Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Who are my relatives?

Eggan, Fred. 1937. Historical changes in the Choctaw kinship system. [Indianapolis]: Bobbs-Merrill.

From my perspective, the standard, Western European-centric pedigree chart based on an assumption of bloodline-based relationship systems filters out many other important familial/kinship relationships that have historical and genealogical significance. I have written about this issue from time to time, but recent experiences in helping people from someplace other than Western Europe have highlighted that fact that I am not always communicating well when I try to force their kinship structure into our "standard" format.

In the above charts, the person marked "Ego" is the starting point or position from which one views the egocentric genealogy. Here is a quote from the article by Eggan that puts this issue into a narrative perspective from the standpoint of the Choctaw kinship system:
My father’s sister’s son is my father, Alt’-kl, whether Ego be a male or female; his son is my father again; the son of the latter is also my father; and this relationship theoretically continues downward in the male line indefinitely. The analogue of this is to be found in the infinite series of uncles among the Missouri nations, applied to the lineal male descendants of my mother’s brother. See L. H. Morgan, Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, Vol. 17. 1871), Table II, 28, 29; Swanton, Source Material for . . . the Choctaw Indians, pp. 84-90.
Perhaps, you can see that the European relationship implied by the English language term "father" is inadequate to express the relationships expressed by the Choctaw kinship system. Those of us with European ancestors actually use two types of terms to refer to our families; we say our "father's brother" which implies a genealogical relationship and our "uncle" which is a kinship term.

Some of the online genealogy family tree programs accommodate different language naming patterns such as the difference between the pattern used in England and the pattern used in Spain, but few programs support the entry of kinship relationships. Because of this lack of support or even awareness of kinship relationships, there are likely a number of "brick wall" situations that are more apparent than real. For example, using the Choctaw example, if a record showed a certain person as your ancestor's "father" how could you be sure that the reference was to the biological father?

In our European-American kinship system, as reflected by our terminological system (naming system) we make no distinction between our maternal and paternal relations. For example, if a person is my "uncle," my reference to this person does not differentiate between my father's brother and my mother's brother. Because I hear and see very little discussion about kinship systems among genealogists or in the genealogical writing, I can only assume that there is little understanding or knowledge of the impact of kinship on the way genealogical relationships are recorded and preserved.

A good introduction to all of this issue is the following book:

Peterson, Gary W., Suzanne K. Steinmetz, and Marvin B. Sussman. 1999. Handbook of marriage and the family. New York [u.a.]: Plenum Press.


  1. Terminology aside, the ubiquitous "family tree" doesn't even cope with Western kinship. Almost every example tries to use it to depict a set of nice cosy politically-correct families. Does the joining line between a man and woman represent reproduction or marriage? These are quite different, and different again to anything that can be construed as a "family". What about single-parent families, hybrid families, adopted/fostered relationships, gay relationships? Nope, the "tree" is not a viable method of recording relationships.

    1. Well, I have been writing about this issue for a long time and it doesn't seem to attract all that much attention.

  2. Compared to the advertising budgets of commercial genealogy, voices like ours are far too quiet, James. I am sure they have no intention of dropping their tree paradigm since it's been very profitable for them, but they're probably ignorant of other approaches too. For all their high principles, our genealogical organisations seem content to let this ride without challenge, if briefly pausing to comment on the unreliability of online trees.

  3. Thanks for bringing this up again James. We are always talking about kinship networks in our classes and guiding people beyond the "Traditional" pedigree and family group. I'm working on some new ways to help beginners see the bigger picture too. Thanks fora great article. I'm searching for a copy of the book. :-)