Social Organisation

The central organising principle of social structure throughout the continent is and has been kinship. Accounting for the variations in both terminology and the kinship systems depending on the locations, people’s rights and responsibilities have always been based on their actual classificatory kin relationships with one an other.

Some groups where membership is based on descent, as in Arnhem Land, they are called patrifilial groups or ‘clans’, where clan members trace their descent through the male line from a common ancestor. In these cases a person is not permitted to marry a member of the same clan.

“A person’s kinship relationships are egocentric – centering on the individual – because everyone has a unique set of people to whom they are related in particular ways. In addition, Indigenous social systems have a set of categories to which people are assigned on the basis of the ones to which their fathers and mothers belong. These…are called ‘moieties’, ‘sections’ and ‘subsections’. Moieties are found in many parts of the world, but sections and subsections systems are unique to Australia. These categories tend to cover a social world far bigger than an individual ‘s personal network. They allow people who have never met each other before to categorise each other as kin, so that they know how to behave towards one another.”1

“Moieties are categories that divide the social world in half. For many groups that have moieties, the natural world is also divided between the two because different species or their Dreamings also belong to one or the other moiety. Patrimoieties are so called because a person belongs to the same moiety as their father. In most systems of this type a person must marry someone from the opposite moiety. Patrimoieties are found over a wide area of northern Australia, and vary in importance in different places… Matrimoiety membership is inherited from the mother. Generally marriage between matrimoieties is the rule, and marriage within the same moiety is frowned upon. Matrimoieties are found in a large part of eastern and southern Australia, and also in parts of the north, including the Tiwi Islands. In parts of western Arnhem Land, patrimoiety and matrimoiety coexist. Generational moieties link people in alternate generations – that is grandparents and their grandchildren. In some regions, such as the Western Desert, this is the only type of moiety.”2

“In a section system people are divided between four name divisions. A person will belong to one section, their father to a second, their mother to a third, and their spouse to the fourth and final sectional that contains their cross cousins (mother’s brother’s children and father’s sister’s children)…

Subsections, often called ‘skins’, form a system with eight divisions. They are common in the central north of the continent and probably evolved from the section system spread to cover some of the area where sections already exist. Like sections, subsections were still expanding their range during the twentieth century.”3

Further References

McConvell, P. 1985. Time perspective in Aboriginal Australian culture: two approaches to
the origins of subsections. Aboriginal Culture

Morphy, H. 1991. Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge,
University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Sutton. P. 1995, Country: Aboriginal boundaries and land ownership in Australia, Aboriginal
History, Monograph No.3, Canberra

Foot Notes

1. Arthur, Bill and Morphy, Frances. Macquarie Atlas of Indigenous Australia page 91.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.