Kinship: It’s All Relative

By:  Carolyn L. Barkley

As a young child, I was often confused about my relatives. My grandmother (my mother’s mother) died long before I was born; my great-grandmother lived with my grandfather. Because I called her “Grandma” (and they both seemed very old in my young mind), I was startled one day to discover that they were actually mother and son. Then there were Uncle Oliver and Aunt Minnie, who turned out not to be relatives at all, but instead were close friends of my grandfather. Finally, there are my (real, not honorary) Uncle Bob’s children, who, although they are of my own generation, are the age of my son. Thank heavens I have a very small family, otherwise who knows what other puzzles might have presented themselves!

These personal examples always come to mind when I am presenting beginning genealogy lectures. Someone always asks, for example, about first versus second cousins, or the meaning of the term “removed.” For the life of me, I have consistently had difficulty explaining relationship charts and have searched for a way to clarify the topic. Jackie Smith Arnold’s Kinship: It’s All Relative, newly available in an enlarged second edition (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2012), provides the answers.

The Free Dictionary defines kinship as “1. Connection by blood, marriage, or adoption; family relationship; 2. Relationship by nature or character; affinity.”1 Echoing this definition, Arnold writes that each of us has three families and each of us will have a specific role in one or more of these family types at any given time in our lives.

  • Family of Orientation: “…the family of our parents and their relatives.”2 We have no choice in the individuals who are in this type of family (as anyone with an eccentric family member knows only too well). A family of orientation includes our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc., as well as uncles, aunts, and cousins.
  • Family of Procreation: the family we create when we marry. We exercise choice (even when it’s a poor choice) in the members of this type of family and by doing so form what will be the family of orientation for our descendants. A family of procreation includes ourselves, our spouses, and all of our descendants.
  • Family of Affinity: “The family of your spouse is your family of affinity, and the members are your in-laws.”3 Again, we have no choice (other than choosing our spouse) as to members of this type of family, but our connection may cease due to divorce or by death.

Arnold’s book provides details about a variety of topics which affect our understanding of kinship: marriage, family law, name conventions, and wills, as well as genealogical and family history research. For example, the chapter on marriage discusses marriage and the law, common-law marriages, premarital agreements, and divorce. A chart delineates the legal marriage age by state (with and without parental consent) and lists relatives who cannot marry one another; another chart provides information on which states recognize common-law marriages. It is obvious from only a quick glance that no single law applies across all states. In Connecticut, for example, both males and females must be 18 years of age to marry without parental consent (16 with consent), and the only relation an individual cannot marry is a first cousin. In Alabama, however, 14-year-olds can be married with parental consent, while the list of relations an individual may not marry includes stepparents, stepchildren, sons-in-law, and daughters-in-law. The prohibition list in the District of Columbia is even longer including step-grandparents, fathers-in-law, mothers-in-law, a grandchild’s spouse, a spouse’s grandparent or grandchild (but first cousins are apparently okay). Really? How many people actually marry their spouse’s grandparent (assuming, of course the previous death or divorce of said spouse)? I don’t want to draw that pedigree chart! Similarly, common-law marriages are allowed in some states, but not in others. It is clearly important to be aware of the law as it affects degrees of relationship.

Grasping “degree of relationship” is also vexing. Luckily, Arnold provides not only a consanguinity chart, but also provides informative explanations concerning uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, greats and grands, and cousins, with diagrams to illustrate the several relationships. This section discusses two different types of generations. The first is a kinship generation which explains my first-cousin relationship with my Uncle Bob’s children. Our parents were siblings and thus we share a common grandparent. However, his children are in my son’s social generation (people of similar ages). Here is Arnold’s relationship clarification:

Cousins share a common grandparent, with the degree of cousin-ship dependent on how the grandparent is shared.

  • Siblings share a parent.
  • First cousins share a grandparent.
  • Second cousins share a great-grandparent.
  • Third cousins share a great-great-grandparent.
  • Fourth cousins share a great-great-great-grandparent.
  • Fifth cousins share a great-great-great-great-grandparent.4

But wait, what about the “removes?” First cousins are in the same kinship generation (share a grandparent). When first cousins (let’s call them A and B) have children (let’s call A’s child C and B ‘s child D), then child D is cousin A’s first cousin once removed, or as Arnold writes “My first cousin’s child is one kinship generation removed from our original first cousin relationship.”5 Thus my son is a first cousin once-removed of my Uncle Bob’s son. My son is one kinship generation away from the original first cousin relationship. Aha! I think I’m finally getting it…

Other chapters in Kinship: It’s All Relative treat family health history–not only with regard to hereditary diseases, but also to modern issues surrounding artificial insemination–in vitro fertilization and surrogacy. Kinship issues will continue to be important in the future as new social, legal, religious and ethical issues are considered. This edition’s new chapter on same-sex marriage discusses its effects on modern society and on our definitions of kinship, and provides a chart outlining its legal status state-by-state.

Arnold’s book is well worth reading in its entirety as it provides a number of insights that might change the way you view the concept of kinship. It provides historical, sociological, and legal information that will clarify many kinship questions that arise in the course of research. Taken as a whole, it suggests that it may not be appropriate to continue viewing genealogy as solely lineage-based. Many modern issues including not only same-sex marriage, but also adoption, domestic partnerships, civil unions, single parenting, differing methods of conception, and DNA (particularly autosomal DNA) research will have an impact on our understanding of who we are related to and how.


1 The Free Dictionary ( : accessed 28 August 2012).

2 Jackie Smith Arnold, Kinship: It’s All Relative (Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2012), 31.

3 Arnold, Kinship, 46.

4 Arnold, Kinship, 38.

5 Arnold, Kinship, 39.

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