Kin Types and Kin Terms

The investigation of kinship terminology begins with a distinction between kin types and kin terms. Kin types refer to the basic uncategorized relationships that anthropologist use to describe the actual contents of kinship categories. They are supposedly culture free, etic components. Kin terms are the labels for categories of kin that include one or more kin types. They are emic structures and vary across cultures.

Kin Types

A kin type is a designation that is assigned to each individual relationship, such as a mother, father, mother's brother, mother's sister. Each relationship is described by a sequence of primary components, which are strung together to indicate actual biological relationships:
Primary components and letter symbols

  • Mother [M]
  • Father [F]
  • Sister [Z]
  • Brother [B]
  • Daugher [D]
  • Son [S]
  • Husband [H]
  • Wife [W]
Compound Strings

  • Mother's sister [MZ]
  • Mother's sister's daughter [MZD]
  • Sister's son [ZS].
The diagram which follows shows how several basic relationships are designated by kin types.

Kin Terms

Kin types are culturally neutral. An anthropologist uses these types to begin a description and analysis of any kinship system prior to a consideration of principles of classification within that system. On the other hand, kin terms, the set of names that people actually use to designate and address their relatives, are specific to each culture. The terms uncle, cousin, grandfather, peculiar to English terminology, are not kin types but categories which include more than one relationship and therefore more than one kin type.

English Kin Terms Designated by Kin Type:

Kin Term Kin Type
Father F
Uncle FB, MB
Brother B
Son S
Nephew BS, ZS

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© Brian Schwimmer
University of Manitoba
Created: Sept. 1996
Last Updated: August 1998