Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Manipulative Use of Kin Terminology

  • Anna RotkirchEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_1511-1


Muslim Brotherhood Strong Social Bonding Everyday Social Life Biological Family Member Cooperative Breeding System 
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Humans use language to recognise kin, and this ability can be extended to fictive kin such as close friends and ideological allies. Our closest genetic family ties, denoting one-half degree of genetic relatedness (“sister”, “brother”, “father”, “mother”, “child”), are typically used to signal strong social bonding and manipulate group identity. More distant terminology, denoting one-fourth to one-eigth degree of relatedness such as “cousin”, “aunt” and “grandparent”, appears to be less frequently used. Cross-generational terms denote respect and dominance, while within-generational terms signal solidarity and closeness. The use of fictive linguistic kin terms is a major strategy in the institutional manipulation of individuals.


Our first strong attachments are typically formed to parents and siblings. The connotations of these terms have made their metaphorical use common throughout cultures. The aim is to evoke the positive emotions characteristic of close family ties and induce kin-specific behaviour, such as altruism and loyalty, among individuals who are distantly or not at all related to each other. The manipulative use of kin terminology can concern different social situations, ranging from dyadic bonds to kin lineages, group identity, organisations and mass ideologies.

Language is central for human kin recognition beyond the nuclear family. Linguistic kin recognition can itself be used manipulatively, so that kin membership is expanded or contracted depending on social alliances and individual interest. Such use has been depicted in traditional societies: for instance, an ally can be assigned or deprived of the status of “cousin” (Qirko 2011). In societies where spouses are selected among relatives, individuals may stretch kin assignment in order to allow themselves a greater choice of mates (Chagnon 1988).

Affinal kin, present when kin lineages are joined through marriage, assign each other specific terms, such as “mother/daughter-in-law” (Hughes 1988). This linguistic and emotional capacity to “make kin” through marriage of previously distantly or unrelated individuals appears to be a human universal. If so, it can be assumed to have evolved together with the human cooperative breeding system and language use. In socially complex societies, the ability to “make kin” can further be employed to create kin-like bonds between friends and allies. This allows also for political manipulation, such as referring to neighbouring countries as “brothers”.

It is useful to distinguish between manipulative use of kin terms in dyadic bonds and in large social groups.

Manipulation of Dyadic Bonds

Between two individuals, referring to non-kin as a father, mother, sister, brother or cousin serves to enhance a social relation. The kin metaphor strengthens the mutual relationship as well as signals its significance to others, manipulating social behaviour towards both parties of the dyad. “Like a sister” or “my brother” denotes loyalty, similarity, trust, and long-term willingness to provide help and support, while “a cousin” – more rarely used in contemporary societies – can denote alliances and cooperation. Cross-generational terms such as “father” or “mother” signify reverence or apprenticeship, and “my daughter”, “son” or “child” a protective and nurturing relationship that may resemble adoption or fostering. (Qirko 2011.)

With the exception of “child”, which can be used for a young lover, the usage of fictive kin terms is usually reserved for non-sexual relations. The grandparental tie is not commonly invoked to describe or manipulate feelings towards non-kin in dyads.

Kin terminology is also employed to signal respect and benevolence. In hierarchical cultures, generic greetings may involve kin terms to denote age and gender hierarchies.

Manipulation of Ideological Communities

Once large and complex social institutions appeared, humans faced the novel problem of enabling co-operation and altruism in groups of several hundred or thousand members and between individuals who may not even have met each other. In this context, kin terminology can enhance group loyalty by tapping into evolved dispositions for kin altruism and fairness (Johnson 1986). People do not actually start believing that they are related to such metaphorical kin. Instead, kin terms are intended to evoke an emotional response that will trigger more altruism and solidarity towards the individual’s own group (Salmon 1998) or more hostility towards the outgroup (Abou-Abdallah et al. 2016). Indeed, as van den Berghe noted (1981, p. 60), large-scale group inequality is “almost invariably bolstered by an ideology that disguises the parasitism of the ruling class as either kin selection or reciprocity”.

Institutions that require costly sacrifice from its members – for instance, putting one’s life at risk or foregoing reproduction – can be expected to encourage close association, similar physical outlooks, and the use of symbolic kin terminology among its members (Qirko 2013). This is why, for instance, armed groups or ethnic subcultures tend to dress the same way, speak the same way, and refer to each other as “brothers” or “sisters” of the same “family”. Such manipulation can also include measures intended to weaken or destroy bonds to biological family members. For instance, monasteries and the early universities required members to remain unmarried and never have children, and religious sects may encourage members to refrain from contact with their parents and siblings.

Political and religious movements demanding less costly adherence also employ kin metaphors manipulatively. Notions of brotherhood and sisterhood are commonly applied within ideological movements, from the “Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood” slogan of the French revolution to the “Muslim Brotherhood” political movement in the contemporary Arab world. Gods are often provided with paternal or maternal features, as are leaders in authoritarian states. Ideological communities may structurally mimic the nuclear family: the rulers are “parents”, followers are their “children” and “sisters” or “brothers” to each other. The term “spouse” is also metaphorically used within some religious communities, e.g. the “brides of Christ” –perhaps tapping into the psychological similarity of religious and romantic ecstasy (Dunbar 2010).

Monotheistic religions and nationalistic movements have prominently used kin metaphors. It has therefore been suggested that they function as “kinship surrogates” in large populations. These ideologies appear to trigger feelings of belongingness similar to those that would have been induced by kinship in traditional, small-scale societies. However, it may be that the use of kin metaphors on a political level has become less efficient in a multi-racial, multi-national world (MacIntyre 2004), at least among liberal political movements.

Theoretical research on the manipulative use of kin terminology was first developed in the early stages of sociobiology (e.g., van den Berghe 1981). Empirical studies have since been able to demonstrate associations between patriotism and usage of kin metaphors in the United States (Holper 1996). The effects of kin metaphors on the user have been found to vary with political adherence (Garst and Bodenhausen 1996) and with birth order, so that middle-borns were less likely to be affected than were first and last borns (Salmon 1998). With data from Lebanon and Australia, another study found that metaphors of “brotherhood” boosted the hostility towards out-group members (Abou-Abdallah et al. 2016). However, there is a scarcity of empirical studies concerning the mechanisms and effects of the uses of kin terminology in different societies.


Kin terms can be stretch and assigned as a way of manipulating social relations. In everyday social life, linguistic kin recognition can affect which individuals are treated as if they were genetically related. In complex and hierarchical societies, manipulative and metaphorical use of kin terminology is also common. Institutions and social movements may use kin terminology in order to evoke altruistic behavior and a sense of obligation. Such metaphorical use typically refers to the parent-child bond or to brotherhood and sisterhood. In extreme cases, authoritarian groups manipulatively use kinship terms in combination with a dismissal of biological family ties.



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© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Population Research InstituteVäestöliitto – Finnish Family FederationHelsinkiFinland

Section editors and affiliations

  • Minna Lyons
    • 1
  1. 1.University of LiverpoolLiverpoolUK