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Australian Aboriginal Kinship

Laurent Dousset


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Absolute terms

Terms and relationships that do not depend on the speaker and that work like names. Absolute names are in use in moieties or sections where each moiety or section has its specific and invariable name (also see Relative terms).


Kinship relationships that come into being when marriage is envis-aged or has occurred. Affinal relationships and terms include all inlaws. Affinal terms and consanguinal terms together constitute the entire terminological system.

Alliance (of marriage)

The reproduction over time and generations of identical marriages; that is, for example, brothers exchanging their sisters and their sons again exchanging their sisters etc. Alliance of marriage or marriage alliance occurs in theory in Dravidian systems. In practice, repetitions of identical marriages only rarely occur and what is called ‘shifting webs’, that is the diversification of marriages, is much more frequent.


The name of the Western Desert kinship system as given by Elkin (1931). Aluridja really is an Aranda (Arrernte) word stemming from luritja, which means ‘foreigners’. The word Aluridja is not used by Western Desert people themselves.


A kind of unilineal system (see below) in which the individual can choose which side (that of the mother or the father) he or she wants to belong to. Once the choice has been made (either by the persons themselves or imposed by others), it cannot be changed.


A particularity of kinship terminologies that denotes the differentiation between maternal and paternal relatives and which takes gender difference into account.

Bifurcate merging

One of the particularities of Dravidian terminologies (see bifurcation). Bifurcate merging creates the distinction between crosscousins and parallel cousins (see cross and parallel cousins). A mother’s brother is distinguished from the father and from the father’s brother, and a father’s sister is distinguished from the mother and mother’s sister. A mother’s brother and a father’s sister are spouses and their offspring are affines.


A group of people, or a number of lineages, whose members claim to be descendants of a distant ancestor, who is usually mythical (also see lineage).

Classificatory (terms)

Kinship labels that can be used for a whole category of persons (see descriptive). The English word cousin is a classificatory term since it covers all mother’s and father’s siblings’ children, irrespective of whether they are male or female or of whether they are on ones father’s or mother’s side. Most systems have both classificatory and descriptive terms.

Cognatic descent

In cognatic descent, people consider they are descended from both their mother’s and their father’s side (also see mixed descent).

Complementary filiation

In unilineal systems, people inherit one major characteristic from either their mother’s or their father’s side, but may inherit complementary elements from the other side. For example, among the North African Touareg belonging to lineages as well as the house or tent is inherited through the female’s line, but the animal herd is inherited from the father.

Complex exchange

A marriage system in which there are no prescriptive marriage rules (see prescriptive rule). This is the marriage system at work in Euro-American societies. In these societies, it is not the kinship system itself that determines potential partners but rather other characteristics such as belonging to the same social class.


The kinship relationships that exist for a person before marriage (see affinal). In English, mother, father, brother etc. are consanguinal terms while wife, brother-in-law, mother-in-law etc. are affinal terms.


Ones father’s sister’s children and ones mother’s brother’s children. Cross-cousins are relevant in systems with bifurcate merging, such as in Dravidian systems. In the later systems, cross-cousins are potential spouses. Cross-cousins are distinguished from parallel cousins.

Cultural bloc

A group of ‘tribes’, linguistic groups or societies that share a common cultural background.


Occurs when a person demands something from another on the basis of their kinship link and the obligations and responsibilities that this relationship entails.


The systemisation of certain principles of filiation (see filiation).

Descent group

A group of people who consider themselves to be identical in some respects because they are descendants from one real or mythical individual (also see lineage and clan).

Descriptive (terms)

Kinship words that can be used for one particular person only (opposite of classificatory). The English word brother is a descriptive term since it covers only one class of persons: the male descendants of your mother and father.

Direct exchange

Two men or women marrying each other’s sisters or brothers. This exchange is linked to Dravidian-type terminologies and is reproduced over time, resulting in an alliance of marriage.

Domestic group

An economic unit. The smallest unit of people that produce and consume material goods in common.

Double descent

In double descent systems, people inherit their belonging or substances from both the mother’s and the father’s side, but they do not inherit the same things from each.

Dreaming / Dreamtime

See Tjukurrpa.


A term or relationship that indicates an individual’s point of view (see Sociocentric).

Egological (context)

A situation in which personal interrelationships determine which terminology or behaviour to adopt (see the sociological context).


The obligation to marry or practice of marrying within one’s family, group or tribe. While endogamy is the opposite of exogamy, both are usually combined in some way. For example, you may have a rule of genealogical exogamy, forcing people to marry outside their close family, combined with a rule of tribal endogamy, where you are nevertheless supposed to marry someone within the range of the tribal group.


A worldview, heavily biased by the personal history and background of those who express it, that judges other societies or peoples negatively in comparison with ones own. It reflects an incapacity to accept and understand difference and otherness on their own terms.


The obligation to marry or practice of marrying outside ones family, group or tribe. Exogamy can be genealogical (marrying outside ones family or group) or geographical (marrying outside ones residential area, land of affiliation etc.). Exogamy is the opposite of endogamy and is a result of the incest prohibition.

Extension of range

The range of people towards whom kinship terms can or must be applied, which in some classificatory systems can be extended indefinitely.


The particular relationship between children and parents who may share particular substances, rights or duties.

First cross-cousins

This is a synonym for cross-cousins but is distinguished from second cross-cousins.

Functionalist approach

This theoretical approach understands a society as comprising interdependent parts that contribute to the working of the society as a whole. The society can be understood metaphorically as a body and its institutions as the body’s organs.


In popular terms, a ‘family tree’. It is a chart that reconstructs an individual’s total known kin relationships to ancestors, contemporaries and descendants.

Group marriage

A marriage between a group of brothers and a group of sisters. This mistaken notion was used by evolutionists to imply that in ‘primitive’ societies mating was indiscriminate among groups of people, thus children would not know who their biological parents were. No such society exists.


A residential unit. People who live together in the same abode or camp.


A mode of human adaptation typically identified by nomadism, the absence of agriculture and domesticated animals, low demographic densities and an egalitarian political system. Australia is the only continent that was entirely occupied by hunter-gatherer societies. On other continents, hunter-gatherers coexist alongside horticulturalists (societies that predominantly grow crops) and pastoralists (societies that extensively live from herding), with whom they often entertained commercial relations.

Indirect exchange

A complex version of direct exchange (see direct exchange) where at least three groups need to exchange women or men for marriage. This system is found in Crow-Omaha terminologies.


A complex version of direct exchange (see direct exchange) where at least three groups need to exchange women or men for marriage. This system is found in Crow-Omaha terminologies.


In this process of socialisation, the individual comes to regard what has been inculcated as normal and natural.


The union of two individuals, which brings together two families or groups. Marriage is always subject to rules and has to be distinguished from sexuality (also see Prescriptive and Proscriptive rules)


Those relatives or principles that are on ones mother’s side.

Mixed descent

A descent group (also see descent group, the opposite is ‘unilineal’) that draws its origins from both the mother’s and the father’s side.


A kind of marriage involving one woman or man and her or his spouse. A monogamous family comprises a man, a woman and their children (also see Polygamy, Polygyny and Polyandry).


In Western Desert languages, Mularrpa is the ‘here and now’ and is contrasted to the Tjukurrpa (Dreamtime). Actual people life in the Mularrpa, but are linked to concepts and realities that were created during the Dreamtime (also see Tjukurrpa).

Multiple connectedness

In order to be meaningful in anthropological terms, every kin category or every person in a genealogy needs to be linked to at least two other persons.

Nature-nurture debate

A long-running argument over how to explain human behaviour, customs, etc. Are they caused by genetics, ‘instinct’, etc. or by being raised in a society? In other words, how much in a human being’s behaviour, thinking and practice is culturally determined and how much is biologically determined? The two influences are so inextricably linked that attempts to separate them out and apply some kind of quotient would be impossible and pointless.

Nuclear family

A father (or husband) and mother (or wife) and their children

Parallel cousins

Ones father’s brother’s children and ones mother’s sister’s children.


Relatives on ones father’s side, and principles relating to descent in which males are the central point of reference.


Having several simultaneous spouses.


A form of polygamy. A woman who is married to more than one husband at the same time.


A form of polygamy. A man who has more than one wife simultaneously.

Prescriptive rule

The obligation to marry certain categories of persons (see Proscriptive rule).

Prohibition of incest

A fundamental rule, not identical in every society, but every society possesses one. This rules prohibits sexual relationships and marriage between particular persons. In Euro-American as well as in Aboriginal Australian societies, marriage between a son and his mother is prohibited because considered incestuous.

Proscriptive rule

The interdiction to marry a certain category of persons (see Prescriptive rule).


The feeling and practice of having or establishing connections with other people through various means; it produces relationships similar to kinship.

Relational triangle

A method used by Aboriginal people to calculate their relationships

Relative terms

A term or name that depends and varies on the speaker. Examples are relative generational moiety names: moiety A calls itself X and calls the other moiety Y, and moiety B calls itself X and the other moiety Y (also see Absolute terms).

Rule of economy

In many domains, in particular language, this rule reflects the fact that social processes and structures tend to strive towards the elimination of redundancy.

Second cross-cousin

A type of cross-cousin relationship in which Ego and his/her crosscousin are two generations removed; e.g., a MMBDD is a second cross-cousin.

Self-reciprocal (terms)

Terms of address or reference between two persons who are structurally identical (e.g. ‘cousin’ in English).


A particularity of Omaha and Crow systems of kinship reckoning. Persons from different generational levels are conflated (skewed) into one category only.

Social category

A way of classifying people in some form or another into distinct groups. The expression is usually applied to Australian Aboriginal sections, subsections, moieties and generational moieties. Each of these category systems divides society into an even number of complementary classes based on kinship relationships.


The process of learning cultural symbols and ways of thinking and behaving.


A term or relationship seen from a social or sociological point of view (see Egocentric).

Sociological (context)

A situation in which the relationship between general social categories determines the terminology and behaviour to adopt (see egological context).


According to this approach or ‘school’ of anthropology, social meaning and structure are organised around binary but interconnected oppositions in such a way that if you change one element of social structure, it will also change the other corresponding elements.

Terminology (kinship)

A set of words used to address or refer to people with whom one is related through a biological idiom.

Terms of address

Words that people use when directly addressing other kin (e.g., ‘dad’) (see Terms of reference).

Terms of reference

Words that people use to refer to kin (e.g., ‘father’) (see Terms of address)


This is the indigenous word for the Dreamtime or Dreaming in Western Desert dialects. This concept includes the mythical journeys of the Dreamtime beings, the laws and rules that were created by these beings as well as the sacred sites linked to these myths. Often translated in English as ‘the Law’, Tjukurrpa also includes every action or belief that is somehow related or justified by the Dreamtime and thus has a sacred and often secret character (also see Murlarrpa).


The concept of the tribe has been much debated in anthropology, and there are probably as many definitions as there are anthropologists. Generally speaking, a tribe is understood as a group of people who occupy a specified stretch of land, who predominantly marry amongst themselves, who speak a particular language or dialect, who recognise themselves as a political unit, and who express a feeling of shared belonging and ways of doing and of thinking.


A descent principle or group (see descent group) in which descent is in one line only, through the mother or the father. Also see matrilineal and patrilineal.

© pacific-credo Publications, 2011

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