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Fictive kinship is a term used by anthropologists and ethnographers to describe forms of kinship or social ties that are based on neither consanguinal (blood ties) nor affinal ("by marriage") ties, in contrast to true kinship ties. To the extent that consanguinal and affinal kinship ties might be considered real or true kinship, the term fictive kinship has in the past been used to refer to those kinship ties that are fictive, in the sense of not-real. Invoking the concept as a cross-culturally valid anthropological category therefore rests on the presumption that the inverse category of "(true) kinship" built around consanguinity and affinity is similarly cross-culturally valid. Use of the term was common until the mid-to-late twentieth century, when anthropology effectively deconstructed and revised many of the concepts and categories around the study of kinship and social ties. In particular, anthropologists established that a consanguinity basis for kinship ties is not universal across cultures, and that—on the contrary—it may be a culturally specific symbol of kinship only in particular cultures (see the articles on kinship and David M. Schneider for more information on the history of kinship studies).
Stemming from anthropology's early connections to legal studies, the term fictive kinship may also be used in a legalistic sense, and this use continues in societies where these categories and definitions regarding kinship and social ties have legal currency; e.g. in matters of inheritance.
As part of the deconstruction of kinship mentioned above, anthropologists now recognize that—cross-culturally—the kinds of social ties and relationships formerly treated under the category of "kinship" are very often not necessarily predicated on blood ties or marriage ties, and may rather be based on shared residence, shared economic ties, nurture kinship, or familiarity via other forms of interaction.
Types of relations often described by anthropologists as fictive kinship include compadrazgo relations, foster care, common membership in a unilineal descent group, and legal adoption. A noted Gurung tradition is the institution of "Rodi", where teenagers form fictive kinship bonds and become Rodi members to socialize, perform communal tasks, and find marriage partners. In Western culture, a person may refer to close friends of one's parents as "aunt" or "uncle" (and their children as "cousin"), or may refer to close friends as "brother" or "sister". In particular, college fraternities and sororities in some North American cultures usually use "brother" and "sister" to refer to members of the organization. Monastic, Masonic, and Lodge organisations also use the term "Brother" for members. "Nursing Sister" is used to denote a rank of nurse, and the term "Sisterhood" may be used for feminists. Fictive kinship was discussed by Jenny White in her work on female migrant workers in Istanbul. In her work, she draws on ideas of production and the women she works with being drawn together through "webs of indebtedness" through which the women refer to each other as kin.
Recently, many anthropologists have abandoned a distinction between "real" and "fictive" kin, because many cultures do not base their notion of kinship on genealogical relations. This was argued most forcefully by David M. Schneider, in his 1984 book A critique of the study of kinship. In response to this insight, Janet Carsten developed the idea of "relatedness". She developed her initial ideas from studies with the Malays in looking at what was socialized and biological. Here she uses the idea of relatedness to move away from a pre-constructed analytics opposition which exists in anthropological thought between the biological and the social. Carsten argued that relatedness should be described in terms of indigenous statements and practices, some of which fall outside what anthropologists have conventionally understood as kinship.
In the biological and animal behavioural sciences, the term "kinship" has a different meaning from the current anthropological usage of the term, and more in common with the former anthropological usage that assumed that blood ties are ontologically prior to social ties. In these sciences, "kinship" is commonly used as a shorthand for "the regression coefficient of (genetic) relatedness", which is a metric denoting the proportion of shared genetic material between any two individuals relative to average degrees of genetic variance in the population under study. This coefficient of relationship is an important component of the theory of inclusive fitness, a treatment of the evolutionary selective pressures on the emergence of certain forms of social behavior. Confusingly, inclusive fitness theory is more popularly known through its narrower form, kin selection theory, whose name clearly resonates with former conceptions of "kinship" in anthropology.
Whilst inclusive fitness theory thus describes one of the necessary conditions for the evolutionary emergence of social behaviors, the details of the proximate conditions mediating the expression of social bonding and cooperation have been less investigated in sociobiology. In particular, the question of whether genetic relatedness (or "blood ties") must necessarily be present for social bonding and cooperation to be expressed has been the source of much confusion, partly due to thought experiments in W. D. Hamilton's early theoretical treatments. In addition to setting out the details of the evolutionary selection pressure, Hamilton roughly outlined two possible mechanisms by which the expression of social behaviors might be mediated:
The selective advantage which makes behaviour conditional in the right sense on the discrimination of factors which correlate with the relationship of the individual concerned is therefore obvious. It may be, for instance, that in respect of a certain social action performed towards neighbours indiscriminately, an individual is only just breaking even in terms of inclusive fitness. If he could learn to recognise those of his neighbours who really were close relatives and could devote his beneficial actions to them alone an advantage to inclusive fitness would at once appear. Thus a mutation causing such discriminatory behaviour itself benefits inclusive fitness and would be selected. In fact, the individual may not need to perform any discrimination so sophisticated as we suggest here; a difference in the generosity of his behaviour according to whether the situations evoking it were encountered near to, or far from, his own home might occasion an advantage of a similar kind.
Traditional sociobiology did not consider the divergent consequences between these basic possibilities for the expression of social behavior, and instead assumed that the expression operates in the "recognition" manner, whereby individuals are behaviorally primed to discriminate which others are their "true" genetic relatives, and engage in cooperative behavior with them. But when expression has evolved to be primarily location-based or context-based—depending on a society's particular demographics and history—social ties and cooperation may or may not coincide with "blood ties". Reviews of the mammal, primate, and human evidence demonstrate that expression of social behaviors in these species are primarily location-based and context-based (see nurture kinship), and examples of what used to be labeled as "fictive kinship" are readily understood in this perspective.