How do symbols organise and define to construct kinship

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Kinship is a social and cultural construction and to be found within kinship is the family unit. This essay shall investigate Kinship in a western and Ndembu cultural context to investigate symbolism and how it organises and defines to construct kinship. Specifically, love, marriage and social context will be examined to illustrate this construction.


Before delving straight into the ethnography of the Ndembu and the United States of America (from here on in known as America) the definition of symbolism has to be understood. Firstly, symbols, as understood outside of the social and psychological realms, is, “something which stands for something else, or some things else, where there are no necessary or intrinsic relationship between the symbol and that which it symbolises” (Schneider 1968:1). There is a distinct relationship between symbols and culture. Symbols are culturally constructed, as culture is a system of symbolic meanings. A symbol may bear no relationship to the action or object being symbolised but is rather given meaning by the people in that cultural environment.

An example of symbolism can be found in language. Each word that we make has a symbolic meaning, yet it does not bear any intrinsic relation to the object, idea or action. Saussure (1959:65-70) uses the terms signifier and signified to describe an arbitrary nature of the sign. The signified is the concept and the signifier is the sound image (word). The word “tree” as a signifier bears little intrinsic relation to the actual tree as the signified constituent. The meaning is only clear in the cultural and psychological context in which it is to be interpreted correctly by the person in receipt of the sign.

The Latin word for tree is “Arbour” and if the reader did not know this then the signifier would have little meaning as it has no associative bond to the signified. It can be deduced that in language the relationship between the concept and the sound image is arbitrary then it is not a natural relationship we are born with. Furthermore, if words are not natural then the relationship must then be cultural, psychological and social in there construction. Then if a person does not understand the signifier that is symbolised in that language then the person will just hear a sound with no associative bond.

Symbols regulate people within a culture, informing each person what is and is not acceptable within culture. The symbol directs the person to the correct and normal procedure, as culture is the result of the symbols being adhered to. Schneider qualifies this by saying, “Among the different forms in which symbols can be cast, one consists of the definition and differentiation of persons in interaction. This is the set of rules which specify who should do what under what circumstances” (1968: 5). It is through symbols that we understand the construction of kinship. Within kinship there are sets of symbols that define and organise its construction.

Kinship Symbols in American Culture

Schneider in his ethnography of “American Kinship a Cultural Account” (1968) gives the following examples of symbolism constructing and defining kinship.

Marriage in American culture is symbolised by love. Marriage is the foundation of the family, but does not constitute the definition of a family alone. A family needs at least three constituent parts; the mother, the father and the child. The symbol or set of symbols that bonds each constituent part together is love. There are several types of love that symbolise kinship; conjugal loves that happens between the husband and wife, parental love that happens between parents and child or children, brotherly or sisterly love that occurs between siblings. Love is the symbol that connects the family unit. There are different symbols that define and construct each type of love within the family unit.

Schneider explains, “Love brings opposites together into a single unit, while it holds together those things which are moving apart-the child and its parents, or brothers and sisters growing up, finding mates of their own, and founding their own families” (1968: 49). Love then does not just symbolise the family unit but relations outside the family also in a generational sense. Brotherly love for a sister as she goes through her life stages into adulthood where she forms her own family group is not diminished. Although, the original family group will dissolve through time as the children move from the parental home love will still hold the old and the new family units together through generations. An example is that grand parents often play an active part in their sibling’s children’s lives therefore a bond is maintained.

Love itself is often condensationally symbolised through many different mediums of emotions or acts of emotive behaviour. Sexual intercourse between a husband and wife, genital to genital is a symbol of love as love is symbolic of their marriage. For example, sexual intercourse can also be called “making love” which denotes the link between symbolism and sex. “It defines conjugal love” (Schneider (1968: 50). The symbolism confines husband and wife to only have sexual intercourse with each other. Adultery is seen as deviant by society so in that the control lies and stability in marriage is found. It means that sexual intercourse and love have a symbolic relationship that is one of binding husband and wife together, as those two parties should only practise it.

Sexual intercourse also serves another purpose and that is to produce offspring. In America it is the passing of biogenetic material that is symbolic to the relationship of kinship. Biological substance is shared equally from each parent. The result is a child that should look like the parents and they are now joined through blood ties. The familiar appearance of the child through birth is symbolic in that it links the child to the parents and vice versa. This symbolism has an effect of giving the child identity to the family unit of whence it came. This is reflected in loyalty to the family unit, which is a characteristic of love.

Kinship Symbols in Ndembu Culture

In contrast, the Ndembu, in Victor Turners’ ethnographic studies of these people who come from northwestern Zambia, have different symbols to organise and define to construct kinship. Love is still a symbolic feature of the family unit in Ndembu culture although it has a different effect within the society in which occurs.

After a marriage has been consummated through sexual intercourse the bride will discreetly signal her satisfaction of the nights activities (if satisfied that is) to her ritual instructress. The instructress will then collect some cold black river mud, which is then scattered on each doorway in the village. This is a sign that the newly weds are now in love and everyone in the village must recognise this. (Turner 1967: 73-74) The contrast between the Ndembu and American culture is that love is not presupposed before the union in marriage. Love in the Ndembu culture is symbolised exclusively through sexual intercourse or rather the satisfaction of the grooms’ performance in the opinion of the bride. However, it does serve to ensure that there is a culturally significant bond between the two parties. They are now connected and it is a recognised connection as long as they are married.

Kinship in the Ndembu culture is virilocal and matrilineal. The symbolism here is in the social structure, which represents this construction of kinship. Ndembu people are highly mobile because, as Turner explains, “Men, of their own choice, and women, through marriage, divorce, widowhood, and remarriage, each of which normally entails a change in domicile, are constantly moving from one village to another, although men usual go where they have kin (1967: 3). The fact that the culture is virilocal symbolises a male dominant society. Wives follow their husbands from the village of their parents to the village of the husbands’ kin. This means that woman’s consanguineal associations are scattered. However, since the culture is matrilineal, “Through their children, women are ultimately triumphant” (Turner1968: 265). This means that women have, through time, structural dominance over the society.

This is also reflected in the consummation ritual, which was mentioned earlier. Turner explains “Before the couple can establish pleasurable free-and-easy sexual relations, the husband must undergo an ordeal in which he must prove his virility to his wife and to the women as a whole, who are here represented by the instructress” (Turner 1968: 266). It is a mans virility which is tested to insure women’s dominance. She after all needs a partner who can convince her that he is able to produce children and carry on her line. The symbolising factor here is that the man is under scrutiny by women to continue kinship descent of their line. As Turner explains:

“Male kin form the residential core of villages: in a matrilineal society such male kin must import their spouses or separate from one another: virilocal marriage prevents the formation of deep lineages and gives a high degree of cohesion and autonomy to the matricentric family which later becomes the principle unit of fission.” (1957: 233)

This is paradoxical as it is men who hold social power and women who hold power over kinship. Yet kinship is how social power is organised. Men can only have power if his wife is related to the village headman and is next in succession. This causes fission as women, of whom the matrilineal organisation is obviously dependant, are scattered so it is often left to the individual to stake his claim for power.

However, concerning kinship the consummation ritual is a symbol to cool the matrilineal and virilocal conflict that affects this culture. The dark cold black river mud used to signify love also signifies a coolness to be observed among the bride and grooms families: an end to hostilities. The blackness of the mud represents love in this context (often the colour black represents the opposite). Turner qualifies this by saying, “Here blackness plus coldness appear to represent the cessation of hostility between two intermarrying groups”(1967: 74). This has the possible effect that the matriliny will continue to live within a virilocal structure.


Symbolism is a central factor in organising and defining to construct kinship. In America it is love that symbolises kinship and sexual intercourse symbolises love and a continuation of the bloodline. In Ndembu culture love is also significant as a measure to cool the hostilities that arise around the social structure of kinship.

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