by the question of whether the two entities function separately from one another, or if they were in a continuous biotic relationship with each other.

Educational capital refers to educational goods that are converted into commodities to be bought, sold, withheld, traded, consumed, and profited from in the educational system. Educational capital can be utilized to produce or reproduce inequality, and it can also serve as a leveling mechanism that fosters social justice and equal opportunity. Educational capital has been the focus of study in Economic anthropology, which provides a framework for understanding educational capital in its endeavor to understand human economic behavior using the tools of both economics and anthropology.

Darwinian anthropology describes an approach to anthropological analysis which employs various theories from Darwinian evolutionary biology. Whilst there are a number of areas of research that can come under this broad description some specific research projects have been closely associated with the label. A prominent example is the project that developed in the mid 1970s with the goal of applying sociobiological perspectives to explain patterns of human social relationships, particularly kinship patterns across human cultures.

The concept of nurture kinship in the anthropological study of human social relationships (kinship) highlights the extent to which such relationships are brought into being through the performance of various acts of nurture between individuals. Additionally the concept highlights ethnographic findings that, in a wide swath of human societies, people understand, conceptualize and symbolize their relationships predominantly in terms of giving, receiving and sharing nurture. The concept stands in contrast to the earlier anthropological concepts of human kinship relations being fundamentally based on "blood ties", some other form of shared substance, or a proxy for these, and the accompanying notion that people universally understand their social relationships predominantly in these terms.

<i>Social Bonding and Nurture Kinship</i>

Social Bonding and Nurture Kinship: Compatibility between Cultural and Biological Approaches is a book on human kinship and social behavior by Maximilian Holland, published in 2012. The work synthesizes the perspectives of evolutionary biology, psychology and sociocultural anthropology towards understanding human social bonding and cooperative behavior. It presents a theoretical treatment that many consider to have resolved longstanding questions about the proper place of genetic connections in human kinship and social relations, and a synthesis that "should inspire more nuanced ventures in applying Darwinian approaches to sociocultural anthropology". The book has been called "A landmark in the field of evolutionary biology" which "gets to the heart of the matter concerning the contentious relationship between kinship categories, genetic relatedness and the prediction of behavior", "places genetic determinism in the correct perspective" and serves as "a shining example of what can be achieved when excellent scholars engage fully across disciplinary boundaries."

Inclusive fitness in humans is the application of inclusive fitness theory to human social behaviour, relationships and cooperation.


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