Social practice and shared history, not social scale, structure cross-cultural complexity in kinship systems

Peter Racz, Sam Passmore, Fiona Jordan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)
160 Downloads (Pure)


Human cultural populations display remarkable diversity in norms of language and culture, but the variation is not without limit. At the population level, variation between societies may be structured by a range of macro-evolutionary factors including ecological and environmental resources, shared ancestry, spatial proximity, and co-varying social norms. Kinship systems are the semantic paradigms that denote familial social relationships of kin and non-kin, and systems vary by the kinds of salient distinctions that are made (e.g. age, gender, generation) and the extent to which different kinds of kin are called by the same term. Domain-general cognitive principles have also been invoked to explain structured variation in the semantic typology of kinship: that kinship categories are optimised to be maximally distinct and as simple as possible. Here, we explore complementary explanations for an observed typology of kin terms for cousins. The first one derives the typology from a learning bottleneck, which would lead to a correlation between community size and the type of kinship system. The second one derives it from a set of social pressures, particularly marriage and transfer of resources, that might shape kinship systems. Using a global ethnographic database of over a thousand societies we show that marriage rules and shared linguistic affiliation have a significant influence on the type of kinship system found in a society. This remains true if we control for the effect of spatial proximity and cultural ancestry. By combining cognitive and historic approaches to this aspect of kinship, we suggest broader implications for the study of human social cognition in general.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-22
JournalTopics in Cognitive Science
Early online date4 Jun 2019
Publication statusPublished - 5 Jun 2019


  • social cognition
  • semantics
  • cross-cultural analysis
  • kinship
  • Kinship terminology
  • Semantics
  • Cross-cultural analysis
  • Cultural evolution
  • Social cognition


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