The bilateral kindred in contemporary suburban America

I just finished teaching descent and alliance in my intro class using My Usual Tricks and thought I’d share the standard bilateral kindred that I use to elicit Eskimo-style kinship terms from my students. This year was particularly great because I started with male ego ‘Bart’ and asked ‘what is the name of the woman who bore him?’ when someone in the class wondered aloud if there was a reason a woman couldn’t be ego in our diagram — so our exercise in constructing the only bilateral kindred that everyone in my class knows started with Lisa instead. Here’s the finished diagram, which includes semi-canonical relatives as well.

Simpsons kinship diagram

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

18 thoughts on “The bilateral kindred in contemporary suburban America

  1. “What about Bart’s evil conjoined twin?”

    Since it was from a Halloween episode it does not count towards the main continuity of the show. Man, I am such a geek.

  2. I was forced by various exigencies to take a class that provided the “foundations: global and multicultural” requirement (since my many courses in linguistics and anthropology obviously don’t count). Now I wish I could have done it via your class instead…

    The Simpsons is a great choice because there’s so much family elaborated over the many seasons. You could try it with a few other pop-culture characters, but you’d have a hard time getting beyond the nuclear family for most of them.

  3. I thought about doing the twin, actually, so that I could teach the ‘twin’ line on kinship diagrams, but then I realized that I wasn’t sure that cojoined counted… also since I start w/Bart and elicit the rest of the kindred by moving outward, I didn’t want to confuse matters…. maybe next year tho!

  4. Conjoining should count as twinning in most cases, I think. You might need to adjust this on a per-culture basis, but I think that most cultures have only rarely experienced conjoining since most die while very young. If conjoined twins reach adulthood, it’s likely that others will recognize them as two people since each may have quite different personalities.

  5. Rex, I was just thinking about this more and I was wondering how you get around the problem of people who are unaware of the Simpsons. When I was a teaching assistant, there were some times when I tried to use pop culture references in class or pop culture based activities and students often times had not seen the show or movie I was referencing. The most egregious example was a discussion section in which at least half the students had never seen Star Wars and these students did not seem to know anything about the movies. I know that most of us would assume that students would have some basic knowledge about the Simpsons, but after my Star Wars experience, I do not think we as educators can necessarily take this for granted.

  6. In regards to students not knowing the Simpsons. Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and hope the students’ enthusiasm sustains the momentum.

    I must be old, I can remember doing the Brady Bunch. I do have enough sense to have stopped that one.

  7. @ Grad School Guy

    First, EVERYONE knows the Simpsons, as far as I can tell, even in Hawai’is incredibly diverse classrooms. Brady Bunch and Star Wars, frankly, just date you. Maybe in a few years I’ll have to move on to the genealogy of High School Musical CVXVIII or something but there you go.

    There IS a wider challenge, which is drawing on material from our common knowledge only to realize how little knowledge we have in common. When this occurs I try to turn it into an exercise in ethnography and getting students to learn how to describe things they take for granted to someone who needs the description. This often happens when we begin discussing Christian religious rituals in my classes, where a lot of people are Buddhist: “Wait a second — I thought Jesus was the shepherd… and now he’s the sheep? With the blood?”

  8. Just yesterday I used the Flintstones as an example for explaining gendered divisions of labor and the “second shift.” This to a class full of 19 year-olds from various West African countries (most francophone). Everyone got it immediately. I was kind of surprised, mostly because the students are so young…
    We even got into a nice discussion about the rivalry between the Flintstones and the Rubbles…

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