Bilateral Kinship Systems

Bilateral kinship organization presents something of a classification problem as all societies recognize and interact with a variety of maternal and paternal kin on a regular basis. Thus, while members of unilineal societies rely exclusively on agnatic or uterine kin in certain formal situations, they also maintain both structured and informal relationships with other relatives and form bilateral kindreds for a variety of purposes.

The universal occurrence of bilateral kinship, often in conjunction with unilineal institutions, has led to a variety of controversies as to whether bilateral structures exist as a general form or whether a specific society is unilineal or bilateral. Such debates have arisen about historical Anglo-Saxon society, ancient Roman kinship, and modern Yoruba systems. However, widespread evidence can be cited to support the existence of structural bilateral institutions within several traditions, especially European ones, in the form of rules and understandings that define standard ranges of cognatic kin and assign rights and duties to them.

Formally, bilaterally kinship systems involve two separate forms:

  1. Bilateral descent groups , also know as stocks, a relatively rare institution, according to which a society is organized on the basis of bilateral descent from recognized ancestors.
  2. Kindreds, which are ego focused networks that extend through both of an individual's parents and their bilateral kin.

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© Brian Schwimmer
University of Manitoba
Created: Sept. 1997
Last Updated: August 1998