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How to draw kinship diagrams

The lost art of creating kinship charts

I once had a professor who asked for a show of hands of those in her class who knew what a penny looked like. Every single one of us raised our hands. Then she asked us all to do her the favor of sketching a penny from memory. Doh.

In my experience, anthropologists are much the same when it comes to kinship diagrams. Of course they know what kinship charts look like! But can they draw one? Stuffy Victorians in their armchairs were doing it 150 years ago, how hard can it be? Well…

Drawing a kinship diagram is definitely not rocket science, but there is a little bit of craft involved. And kinship charts, like maps, are the opposite of helpful when you don’t understand the hows and the whys. So, I thought, what better first post for a blog about social organization than a quick-and-dirty guide to the drawing of kinship diagrams?

Step 1: Ego + parents + siblings

kinship diagrams

Fig. 1. Ego + parents + siblings.

Start in the center of your page by drawing Ego as either a triangle (for a male) or as a circle (for a female). This individual is the point of reference for all kinship systems.* Draw Ego’s mother above and to the right and Ego’s father above and to the left. Indicate their relationship to one another with an equals sign, and draw a line straight down to indicate their relationship to Ego.

Now draw a male and a female sibling for Ego. Once again, the female goes to the right and the male goes to the left. Branch the line connecting Ego’s parents and Ego to indicate the relationship of all involved.

Step 2: Add Ego’s parents’ same-sex siblings and their children

kinship diagram

Fig. 2. Ego’s parents same-sex siblings and their children.

At this point, continue to adhere to the principle of placing females to the right and males to the left.

Draw a sister for Ego’s mother to her right; indicate their relationship via the same kind of line showing the relationship of Ego to his siblings. Draw mother’s sister’s children below her and in line with Ego, again keeping the female to the right. Indicate the relationship of the three via a branching line.

Draw a brother for Ego’s father to his left; indicate their relationship via the same kind of line showing the relationship of Ego to his siblings. Draw father’s brother’s children below him and in line with Ego, again keeping the female to the right. Indicate the relationship of the three via a branching line.

Step 3: Add Ego’s parents’ opposite-sex siblings and their children

kinship diagrams

Fig. 3. A chart showing parents’ same-sex and opposite-sex siblings.

At this point, you are going to break with the principle of placing females to the right and males to the left, if only within Ego’s parents’ generation.

Draw a brother for Ego’s mother to the right of her sister; indicate their relationship via the same kind of line showing the relationship of Ego to his siblings. Draw mother’s brother’s children below him and in line with Ego, returning to the principle of keeping the female to the right. Indicate the relationship of the three via a branching line.

Draw a sister for Ego’s father to the left of his brother; indicate their relationship via the same kind of line showing the relationship of Ego to his siblings. Draw father’s sister’s children below her and in line with Ego, returning to the principle of keeping the female to the right. Indicate the relationship of the three via a branching line.

Voilà! You have constructed a basic kinship diagram!

The results – parallel and cross cousins are distinguished

So, what did you gain by all of that? You gained a diagram which allows you to easily distinguish between parallel cousins (which you drew in during Step 2) and cross cousins (which you drew in during Step 3).

kinship diagrams

Fig. 4. Parallel and cross cousins.

And parallel and cross cousins and what they are called are important not only for understanding individual kinship systems but also for understanding the history of kinship theory and how it came about. So, I’m thinking, what better second post for a blog about kinship than a quick-and-dirty guide to classificatory and descriptive systems of kinship?

Edited, primarily for HTML markup but also some relatively minor text changes, on 13 November 2013.

Minor formatting edits on 14 September 2014.

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*Actually, in some kinship systems Ego is a set of individuals. But let’s aim at the ten meter target for now.


17 Comments

  1. Sarah Quick says:

    I know how, and I make my students do them too…although they do “real” family charts or genealogical charts (w/ generational and collateral restrictions) and then from there we discuss what their charts, the notion of family, and kin systems more generally. Looking forward to you telling me whether what they’re doing is considered descriptive vs. classificatory (’cause I don’t remember learning that) in your next blog. I will link this blog to my in class exercise, so thanks Matthew

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    • Mateo says:

      It’s no coincidence the two of us both know how. :-)

      – Looking forward to you telling me whether what they’re doing is considered descriptive vs. classificatory (’cause I don’t remember learning that) in your next blog. –

      The Cree kinship system is classificatory, but I don’t know how the terms are used in Michif.

      – I will link this blog to my in class exercise, so thanks Matthew –

      You’re welcome! That’s exactly the kind of thing I am hoping people do with it.

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  2. Sarah Quick says:

    “discuss their charts”

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  3. crinklecut says:

    you can shade out the ones what are dead

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  4. […] I once had a professor who asked for a show of hands of those in her class who knew what a penny looked like. Every single one of us raised our hands. Then she asked us all to do her the favor of s…  […]

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  5. […] I once had a professor who asked for a show of hands of those in her class who knew what a penny looked like. Every single one of us raised our hands. Then she asked us all to do her the favor of s…  […]

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  6. […] How to draw kinship diagrams. /kf […]

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    • I learnt to draw kinship diagrams like that with triangles and circles, but in social work they draw them with squares and circles and call them ‘genograms’

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      • Mateo says:

        Genograms are a bit different in that they represent relationships between real individuals. Kinship diagrams are models/abstractions.

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        • Yes, but if you are collecting data in the field either as an anthropolgist or a social worker, don’t you start with actual individuals and their relationships?
          Social workers’ genograms quickly develop into something akin to actor network diagrams, incorporating participant’s perceptions of which relationships are important to them, which fits nicely with the notion of the ‘idiom of kinship’

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        • Yes, but if you are collecting data in the field either as an anthropolgist or a social worker, don’t you start with actual individuals and their relationships?

          Certainly. My advisor discusses some issues inherent in that in this article.

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  7. Mateo, just a note that Elaine Ford has suggested “kinship” as a term for discussion on OAC (http://openanthcoop.ning.com/forum/topics/terminology). Your contribution to the conversation would be welcome, also a chance to attract some more traffic to this site.

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  8. Is there an online game or activity that I could use to have my students interact with kinship diagrams?

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    • Mateo says:

      If by game or activity you mean something Web 2.0, I don’t know of any. This online tutorial is quite good, but it is more like turning the pages of a book than it is “interactive” in the way that term tends to get used nowadays.

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  9. […] How to draw kinship diagrams. /kf […]

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