Kinship: Definition and Meaning

Kinship, or the biological relatedness between individuals, shapes social behaviour and interactions. Research has demonstrated that genetic relatedness can predict altruistic behaviour, emotional closeness, and other aspects of social relationships. However, the implications of kinship go beyond social interactions, as kinship can also influence physiological responses to stress and even survival rates.

What is Kinship?

Kinship is a fundamental aspect of human societies, encompassing structured and reciprocal systems of social relations between individuals. These kinship systems are interwoven with other social systems, including religious, economic, and political systems. Kinship relations involve rights and obligations, which may or may not be fulfilled, and provide a framework for individuals to interact with their kin and interpret their behaviour. The cultural meanings associated with kinship systems may also include ideologies about the roles of males and females in procreation and child-rearing.

While biological reproduction is universal, cultural ideas about reproduction and kinship relations vary across societies, contributing to the social identity of newborns and shaping forms of social organization. Kinship relations are particularly significant in pre-state societies, where they provide an essential idiom for expressing social organization in small hunter-gatherer groups or large modern industrial states.

Kinship and Stress

Stress and family have a complicated connection. Family ties can be a source of societal support and can protect people from the damaging impacts of stress, on the one hand. Close relationships with family members, such as those with a partner, parent, or relative, can offer emotional support, helpful assistance, and a sense of connection that can aid people in coping with stress. On the other hand, if there is conflict or friction within the family, family ties can also cause stress. For instance, disputes between relatives or parents and children can be highly stressful for everyone concerned.

Stressful situations trigger the release of cortisol hormone into the bloodstream, which prepares the body for action and affects mental alertness. However, prolonged exposure to cortisol can impair bodily and reproductive functioning. In a study conducted by Mark Flinn and colleagues in a Caribbean village, cortisol levels were measured through saliva samples of children. The study found that children living in nuclear families with both parents’ present had the lowest cortisol levels, while children living with a single mother had elevated cortisol levels.

Children living with other close kin had lower cortisol levels than those living with a stepfather, half-siblings, or distant relatives. This link between household composition and cortisol levels could be due to frequent stressful events, lack of reconciliation after conflicts, or impaired coping abilities. The study emphasizes the significance of close kin in creating a less stressful environment for children and highlights the levels of stress that children may face in the absence of kin.

Stress can also have an impact on how well families get along. For instance, people under much stress may be less able to support their family members emotionally and may become more distant or angry, which can cause relationships to suffer. This brings us to the distinction of what family composition can cause us a healthy, stress-free life and what can make our life more stressful. In order to measure stress, Mark Flinn and his associates measured the stress hormone 'Cortisol' levels in a group of toddlers living in a Caribbean community.

The lowest cortisol levels were found in children who lived in intact households with both parents present. Children who lived solely with a single mother had higher cortisol levels than children who shared a home with other immediate family members. Still, the latter group had reduced cortisol levels. The highest amounts of cortisol were found in kids from homes with stepfathers, half-siblings, and distant cousins.

Cortisol levels and family makeup may be related for several reasons. Children raised in challenging circumstances, such as those with stepfathers, half-siblings, or remote relations, may be regularly subjected to more stressful situations, including fights between parents, discipline by parents or stepparents, or increased conflict with half-siblings.

How to Reduce Stress among Kin Members?

Following are some of the ways to reduce stress among kin members −

  • Communication − To reduce tension in family communication, incredibly open and honest communication is crucial. Encourage everyone in the family to share their thoughts and worries and work together to find answers to any problems that might be stressing them out.

  • Time Management − Making a family plan that details each member's obligations and tasks to assist family members in managing their time and letting everyone know what is anticipated of them and when can help to lessen tension.

  • Exercise − Encourage family members to regularly participate in physical exercises, such as walking or practising sports. Exercise has been shown to reduce tension and can keep family members healthy and alert.

  • Support − Encourage family members to seek one another's assistance and that of peers, support networks, or mental health experts. People with a robust support system find dealing with tension and difficult circumstances easier.

Siblings' Study

Siblingship promotes human cooperation research investigated the connection between siblingship (the degree of biological relatedness between siblings) and cooperation in people. The researchers used a succession of economic games in which players had to decide how much money to give to themselves and another person. (Who could be either a sibling or an unrelated stranger).

According to the findings, people were more apt to work together with their relatives than with strangers. Participants were more likely to help themselves and their siblings, giving more money to their siblings than to outsiders. According to these results, brother relationships are essential for fostering confidence and collaboration and may also be an adaptive tactic for increasing family survival and procreation.

Relation between Survival and Kinship

Evolutionary scientists believe kinship is crucial to an organism's survival and reproduction. Kinship significantly impacts the chance that an individual will pass on their genes to succeeding generations, one of the main reasons it is essential for existence. Kinship relationships are more likely to transfer advantageous characteristics to their progeny because they share hereditary material. Sometimes, people will even risk their own lives to protect their relatives and guarantee the continuation of their hereditary line.

Survival and kinship can become even more evident in life-or-death circumstances. Individuals in such circumstances may be more ready to place themselves in danger to safeguard or increase the possibilities of their family living. This is because people are more likely to value the survival of their genetic relations over the survival of others who are not connected to them. For example, because a child contains a part of his mother's genetic material, she may jeopardize her own life to protect her child from an attacker or in a risky situation.

Similarly, brothers may work together to safeguard one another in hazardous circumstances or during times of dispute. Kinship can occasionally also result in altruistic behaviour, where people put their existence ahead of their relations. This can be seen when people help their family members who are ill or wounded by giving them care and support or when they give their organs or blood.

Although emotional closeness and hypothetical scenarios can influence responses to life-or-death situations, actual survival depends on various factors. Two studies have investigated the impact of having genetic relatives nearby on accurate survival rates during life-or-death situations.

One study examined the survivors of the Mayflower pioneers in Plymouth Colony, who faced food shortages and diseases during the first winter of settling America. Those with more genetic relatives in the colony were more likely to survive, while those with fewer had higher mortality rates. Similar results were observed in other life-or-death scenarios, such as the Donner Party disaster of 1846.

Moreover, studies of natural fertility populations have found that maternal relatives, such as mothers and grandmothers, significantly impact child survival rates. In rural Malawi, having older siblings of either sex was also linked to higher survival rates. These findings suggest that genetic relatives are crucial in determining survival rates during evolutionary bottlenecks when life is at stake.


The role of kinship in human societies is complex and varies across cultures and contexts. The changing nature of family structures and social norms also affects the role of kinship in contemporary society.

Nevertheless, the importance of kinship for human survival and well-being highlights the need for continued research and attention to this topic. Understanding how kinship causes stress and promotes survival can provide insights into the fundamental human need for social connection and support.

Updated on: 11-Apr-2023


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