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 is one of the more important, pervasive and complex systems of culture. All human groups have a kinship terminology, a set of terms used to refer to kin. Many parts of life in all societies are impacted by kinship, and in most societies kinship relations influence things like who one can and can not marry, who one must show respect to, who one can joke with, and who one can count on in a crisis.

The study of kinship is the greatest common denominator across the different fractions of social anthropology. Anthropologists, when analyzing their work (or that of others) relating to kinship, will begin their analysis with a set of models, ideas and representations which, if not agreed upon, are at least familiar. Kinship has the advantage that 'it appears to be the one area of anthropological discourse where the ground rules are clearly laid down...' (Barnard and Good 1984:2).

Despite recent theoretical trends away from kinship as a central focus in the discipline, in dealing with actual case studies kinship cannot be avoided as an important nexus of structuration and construction in human affairs, even within so-called complex societies such as our own. The lack of attention to kinship as a theoretical object by some anthropologists is more due to lack of development within anthropology than a diminishment of the role of kinship - the relationships became too complex to study using conventional pen-and-paper tools.

This unit introduces how we can use computers to address some of the issues that emerge from the complexity of kinship-related information and anthropological ideas about these. We will cover two basic issues, a) how to specify ideas systematically, and b) how to implement these on a computer. The examples are mostly drawn reflexively from my kinship relationships, and the terminology is mainly a variant of English Kinship Terminology (EKT). The process of specification and implementation can be applied to other kinship terminologies and other areas of anthropology.

Examples of implementation are mainly presented in the computer programming language Prolog (PROgramming in LOGic). Prolog is good for symbolic (and largely non-quantitative) domains. Prolog has a simple structure, is easy to learn, and easy to implement. It is widespread and easy to get (you will find references to where in Resources). Some of the examples are presented in interactive form in the pages that follow... you can try the examples out.