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Cultural Evolution of Kinship Diversity: Variation in Language, Cognition, and Social Norms Regarding Family

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - VARIKIN (Cultural Evolution of Kinship Diversity: Variation in Language, Cognition, and Social Norms Regarding Family)

Reporting period: 2018-07-01 to 2019-12-31

The VARIKIN project uses a multi-disciplinary cultural evolution perspective to investigate the question “why do human societies differ in who they class as family?” Kinship, or who we consider to be our family, is a critical component of the human existence. Every human society has rules governing our behaviour towards kin, such as who we can marry or who can inherit material possessions, as well as special words for family members, but these conventions vary around the world. Using cutting-edge computational techniques, large linguistic and anthropological datasets, and methodology borrowed from fields such as evolutionary biology and cognitive science, we are attempting to assemble a comprehensive understanding of the diversity in how we consider our families.

The VARIKIN project has three main sub-projects: Development, Usage, and Evolution.

VARIKIN-Development: How do children acquire kinship knowledge?

A small body of research has shown that abstract thinking about kin becomes apparent around eight years of age. These studies, however, are based on English-speaking children in middle-class urban contexts. Are these results universal, applying to all children cross-culturally? Or is kinship acquisition different in non-Western settings?

Dr Alice Mitchell, the postdoctoral researcher leading the Development subproject, is currently conducting fieldwork among the Datooga of northern Tanzania to investigate this question. The Datooga are traditionally semi-nomadic polygynous cattle-herders who practice strict in-law name avoidance (i.e. women do not say the names of their husbands’ families, or words that sound like those names, after marriage). Dr Mitchell is living with a Datooga family, combining methods from anthropology, linguistics, and developmental psychology to explore how Datooga children learn about their kinship system. She is collecting ethnographic data about children’s daily lives, for example video-recording children’s interactions with relatives to learn how children talk about kinship concepts. She is also conducting a series of tasks where children are answering questions about different kinship terms, drawing pictures of their family, and playing games based around family photos. When Dr Mitchell returns to Bristol at the end of 2017, she plans to run some of these same tasks with UK schoolchildren and compare the results.

VARIKIN-Usage: How do people use kinship language?

Language change on a historical timescale arises from modifications in the language used by individual speakers. By detecting patterns of kin term usage in large collections of spoken and written languages, we gain insight into the microevolutionary pressures shaping linguistic evolution. For example, how often do people use kin terms when on social media? Across many different languages, is there variation in how often people talk about mothers versus aunts? What social and ecological factors correlate with kinship term patterns?

Dr Peter Racz, the postdoctoral researcher leading the Usage subproject, uses cutting-edge computational techniques in the field of corpus linguistics to detect patterns of kinship word use across millions of words, dozens of languages, and hundreds of years.

VARIKIN-Evolution: What drives the diversity of kinship systems?

In some languages, the word for “mother” is the same as the word for “mother’s sister,” but in other languages, like English, they are different. Taken together, this sort of variation is called a “kinship system,” and though there is variation in these systems around the world, there are also regular patterns. For example, though languages will vary as to whether “mother’s mother” is the same word as “father’s mother” (e.g. both in English are called “grandmother”), there is no language in the world that has the same word for “mother’s brother” and “younger sister.” What factors drive this variability?

For example, is a particular society’s kinship system driven by the kinship system of that society’s historical ancestors? Is it influenced by the kinship system of its neighbours? By how the social system is set up? By the physical environment? By some combination thereof?

Dr Catherine Sheard and PhD student Sam Passmore are using tools borrowed from evolutionary biology to investigate these questions. Together with colleagues around the world, they are collecting kinship data from over 600 languages across 11 language families and all inhabited continents. They are then combining this with anthropological data on the cultural practices and environments of each language’s speakers to address such questions as: how did our ancestors classify their families? What kinship systems evolve into which other systems? What factors influence the transition from one kinship system to another?
In the first 18 months of this project, activity has concentrated on recruitment, data collection, and project initiation. Two postdocs, one PhD student, and one research assistant have been recruited; all project members disseminated the project plans in various fora for discussion and feedback from their peer communities. The grant also presented a poster at a University of Bristol public outreach event in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the ERC, will be running a demonstration at the Big Bang Bristol science fair, and has a general-interest article scheduled to come out in the magazine EU Research.

Postdoc Alice Mitchell is currently on fieldwork with the Datooga of northern Tanzania, collecting ethnographic data and conducting experiments on kinship acquisition with Datooga children. PhD student Sam Passmore, PI Fiona Jordan, and research assistant Catherine Sheard have collected kinship data from across 7 language families and have entered into collaborative agreements with researchers from the Museu Paraense Emilio Goeldi (Belem, Brazil), the Australian National University (Canberra, Australia), and Yale University (New Haven, CT, USA). Postdoc Peter Racz has conducted analyses of cousin term usage both globally and across the Indo-European language family and has established a collaboration analysing experimental results on kinship acquisition with a researcher at Macquarie University (Sydney, Australia).

One University of Bristol undergraduate student submitted a dissertation in 2016 on the usage of English grandparental terms. Another undergraduate student submitted a dissertation researching children’s drawings of their families at a local school, and MSc student Rebecca O’Connor is currently conducting a comparative analysis of marriage and wealth transfer practices.

We expect that 2017 will see the submission of 3-4 publications.


Mid-Term Periodical Report 01/01/2017 - 31/12/2020

During 2017, team members focused on data collection and analysis, and dissemination of early results. Outputs in square brackets are listed in our project plan (attached).

All parts of the project are underpinned by the major achievement of the KinBank database. Professor Fiona Jordan, PhD student Sam Passmore and Research Support Assistants Jo Hickey-Hall and Catherine Sheard at Bristol, in collaboration with researchers from the Australian National University, Brazilian research institution Museu Paraense Emilio Goeldi, and Bristol interns have collected global kinship language data. Kinship terms spanning possible 150 relationships have now been collected for over 800 languages and for ten major language families. SP is leading on developing the architecture for KinBank to be a publicly available and open source website and database.

VARIKIN-Evolution: SP and FJ have analysed 29 anthropological hypotheses regarding the cultural evolution of kinship terminologies and their relationships with social structure using Bayesian phylogenetic modelling techniques. We have tested 51 hypotheses across three language families, with another language family planned. We have demonstrated that few long-standing “universal rules” of kinship are robust to modern comparative tests: a crucial finding for the project [C]. CS completed an analysis of kinterms in Pama-Nyungan languages of Australia demonstrating strong coevolutionary patterns with social norms [B]. SP has also inferred ancestral kinship systems across a number of language families [A].

VARIKIN-Usage: Postdoc Dr Peter Racz and FJ analysed a global cultural dataset to test what social and environmental factors predict linguistic complexity in kinship. Shared cultural ancestry and social norms are more important than learning pressures [E]. PR’s main achievement was to collect spoken, written, and web language corpora to investigate the frequency of use of kinship terms across 34 Indo-European languages [F, G]. PR has tested the relationships between frequency of use in 10 kin terms and how fast or slow these words change over time in 45 different languages [F].

VARIKIN-Development: Postdoc Dr Alice Mitchell completed nine months of fieldwork in Tanzania during 2017. AM successfully applied for ethical approval from the Tanzanian Commission of Science and Technology, video-recorded 45 hours of Datooga children's spontaneous interactions and transcribed 53,000 words from recordings, conducted interviews with 66 children as well as a separate avoidance language survey with 30 children (in collaboration with PR). AM produced 200 pages of fieldnotes and recorded/transcribed three narrative texts relating to kinship.

In late 2017 AM, JH and FJ began preparation for the CAKTAM Workshop (Children's Acquisition of Kinship Knowledge: Theory and Method), for January 2018. AM led the creation of a research field-kit to disseminate to other researchers working on children's acquisition of kinship terms. The workshop was designed to provide a unique opportunity to explore and refine ideas around how children learn to categorise different kinds of kin. We invited a diverse group of international researchers from anthropology, linguistics and psychology, to provoke a shared interdisciplinary discussion and potential collaborations: no international conference on this topic has been held before.

AM and FJ prepared a review article [H] to survey existing work on kinship acquisition and propose a new research agenda. A draft was presented at the CAKTAM Workshop for discussion, planned submission 2018. AM and FJ won an internal UoB Fellowship fund to bring Dr Joe Blythe of Macquarie University to Bristol to coincide with the CAKTAM meeting. JB is working on the acquisition of kinship concepts in the Australian language Murrinhpatha. AM, JB, and PR began collaborative work on three projects.
2018 will see the culmination and publication submission of many of the planned outputs for the Evolution and Usage subprojects, with 2019-20 for Development. Due to the favourable exchange rate, we have been able to extend contracts for Racz (6 months) and Mitchell (12 months) and to employ further data collection assistants for KinBank. During 2017 our dissemination activities at major conferences, and collaborations with international researchers, have allowed new directions for VariKin research that elaborate on the original proposal. We shall seek ethical approval for any new work and all is realisable within our budget. The Project Plan details all current outputs and these remain our expected results. Progress beyond that planned is, for example:

A bigger KinBank database is realisable with our larger data collection network. We aim to reach at least 1000 languages in 2018. New language family trees have also broadened the scope of our analysis plans.
A global detailed comparison of the structure of kinship systems. Passmore has brought statistical skills to the project that will enable us to use KinBank to characterise “kinship space”, and perform a thorough re-evaluation of current anthropological typologies of kinship systems.
Behavioural tests of kinship categories. Passmore has also brought together ideas from the evolutionary economics literature on cooperation and altruism and has proposed an experiment to test the effect of kinship categories on cooperative and punishment behaviours.

Hickey-Hall’s background in social history will potentially enable a proposed extension of pilot work conducted in 2015 by undergraduate dissertation student Jessica Alcock, on the negotiation of grandparental terms.

Cross-cultural comparison of kinship acquisition beyond the planned Datooga (Tanzania) and Bristol (UK) contexts made possible by our collaboration with Blythe (Australia) [P, N].
An expanded toolkit of techniques for studying kinship with children, including the creation of a website on the Open Science Framework to compile a field manual and toolkit for other researchers. The website will be made publicly available to other researchers alongside publication of the review, and we will encourage CAKTAM attendees to use these resources in their own fieldsites and laboratories. [H]
A book “The Beginnings of Kinship” bringing together the expanded range of work available in this subproject. [N]

We plan to release a prototype of the KinBank database in early 2019, with the full dataset available in 2020.
Jordan will apply for research leave in the calendar year of 2020 to write a proposal for a book on kinship language “Relatively Speaking”, which will attempt to present kinship terminology research for a non-specialist audience.

Engagement and Outreach
Though unplanned, in 2017 we had the opportunity to begin outreach and public engagement activities through University of Bristol Faculty funding for summer interns. Lucy Harries and Shakti Puri developed lesson plans for high school subjects such as geography and social studies, using the D-PLACE database and focusing on kinship, marriage and family across cultures. Team members presented the project work as the “Science of Culture” at a local two day science fair, Big Bang Bristol. The fair had the purpose of introducing children to hands-on science experiments, activities and live demonstrations: we presented a range of activities based on ongoing lab work, such as kinship, cultural transmission and linguistic elicitation tasks. From this, we have begun a collaboration with external public engagement group, the Rising Ape Collective, in order to develop a public live show and immersive participation experience on kinship and language in 2018.