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The six part kinship typology and how it got that way.

In 1925 Leslie Spier published his typology of American Indian kinship systems.* His typology takes the form of eight classes, viz.

  1. Omaha.
  2. Crow.
  3. Salish.
  4. Acoma.
  5. Yuman.
  6. Mackenzie Basin.
  7. Iroquois.
  8. Eskimo.

In his big 1949 book George Peter Murdock used Spier’s classification as the basis for a typology based upon cousin terminology.† Murdock subsumed the Salish, Acoma, Yuman, and Mackenzie Basin classes as his Hawaiian class. Murdock also added a Sudanese class. Murdock’s typology is listed below, along with his own description of the terms used for cousins by male Ego in each.

  • Omaha. Parallel cousins are called ‘brother’ or ‘sister.’ Maternal cross-cousins are called ‘mother’ or ‘uncle.’ Paternal cross-cousins are called ‘nephew’ or ‘niece.’
  • Crow. Parallel cousins are called ‘brother’ or ‘sister.’ Maternal cross-cousins are called ‘son’ or ‘daughter.’ Paternal cross-cousins are called ‘father’ or ‘aunt.’
  • Hawaiian. All cousins are called ‘brother’ or ‘sister.’
  • Iroquois. Parallel cousins are called ‘brother’ or ‘sister.’ Cross-cousins are called ‘cousin.’
  • Eskimo. All cousins are called ‘cousin.’
  • Sudanese. Maternal and paternal parallel cousins are called by distinct terms, as are maternal and paternal cross-cousins.

Murdock’s typology has become received wisdom despite two not so small issues. Namely, that it foists a typology constructed from and for North American data upon the world at large and that it ignores the fact that Spier took details beyond cousin terminology into account in creating his eight classes.‡

Matthew Timothy Bradley

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*“The distribution of kinship systems in North America.” University of Washington Publications in Anthropology 1, no. 2 (August 1925): 69–88, maps 1–9.

Social structure (New York: MacMillan, 1949) 223–25.

‡Désveaux, Emmanuel. “Some current kinship paradigms in the light of true Crow Indian ethnography.” In Anthropology, by comparison, edited by Andre Gingrich and Richard G. Fox (London; New York: Routledge, 2002), 124–25; 139, n.1.

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3 Comments

  1. Mimi says:

    Murdock used global data to make his typologies, it is Spier who used North American data. That is why Murdock added the Sudanese typology, which as he explains in Social Structure could not be part of Spier’s typologies because that type is not found in North America.

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    • Murdock was global in scope, but he very clearly adopted Spier’s typology as a starting point. The following is quoted from p. 223 of the 1949 edition of Social structure. See also p. xiv of the same for Murdock’s acknowledgement of Spier’s place in his intellectual formation.

      Moreover, cross-cousin terminology
      has been used with considerable success by Spier (footnote to Spier’s UWPA paper) as the principal criterion of typology in what is certainly the most satisfactory classification of kinship nomenclature hitherto proposed.

      The types of kinship terminology adopted are six in number. Four of them—the Crow, Eskimo, Iroquois, and Omaha types—are well established in the literature and correspond closely to those which Spier calls by the same names. For the fifth type, which embraces the Salish, Acoma, and Mackenzie Basin types of Spier and in part his Yuman type as well, we have adopted the name “Hawaiian,” which also has some precedent in the literature. The sixth and last type has been called “Sudanese” from the area in which it is most prevalent. This type is unrepresented in Spier’s system, and does not in fact occur in any of the 70 North American tribes in our sample. The six types, which are based exclusively on male-speaking terms for female relatives because of the limitations of our survey, are defined as follows:

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  2. […] who is considered ‘family,’ or marriageable or not (ex., see Matthew Bradley’s site Consanguinity and Affinity). For example, some societies refer to aunts and uncles as ‘mother’ or ‘father.’ There are […]

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