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
Descent systems are divided into:
unilineal systems, in which descent is traced through parents and
ancestors of only one sex, and
cognatic systems, in which descent can be traced through either or
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