Descent systems

The first critical area of sustantive kinship analysis involves the study of descent systems. This topic is concerned with the rules that people in different cultures use to determine parenthood and identify ancestry and how they assign people to social categories, groups, and roles on the basis of inherited status.

Descent systems are divided into:

  1. unilineal systems, in which descent is traced through parents and ancestors of only one sex, and
  2. cognatic systems, in which descent can be traced through either or both parents.

While people of European ancestry are more familiar with cognatic kinship institutions, only 30% of the world's cultures reckon descent and group membership on this basis. The remainding majority of societies, including India and China, follow unilineal principles (Murdock 1949:59).

©1999 Brian Schwimmer
University of Manitoba
Last updated: September 2003