Visual Kinship

Even if we don’t see them very often in ethnographies these days, the charts connecting up circles and triangles into lines of descent and affiliation remain iconic artifacts of anthropological knowledge. They are also compelling visual representations in their own right. As part of a larger project on how sex or gender has been codified into visual symbols — such as  ♀ and ♂ — I have been looking at the history of anthropological kinship diagrams.

The development of the genealogical method of investigating kin relations is a familiar story in anthropology — featuring, famously, the role of W.H.R. Rivers and the Cambridge Torres Straits expedition and, less famously, researchers in Australia before them (Gardner 2016). Yet W.H.R. Rivers’ interview techniques and visual keys (Rivers 2010) did not actually fix one standard technique for representing kin systems. For decades, anthropologists continued to play around with a range of graphic forms to capture kin positions that transcended a particular language’s terminology.  Decisions to use one of the several available symbolic schemes often reflected a drafter’s intellectual location — their theory of kinship, their intellectual network, their nationality. The charts also reflect what Goldenweiser (1913) called the “principle of limited possibilities” — in this case, the constraints of current print technologies such as engraved plates as well as their their costs.

Scholars have begun to unpack the logics behind kinship diagrams. Mary Bouquet argues that anthropologists’ turn to genealogies harks back to the notion of the family tree in Christian theology, heraldry, and family lineages (Bouquet 1996). Efforts to schematize kin systems also borrowed from the standardizing spirit of other scientific fields, including chemistry and mathematics. A number of critics have noted that anthropology was influenced by a cultural emphasis on biological descent and on lineage, particularly patrilineage, as, for example, in Anglo-American law’s emphasis on consanguineal relations (Gardner 2016). Kinship charts, as “paper technologies,” also lend themselves to analysis in the vein of science and technology studies (Te Heessen, 2012). The range of diagrams from the 19th and early 20th centuries shows that the familiar circle-triangle format connected by specific lines did not become the standard, codified technique until the 1930s in the US in 1930s and only later in Britain. How did it become the textbook format?

I am still looking into the institutionalization of the circle-triangle chart — and welcome all leads. Without claiming yet to have the complete picture, studying the formalization of representations of kinship offers an important visual perspective onto the history of anthropological technique and thought. Kinship charts are good to think with; they are also fun to look at.

1. Native Translations

Histories of ethnography have stressed the role of the “native” in shaping anthropologists’ data and analysis. Victorian researchers grappled with both foreign languages and radically different social logics, and what Frederik Barth says of the Torres Straits expedition surely applies elsewhere: “It was the Islanders who shaped the research practices, the questions and framed the findings” (Barth, 2005:14). Their contributions were not always relayed in anthropologists’ texts, but there are some revealing cases — such as those revealed in historian Helen Gardner’s account of how the early ethnographers Lorimer Howitt and Alfred Fisson modified Lewis Henry Morgan’s kinship questionnaire in dialogue with indigenous Australians. Bernard Deacon captured informants’ assistance in his 1927 article, “The Regulation of Marriage in Ambrym”: “My informant placed three large white stones to form the apices of an equilateral triangle,” he explains; the circles in his Diagram I represent the informant’s own visual abstraction.

Figure 1  A. Bernard. Deacon, “The Regulation of Marriage in Ambrym.” 1927 p. 329.  Deacon’s Diagram I is meant to capture how an informant instructed him. He otherwise used lines and letters to represent marriage and clan relations.

2. Terminology

Kinship research often emphasizes terminology for kin positions, such as maternal uncle, and for address, such as what you call your maternal uncle. In developing the genealogical method of research, W.H.R. Rivers also developed systematic forms of visualization.  Yet other systems, such as Thomas Anthol Joyce’s emphasized the positional variations in kinship terms and the multiple roles each system implied.  Kinship names and relations were crucial tools for both fieldworkers and colonial officers; anthropologists made the knowledge of kinship, registered in diagrams and terminological list, markers of their disciplinary expertise.

Figure 2. W.H.R. Rivers, Genealogy number 7A. Rivers noted that “I am indebted for much help to Miss A. Higgens” for “the general arrangement of the genealogies” (Rivers 1908: 66). These are printed on unnumbered pages in Rivers’ entry, “Genealogies,” to Volume VI of the Reports of The Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits, 1908.

Figure 3. Thomas Anthol Joyce worked in the British Museum in the Ethnography Department, and brought a curator’s eye to this ink-heavy diagram presenting English kin terms and Ba-Huana terms of address in an article co-authored with Emil Torday, an ethnographer working in the Belgian Congo. Emil Torday and Thomas Anthol Joyce “Notes on the Ethnography of the Ba-Huana.” The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 36, 1906, pp. 272–301.

3. Algebraic Aspirations

Ethnological and sociological approaches to kinship aimed to make data systematically comparable. This meant transcending distinct kinship vocabularies to produce abstract schema — to identify, say, the general form of the Dravidian or Eskimo kinship systems. Renditions of marriage rules used letters in ways that echoed other representations for predictable processes, such as chemistry (Gardner & McConvell 2015) or mathematics. The 1880s saw a peak of efforts to put kinship diagrams on “arithmetic” footing, particularly in England. Eugenicist Francis Galton was a major champion of the algebraic approach to representing genealogies, and solicited the help of the mathematician Alexander MacFarlane to that end— while Bronislaw Malinowski acidly criticized such abstract symbolism as a bloodless technique. These early attempts at mathematical systematicity foreshadow later 20th century computational analysis of kinship; Galton’s interest in binary systems in particular anticipates computer modeling of social and genetic networks.

Figure 4. From Francis Galton “Arithmetic notation of kinship,” a brief entry in Nature in 1883. Females are assigned odd numbers, males even.

Figure 5. Wake, 1889: “thick lines represent the Noa marriage and the thin lines the Pirauru relation.”

4. Sex Symbols

Many analyses of kinship have claimed biology provides the underlying template for accurate genealogies (Rivers 1910). The addition of sex markers on these charts shows that anthropologists depended up on a European conception of binary sex as defining kin relations. To be fair, most of these kinship systems themselves relied on sex/gender to define positions or terms of address. Yet basing the abstraction of diagrams on sex went further: the anthropological inscription of sex markers across kin diagrams made sex a universal determinant of kin positions, regardless of whether the terminology itself differentiated a position by sex. These sex symbols had three variables: male (always first), female, or unknown. Although anthropologists mentioned examples of what we now call intersex or transgender people (Weston 1993), I have yet to find a visual record of a non-binary, non-cis-gender figure in these 19th to 20th century graphics.

Before the triangle and circle, the symbols for Venus ♀ and Mars ♂ had long designated the sex of organisms (Stearn 1962). These planetary glyphs appear in field notes and in print (as in Boas, Figure 6). W.H.R. Rivers’ system assigned these signs to unknown or unnamed relatives (see the ♀ for the spouse of Tamo in Figure 3). Otherwise, Rivers established a typesetting convention for sex: capital letters for the kin term for males, “smaller letters” for those of females. He also placed male terms to the left and female terms to the right (1910: 156), an enduring and arguably sexist convention (see Figure 3). Some of the algebraic-type equations used the male term as the numerator, female the denominator. C.G. Seligman’s 1910 Dance Diagram used outlined circles for women and shaded circles for men (Partridge 2014). In 1930, Radcliffe-Brown offered a notation system that had the virtue, he said, of “making it easy to express the sex of the speaker” (Radcliffe-Brown 1930: 122): this system did not take.

Figure 6. Franz Boas, “The Social Organization of The Kwakiutl,” 1920. This image comes from the reprinted article in his 1940 Race, Language and Culture.

5. Shapes

The now-familiar anthropological scheme in which triangles represent males, and circles, females, in a chart of lines showing marriage and descent (even if not all students know the rules) was actually a latecomer, supplanting a number of options that came before it, including the codified system for genetic – or eugenic – genealogies. In genealogical charts, squares represented men and circles represented women; these conventions were adopted by eugenicists, including Galton and Charles Davenport (Schott 2005: 1509-10; see Figure 7).

Figure 7.. Square and circle method in a Eugenics chart. From Davenport, Charles Benedict, and Harry Hamilton Laughlin. How to make a eugenical family study. No. 13. Eugenics Record Office, 1915: p. 8.

The British journal, Man, embraced the eugenic geometry of squares and circles as the standard for kin diagrams in 1932. But by the 1930s, a new format was emerging: the square and triangle system that soon became the standard, starting in the United States. The earliest example I have found is in Alexander Goldenweiser’s textbook, Early Civilization: An Introduction to Anthropology. Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict were among the first adapters.

Figure 8. Ruth Benedict worked with circle-triangle symbols in her notes written on pink index cards in 1930. Ruth Benedict, Handwritten Notes on Relationship Terms.  From Ruth Fulton Benedict Papers, Vassar College Libraries. Archives and Special Collections Library ([Box 91], Folder 1. Southwest Notes). Online.

Figure 9. Margaret Mead also used triangles and circles in her fieldnotes and publications before most other anthropologists and before this particular 1937 example. From “A Twi Relationship System,” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 67, 1937, p. 302.  Mead’s article appears to present the first use of the triangle-circle scheme in JRAI and possibly English anthropology journals generally.

Over the 1930s in the United States, these shapes replaced ♀ and ♂ and other signs in anthropological publications; the Royal Anthropological Institute standardized this format in its sixth edition of Notes and Queries in 1951.

Intriguingly, the use of a triangle for male kin distinguishes the anthropological genealogy from the square used in genetic pedigrees — which, at the time, were inextricable from eugenics. Was American anthropology’s triangle a deliberate departure from the eugenicists’ square?



Benedict, Ruth. Handwritten Notes on Relationship Terms. 1930. In Ruth Fulton Benedict Papers, Vassar College Libraries. Archives and Special Collections Library ([Box 91], Folder 1. Southwest Notes).

Boas, Franz. “The Social Organization of the Kwakiutl.” American Anthropologist, N.S., vol. 22 (1920), pp. 111-126. Reprinted in Race, Language and Culture. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1940.

Bouquet, Mary. “Family Trees and their Affinities: The Visual Imperative of the Genealogical Diagram.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (1996): 43-66.

Deacon, A. Bernard. “The Regulation of Marriage in Ambrym.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 57, 1927: 325–342.x

Gardner, Helen. The Genealogy of the Genealogical Method: Discoveries, Disseminations and the Historiography of British Anthropology. Oceania 86, 2016: 294–319.

Gardner, Helen, and Patrick McConvell. Southern Anthropology-a History of Fisson and Howitt’s Kamilaroi and Kurnai. UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Goldenweiser, Alexander A. “The Principle of Limited Possibilities in the Development of Culture.” The Journal of American Folklore 26.101 (1913): 259-290.

Mead, Margaret. “A Twi Relationship System.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 67 (July – Dec) 1937: 297–304.

Partridge, Tristan. “Diagrams in Anthropology: Lines and Interactions.” Life Off the Grid, 2014. Accessed 5/18/17.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. “A System of Notation for Relationships.” Man 30 (1930): 121–122.

Rivers, W.H.R. “II. Genealogies.” In Alfred C. Haddon, Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits. Vol. VI: Sociology, Magic and Religion of the Eastern Islanders. Cambridge: The University Press, 1908.

Schneider, David Murray. A Critique of the Study of Kinship. University of Michigan Press, 1984.

Schott, G. D. “Sex Symbols Ancient and Modern: Their Origins and Iconography on the Pedigree.” British Medical Journal 331 (7531) 2005: 1509–1510.

Stearn, William T. “The Origin of the Male and Female Symbols of Biology.” Taxon. 11 (4) (May 1962): 109–113.

Te Heesen, Anke. ‘The Notebook. A Paper Technology’, in Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (eds), Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005, pp. 582–9.

Wake, Charles Staniland. The Development of Marriage and Kinship. London: George Redway. 1889.

Weston, Kath. “Lesbian/Gay Studies in the House of Anthropology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 22.1 (1993): 339-367.


Ara Wilson: contributions / website /


  1. They forgot also to comment genealogies by “chain of descent” used in genetic genealogy studies. A modern example of the use of this genealogy arrangement can be seen at Figure 1 of In this article we use the Habsburg Royal dynasty as a human inbreeding laboratory. Indeed there is a problem with other type of genealogy representation when considering multiple consanguineous loops. If you try to represent the genealogy in Figure 1 (by Chain of Descent) through other methods would be very difficult to understand it and follow it.

    • Thank you for the reply and link. Genetic genealogical representations are fascinating as parallel and at times overlapping with ethnographic diagrams of family relations. The anthropological view of kinship differs from explorations of family genealogy by trying to capture abstract patterns of affiliation and descent, or in more modern terms, multiple modes of relation.

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