Representing Anthropological Knowledge: Calculating Kinship
Michael D. Fischer
Analyzing and Understanding Cultural Codes


Kinship Introduction
Learning Kinship with
the Kinship Editor
Use the Kinship Editor
Kinship Editor Results

Kinship Contents

Kinship Contents

Kinship Contents

Kinship Contents

Kinship Contents

Defining conceptual requirements

We must first define the conceptual terms to which we intend to apply a computer-based analytic procedure. A 'structural schema' is a set of objects, their properties, and the relationships between objects and properties. The conceptual terms must be determined, in whole, by scientific requirements rather than computing requirements. The structure and definition of conceptual terms are independent of whether or not a computer is to be used. It may be the case that an external schema which is adequate to represent a given conceptual schema will be difficult to implement using existing or custom purpose-designed computer applications. Using a computer may not be useful in analysing that domain. Computers are not applicable to all problems in part or whole.

Most simple-mindedly, anthropologists do anthropology, and they do it using conceptual schemes determined by disciplinary conventions. The first consequence of this is that anthropological structural schema take precedence over computer structural schema. If the fit is good, the anthropologist has an efficient and useful tool. The second consequence is that the anthropologist needs at least enough appreciation of computer structural schema to recognise problems (and felicities) in the fit of the two schema . In the domain of kinship, anthropologists have traditionally conceived a schema which can be usefully and productively represented on a computer. The applications discussed in mainly use existing schema associated with genealogical modelling in social anthropology (Barnard and Good 1984:23-26).

The structural aspects of the genealogical model are relatively uniform; we record the genealogical connections between individuals as a means of describing some aspect of social relations which has been of value in social anthropology for describing social structure. The conceptual schema influences the collection and interpretation of the structural model which results from establishing the genealogical connections.

A computer application may provide a generalised record keeping and relationship-establishing function common to all sorts of schemata. An anthropologist may simply want to establish links between individuals in a population using defined kin categories. This will influence and simplify preparation of reports, error checks and audit functions. This is a generic function of the computer, and computer support functions required are limited.

However, a computing application may include functions which are specifically related to the conceptual schema intended. If there are special interpretations or assumptions included in the anthropological investigation of the material, specific support requirements in the computer applications may be required. For example, if an applications is simply required to establish links between individuals in a population the support requirements for any particular schemata are limited. If we wish to perform an analysis of a more specialised sort, such as calculating inbreeding coefficients on a purported biological pedigree, specific support requirements are required

For this reason it is usually best to define requirements in terms of generic functions and specialised functions. All forms of genealogical analysis require the establishment of different sorts of links between individuals, so this is a generic function. Very few analytic models require that these links be defined as biological links, as is required to legitimately calculate inbreeding coefficients. However we do not necessarily require two independent applications for these two purposes. One generic application can calculate the genealogical connections and the results input to another more specialised application which assigns the specialised interpretations and operations on the proposed genealogical structure.

In terms of a genealogical study, the conceptual schema would consist of definitions of people, the kinds of links recorded and maintained and associated theoretical statements about how these interact or are defined in terms of each other. Barnard and Good present one conceptual schema based on common genealogical models This consists of primitive objects, people, a set of properties of people (sex, relative age), a primitive set of relationships between people (F, M, B, Z, S, D, H, W), a set of rules for building compound relationships (FF, MM, FB, MZ etc.) based on primitive relationships via other people. (Barnard and Good 1984:3-9)

This might appear to be a great deal of detail, but it is nothing more than any anthropologist applies to a genealogical model. However, in ordinary discourse much of this detail can be left unstated simply because it is so conventional. Computer programs will, however, require some form of this knowledge of conventions be incorporated into the program. It is important to be able to specify this detail at the conceptual level, especially if you are attempting to specify your problem to a programmer. One particularly problematic aspect of genealogy programs and computer programmers (who are not also anthropologists), is that the unsaid detail will often be inferred by the programmer since 'every one' understands genealogies and family trees and such. Their inferences, derived from their particular genealogical models, will rarely match your requirements.

Even if you intend to write the program yourself, it is a good idea to record this information. It will provide a base to which you can compare the eventual computer implementation of the schema. As with other analytic methods, there will be simplifications and compromises, and it is useful to identify explicitly where there are, since deviations from the conceptual schema impose limitations for interpretation of the results.

In specifying the conceptual schema you can use formal looking statements and diagrams, such as in Figure 6.1. This can be rather difficult and cumbersome for complex definitions, and is not strictly necessary. Many people will be more comfortable clearly writing the schema using their native language with examples of each type of definition or rule and a few simple diagrams where useful (Table 6.1). As long as the specification is clear, relatively complete and relatively unambiguous just about any form will be satisfactory and useful.

This presents an example of informal specifications for a genealogical model. This model will be customised for the group involved: in my own work, birth order, multiple marriages, and other information is significant in analysis. This information will be included in your informal specifications.

In summary, theoretical characterisation of the research problem defines conceptual schema. If scientific representation of the area under study appears to be adequately represented in the computer, we outline precisely what general and specific functions a computer can perform in the analysis of the material. If we decide that computer based analysis is possible and useful, we translate our information into a form computers can use (programs) or computer programmers can understand (detailed specifications), or look for commercially available programs.

In the next section, we will discuss more completely how this is done, and the advantages and disadvantages to each approach. (The optimistic might think that simply buying a software package is easy. It's not.)

Informal specification of conceptual schema for genealogical model

  1. The object of the schema is to model people and relationships between people. People will be represented by a set of properties, specifically, each person is an individual entity with properties of gender, age, and generation.
  2. Relations between people are of two sorts;
    1. Basic relationships.
      1. Basic relationships correspond to Parent, Child, Sibling and Spouse, and where necessary the gender marked relationships which correspond to the categories Father, Mother, Son, Daughter, Brother, Sister, Husband and Wife, relative to a given individual denoted as Ego. These relationship are defined in terms of indigenous social judgements.
      2. Each relationship has a reciprocal relationship; e.g. if an individual has a relationship Father relative to an Ego, Ego has the reciprocal relationship Son or Daughter to that individual. This reciprocal relationship is different in the case of Parent-Child, the same in the case of Sibling-Sibling or Spouse-Spouse, in the more gender-marked forms different if the genders are different, and in the case of Siblings may be different if relative age is different (and significant).
    2. Compound relationships.
      1. Compound relationships are established between people by at least one common intermediate relationship, which itself may be compound. Compound relationships are sequences of basic relationships which relate one person to the other. There may be more than one compound relationship between any two individuals.
      2. Reciprocals for compound relationships are the sequence of reciprocal relationships between the same people.

Next section: Specification