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Anthropology social relationships Essay

Social relationships in most cultures and societies impact heavily on how a person perceives their world. People create their social world but are also shaped by it, and part of this social world is the social relationships that are formed between individuals. These relationships vary in kind from family and kinship to friendship. Kinship and family are types of relationships that have been widely studied in the attempt to study and understand a culture or society. And whilst these are important, relationships of friendship also play a large part in the way the individual’s personality is shaped and how they view their social world.

Relationships of kinship or family ties are generally unavoidable and are formed through generations of families or cultural ties. Tribes and small villages are a good example of this where the members of these social circles are in frequent contact with each other and are somewhat limited to the generations within the physical boundaries of their social world. The formation of these relationships does not require much effort and they are expected to continue even if transformed over time. Positive relationships can become negative and vice versa.

Within the classification of family ties and kinship, the individual’s ties’ with ones family would be described with him/her in the centre, his parents above, children and their descendants below and siblings to either side (Morgan, 1870, p.10). Kinship ties include those where an individual does not have close genealogical ties with another rather is related through an unexpressed social tie, marriage or other wider social circles.

If you take rural villages as an example, the degrees of these relationships can be measured in a somewhat circular pattern, where immediate family is in the centre, followed by those related by marriage, and then the members of the village in various degrees of closeness. The ties of family are expected to continue even after death, i.e. the individual is still a son to his parents but is also a father to his children, a brother to his siblings, etc.

If the ties of kinship are those of a wider social circle than that of family; then ties of friendship are to be considered in the somewhat grey area in the middle. Relationships of friendship are more informal yet private to some degree and are usually based on some common interest or sharing (Beer, 2001). This sharing is not limited to material objects, but also to thoughts and secrets; thus friendship is a relationship that is heavily dependant on mutual trust and loyalty as compared to blood ties of family or kinship.

Aside from those with family, most other relationships can be created, sustained in some way or ended by the individual, and each relationship will have its effect on perception or the shaping of the individual and his/her world.

It is as such a given that these relationships can be created or impacted on by the actions of the individual or both parties involved. In order for a social relationship to be established outside of the setting of ‘family’ many events and actions take place. Social relationships are important to the individual as well as their social world, these relationships are often the foundations of the individual personality.

From a young age the first relationship would be with members of the immediate family, however as time passes, the social circle or boundaries per se, of the individual enlarge to include others. These relationships are created from different situations, a child’s first school friends, the relationships between parent and teacher, relationships of friendship between those who share mutual interest and those of work to name a few.

These relationships can be established in several ways; the exchange of gifts, the sharing of interests, cultural beliefs and identity, or a shared interest. Gift giving being the easiest to understand can be condensed into the action of give and take between two or more parties. This process is not always a positive attempt towards the continuation, formation or beginning of a relationship as the refusal to reciprocate the gift giving can be also seen as an indication to end the relationship.

Social relationships require a certain measure of give and take, gift exchange, secrets, conversation, and opinion. Gift exchange plays a large role in social relationships as it can be used in several ways; an indicator for the willingness to engage in a relationship, the intention to continue a relationship, etc. However, gift exchange has two parts, giving and receiving, and these actions have different results depending on the situation.

Drawing on the article by Theodore Caplow (1982) on the connection between gift giving and relationships one can begin to understand the impact these actions have on relationships. Caplow describes the gift exchange as being mostly among kin, however he also mentions that gifts were also given among co-workers, friends and couples.

Caplow described the gifts given and received between primary kin as being in a pattern where the gifts given from an older generation within family were likely to go downwards, i.e. more gifts were given by those older than 18 to those younger than 18. This process of gift giving and reciprocity is slightly uneven and occurs mainly among kin members. Parents do not expect much in the way of gifts from children and children only gift with what limited capability they have. However the gift giving changes in other relationships, for example, between couples who are dating or among friends.

As such, the relationship between kin cannot be truly described as a relationship that is insomuch created as much as it is inherent simply to the birth of an individual, so when considering the process of creating social relationships, one must consider the relationships formed outside the circle of immediate family.

Gift giving between individuals as mentioned above, is seen as a way to continue a relationship; one person gives a gift and expects one in return. To reciprocate and gift in return would indicate that one intends on continuing the relationship. Yet despite describing the action of gifting and reciprocity in the term of material gifts, it is not always material gifts that are exchanged. Gifts can be given to those one intends on keeping favour with the expectation of asking for something at a later date, which is not necessarily another material object, but it can be something like favour within a political setting.

Positive social relationships also require ongoing maintenance and can be ended at any given moment by the actions of one or both parties involved for
example in the case of two neighbouring Brazilian families in the town of Monte Verde where an old friendship ended in a feud (Descharmes et al. 2011, p349). In this case there remained a relationship, however it was a transformed, hostile relationship of revenge where one family would murder a member of the others and the opposing family would reciprocate with the same.

This reciprocal opposition transformed the relationship from a positive relationship to one of revenge. In this case we see how a relationship is transformed, but transformations of social relationships can also be positive in weddings for example where two members of separate families are united and a new relationship is formed where those two individuals are now members of the others family. Marriage is a very common form of transformation for a relationship and is found in almost all societies and results in reciprocal rights between both parties whilst also creating a social process where new relationship are set up between the kin of both the husband and the wife (Brix, JH 2010, pp162).

These transformations of social relationship occur often but with various results. In the formation of relationships of friendship, two individuals may move from being ‘acquaintances’ to ‘friends’. Beer makes the distinction between friendship and kinship; where kinship is usually used to describe close personal ties, not necessarily genealogical, and friendship is a relationship based on sharing of time, problems, plans, hopes and thought. As such with the sharing of secrets and personal thoughts, friendship is a social relationship that requires absolute loyalty and trust, as if the relationship is broken off; these secrets can be revealed to others.

Over time, these factors affect a person and the way they shape their social world. If we consider that the individual shapes his/her social world and that this world in turn shapes them, we may also consider the effect social relationships have on this social world per se. Relationships between family or kin will shape a child in the early stages based on the culture and beliefs passed down from the parents or adults in the child’s kin circle. However as time passes, the social circle expands to include school peers and other adults. The biggest effect is usually from the friendships that are formed with others from a completely different kin circle to the individuals own.

To go into a deeper understanding of the individual’s social world we must also understand their relationships. Drawing on the article by Ortner, 1993, on a high school graduate class, as a case study, we are given examples of some relationships that are formed and maintained. Ortner describes her high school graduate class and their sense of “community” during and after their school years. She goes on to describe the structure of “class” within the high school. this idea of a “class” system depicts the social circle or world that the members of these “classes” were a part of.

These social circles are described as including members who had similar backgrounds or interests. Furthermore she goes on to describe the relationships that were maintained after high school. These relationships tended to run in the same circles as they had been during school years. So by analysing the social relationships of the individual we are given a deeper understanding of the way they shape their world. The social structure we give our world often is dependant on how we structure our relationships with others. The social relationships that alter the perception of social structure for one person may not always be applied with the same results for all people. This is due the many relationships we build and maintain with others over time.

The formation of social relationships are created, sustained, transformed and ended with the actions of the individual and sometimes without. We may find ourselves in a relationship with others that has simply arisen through the relationship with kin or family. Yet these relationships help shape us and the way we crate our social world. These relationships are constantly in flux and changeable with the time that passes as a relationship can also change with the passing of time without many major or drastic changes. As such, these relationships play a major role in how we perceive our social world and inevitably our sense of self.

Bell, S, Coleman, S 1999, The Anthropology of Friendship, Berg, USA

Beer, B 2001, Friendship, Anthropology of, International Encyclopedia of the
Social & Behavioral Sciences, Elsevier Science Ltd, USA

Caplow, T. 1982 Christmas Gifts and Kin Networks. Sociological Review 47 (3): 383-392.

Descharmes, B, Heuser, EA, Krüger, C, Loy, T 2011, Varieties of Friendship; Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Social Relationships, V&R Unipress, Germany

Morgan, LH 1870, Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family, University of Nebraska Press, USA

Ortner, Sherry 1997 Fieldwork in the Postcommunity. Anthropology and Humanism 22(1): 61-80.

Turner, V. 1964 Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites of Passage. in J. Helm (ed.) New Approaches to the Study of Religion Seattle: American Ethnological Society pp. 4-20.

Vaughn, L 2010, ‘Marriage and the family’, in HJ Birx (ed.), 21st century anthropology: A reference handbook, SAGE Publications, Inc., Thousand Oaks, CA


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