Kin-Group and Kin-State

Introduction / Definition: 

The most widely known and used definition of Kin-Group is simply – a group of people related by blood or marriage. Historically, this definition has been applied to families, extended families, bands, clans, and tribes.

A more comprehensive definition of kin-group is used now by social scientists, but not necessarily by anthropologists. This definition is: people of the same background, who maintain social, political, and economic relations that are based on biological ties, historical backgrounds, common cultures, and shared interests. According to this definition, these groups are minorities in the countries of their permanent or temporary dwelling, but they maintain contacts with people in their countries of origin. The kin-group phenomenon is regarded as being universal, but in various cultures and states it differs in importance in the broader social structure and in its political significance. In various academic publications, Kin-States are defined as entities that border, or are close to, the region where their kin-groups reside, and they are inhabited by people with whom kin-groups in other states share and maintain strong ethno-cultural and ethno-religious bonds. It must be added here that although this entry is not dealing with the positions and status of kin-groups in their countries of origin, in many cases the analyses and discussions of such groups and their social, political, and economic positions and relations refer also to them.

Historical Evolution: 

Let us begin the discussion in this section by suggesting that the history of the study of kin-groups and kin-states is closely connected to the actual development of the phenomenon. Thus, the establishment of historical empires, such as the Habsburg, Spanish Ottoman, British, French, and Dutch, that established new borders almost all over the world, created the basis for the establishment of widely dispersed kin-groups, such as the Tutsis and Hutus, the Kurds, the Armenians, and the Hungarians. Hence, the term kin-group was already suggested, discussed, and used by various social and political philosophers, for example, by Marx's famous partner, Fredrick Engels, in the mid-19th century. Such early discussions of the phenomenon were mainly motivated by the emerging nationalism and establishment of nation-states, as well as by the social, political, and economic transformations in Europe that had been connected to the then modernization processes, which changed the social and political ideas and consequently the social-political structure in many countries.

From the academic perspective, the initial discussion of kin-groups and kin-states was strongly influenced by the Social Anthropological discipline that emerged in the late 1870s. Since the 19th century, affiliations in kin-groups became an increasingly significant factor in determining the actions of individuals, families, and groups, as well as of social and political policies of states. Simultaneously, it also became an eminent issue in the political discourse. The further development of social anthropology in the 1920s additionally contributed to this academic trend.

The dismemberment of various empires during WWI and WWII, and consequently the formation of new nation-states, contributed to the intensification of the issue and to acute inter-state and intra-state conflicts, such as those concerning the Greek, Serb, and Indian kin-groups, and consequently, to more political and academic discussions of kin-groups and kin-states.

During the post-WWII period these processes and conflicts continued and further intensified. More recently, developments during the Post-Cold War period, especially the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire, further enhanced processes that awakened kin-groups and augmented their demands of rights, including the wish for separation from their hostlands and the adoption of irredentist inclinations. This renewed the intensive discussion of the phenomenon. According to the irredentist approach, kin minorities in foreign states presented themselves, and were presented by their homelands, as “brothers” suffering from foreign governments, or residing on land that had been contested in the past and would be again in the future. As noted by various scholars and politicians, the most extreme of these anti-kin-groups' positions and actions take the form of their cleansing and genocide. These matters remain acute not only in Europe but also in Asia and particularly in Africa.

On the other hand, many hostlands, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, have drafted and implemented new minority legislation, fulfilling the obligations of old and new international treaties and impending membership in various European bodies, and have toned down their behavior vis-à-vis the kin-groups and their kin-states. Again, as noted by various observers, the benefits that these states ensure and supply to kin-groups are cultural and educational support, social security and health insurance, and work permits.

Since the phenomenon discussed here has been strongly influenced by the re-emergence of modern nationalism, by the collapse of empires all over the world, such as the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, British, and French, by the establishment of independent nation-states, by the drawing and redrawing of states' borders, by the more recent collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc, and by voluntary and imposed migratory trends in almost all parts of the world, this phenomenon that continues to exist and even become more acute, is discussed now by many scholars.

Because of the historical longevity and complexity of the phenomenon, the terms kin-group and kin-state are linked to and sometimes are used as alternatives to a number of other conceptually and actually relevant terms. The terms kin-groups and kin-states are usually used by the public as alternatives, especially to the following two pairs of terms: "ethnic groups" and "ethno-national states", and "diasporas" and "homelands".

The connection to the first pair of terms is highly controversial. The term kin-group, as it is mentioned above and usually defined, would to extent fit a primordialist definition of ethnic-groups that strongly emphasizes the biological and historical background and connection to the country or region of origin of the group's members. From the academic primordialist perspective, ethnic identity is a “given” or “natural” phenomenon. Understood in this sense, human beings are born into ethnic groups and therefore share these elements of identity with the other members of the group. According to this approach, certain common cultural attributes, self and group related feelings concerning identity, distinctiveness, and their recognition by others is also believed to be important for the formation and persistence of kin-groups' identity and organization.

This definition does not fit other definitions that are based on the notion that ethnic-groups are "imagined communities" that are based on a type of cultural collectivity that emphasizes the role of myths, descent, and historical memories, and which is recognized by one or more cultural differences such as religion, customs, language, or institutions. (Smith, 1993) The same applies to the difference between the interlinked definitions of the kin-state and ethno-national state.

Theoretical Implications: 

To a great extent current scholarship, debates, and analyses of the phenomenon focus not so much on its theoretical aspects but on its practical implications. Substantial scholarship concentrates on the situation in Central and Eastern Europe, including the new Russian kin-groups in the former Soviet Union and its former empire. Because of the enlargement of the European Union and the activities of its different institutions, various studies have been done by scholars and practitioners in law, political science, and economics.

Conflicting approaches to the study of kin-groups and ethnicity, some of which were mentioned above, are praising or marring the relationships between hostlands and kin-groups. Moreover, despite its salience, the interventionist role played by neighboring kin-states in kin-groups' secessionist conflicts, or demands for autonomy, is an under-analyzed issue in the International Relations literature. The applicability of realist theories to explain and predict the probability of intense conflicts involving kin-groups and kin-states, and the role of international third parties and international organizations like the UN in resolving such conflicts in various parts of the world is beyond doubt. However, the absence of any systematic analysis of various cases, such as the Hungarian Status Law and similar laws prevalent in Europe, which have seldom entered into intellectual discourse and have not been discussed as a model of reconciliation between neighboring countries that have sizeable numbers of kin-groups, is regretful.

Practical Applications: 

The conventional wisdom is that kin-states are the “natural allies” of their secessionist kin-groups in neighboring states. Certain studies (such as Ganguly and Taras, 2005) utilizing the comparative method (both historical and contemporary) challenge this widely held belief. Such studies demonstrate that policies of kin-states are often instrumental and contradictory. While they are founded on emotional patriotic discourse and practices about a common belonging, they may not match the actual policies of support of these groups' struggles, and the acceptance and integration of kin-groups when they are repatriating to their homeland.

On the other hand, in order to secure their borders and to afford protection to their kin-groups, states such as Germany and Hungary concluded agreements on friendly co-operation and partnership with their neighbors, and the Hungarian Parliament adopted the above-mentioned Status Law on the “ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries”.

In sum, in view of the complexity of the issues mentioned above and the changes occurring in this sphere, there is a need for additional comparative and theoretical studies.

References / Further Reading: 

Basch, L., N. Glick Schiller and C. Szanton Blanc, 1994. Nations Unbound, Transnational Projects, Postcolonial Predicaments and deterritorialized Nation-States, Amsterdam: Grodon & Breach.

Ganguly R. and R. Taras, 2005. Understanding Ethnic Conflict: The International Dimension, New York: Langman.

Kellas, J. 1991. The politics of Nationalism and Ethnicity, New York: St. Martin's Press.

Sheffer, G. 2006. Diaspora Politics: At Home Abroad, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, A. 1993. National Identity. Denver: Nevada University Press.

Wolff, S. 2002. Disputed Territories: The Transnational Dynamics of Ethnic Conflict Settlement, New York and Oxford: Bergham.

Wolff, S. 2003. The German Question. An Analysis with Key Documents. Westport, CT: Prager.