Social Categories

Each of the social category systems divides society into an even number of complementary classes: 2 moieties, 4 sections and 8 subsections. These are known in Aboriginal English as ‘skins’ in some parts of the country.

•    Moieties
•    Sections
•    Subsections


Descent moieties

Moiety is a dual division of society. It is considered to be a social category but it is usually related to descent, either through the father-line (patrimoiety) or mother-line (matrimoiety). Both of these types occur in Australia, sometimes among the same people, with different types of rights, ceremonies and so on connected to each.

Patrimoieties, unlike other social categories do have an indirect connection to areas of land, because each of the moieties is made up of a set of clans, each of which has its clan estate. The moiety areas are not usually made up of continuous blocks of land. Each moiety (both patrilineal and matrilineal) is often associated with a set of natural species, or environmental phenomena, their totems.

Non-descent Moieties

There are some other moieties which are not related to descent. In Australia generational moieties are found in some areas. In such systems adjacent generations are in the opposite moiety and alternate generations in the same moiety. So for instance my father or mother will be in the opposite generational moiety to me, and my grandfather or grandmother in the same moiety. Generational moieties can be found in the same language group together with patrimoiety and/or matrimoiety.

Moiety Names

Most moieties have names which are sociocentric terms, that person X and his or her group is always called by the same term no matter who is talking, like the Yolngu patrimoieties Dhuwa and Yirritja. There are in some cases egocentric terms, that vary according to who is talking e.g. a term for ‘our moiety’ and ‘the other moiety’, especially with generational moieties, like Western Desert nganantarrka (our bone) versus tyanamiltyan (their flesh).


Moieties of all the kinds mentioned are found in many places in the world  outside Australia. The other social categories, sections and subsections, are hardly found outside Australia – sections in one small region of South America and subsections only in Australia.

•    Structure of section systems
•    Function of sections

Structure of section systems

A Section is a division of society into four categories. It is neither matrilineal nor patrilineal  nor generational but has features of both types of descent and generational divisions combined.  
Table 1 shows marriage and matrilineal descent in the General Queensland (GQ) system, which stretches across much of Queensland with only minor variation in terminology.

Table 1: General Queensland Section Terminology

mother/child ofmother/child of

One’s father has a different section from oneself, and one’s mother’s section differs from one’s own and one’s father’s. The fourth section is that of one’s spouse or potential spouse, which also includes one’s cross-cousin.
The section system incorporates Alternate Generation Equivalence: one’s parallel grandparents (mother’s mother and father’s father) are in the same section as oneself; one’s cross-grandparents (mother’s father and father’s mother) are in the same section as one’s spouse and cross-cousin. A man’s children are in the same section as his father and a woman’s children are in the same section as her mother.
In Table 1 (QG section system) you can see how a mother’s line and a father’s line toggle back and forth between sections in each generation. If I am a Kuparu male my children will be Panpari and my son’s children Kuparu.

The Kariera (western) section system

Another well-known section system is that among the Kariera (Kariyarra) , in the Pilbara of northern Western Australia on the opposite side of the continent from the Queensland and New South Wales section systems. Radcliffe-Brown (1931:7) added letters to the sections, a convention which continues to be used, as shown in Table 2 (spelling updated to recent understanding).
Table 2: Kariera (Kariyarra) section system, W.A.

Code Terms   Terms Code
A Panaka marry Purungu B
  mother/child of   mother/child of  
C Karimarra marry Palyarri D

Function of sections

Not only these basic kin types but all relations fit into this scheme on the basis of familiar extension rules which operate in classificatory systems. So, for instance, your mother’s mother’s mother’s sister’s son is in the same section as your mother’s mother because your mother’s sister’s son (the last part of the kinship string above) is a parallel cousin, which is classified as a sibling. So an MMMZS is a kind of MMB who is a ‘skin brother’ because he is in the same section as you. However an MMB would rarely be called a ‘brother’ in the kinship terminology. This is where skinship and kinship part company.

To call somebody by a section term one does not have to be able to trace a full genealogical path between yourself and the other person. It often works the other way around: as a shortcut, a kinship relationship is nominated between you and a person with a skin (section) name and that provides you with a ready-made set of relations in the other person’s group and others. So typically a person may be designated as a classificatory fictive ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ of a person with whom he or she is closely associated, and the rest follows. Or if there is a plan for you to marry someone in a group which, for instance, does not have sections, then that intended spouse from the stranger group would be assigned to the spouse/cross-cousin section.

If the marriage of the parents is of the first preferred, or ‘straight’, type, then there will be no question about assignment of a section term to the children. However, if the marriage is not of this type, then assignment based on the father will be different from that based on the mother. Various principles and strategies will be deployed in different groups to settle this question.

The function of sections in determining correct marriage partners is important and that is why they were called ‘(Marriage) Classes’ by early anthropologists. However, the functions are much broader than this: with a section name one can be fitted into families of apparent strangers and call them by kinship terms without necessarily knowing their genealogical connections to oneself, or indeed having any. Thus, many non-Aboriginal people as well as Aborigines from areas without sections or subsections can be assigned ‘skin’ names by Aboriginal people and be incorporated in this way. The section and subsection systems therefore contribute to broadening the scope of ‘Universal Kinship Categorisation’, whereby everyone can call everyone else by a kinship term.

The scope of section systems does not terminate in regions when different terms are used. Users of the system are usually entirely familiar with the ‘Pragmatic Equivalence’ rules between different terminologies over a wide area. The ambit of the section system is thus much wider than a single ‘society’ or language group and operates in a highly extended inter-communal space. Gamilaraay people, for instance,  were aware of the General Queensland system to their north, and vice versa. They knew which terms were equivalent to which in the other region, who they called ‘mother’, for example, and who they could and could not marry, despite the difference in terms used.


Structure of subsections

A subsection system has twice as many component units as a section system: eight insteaqd of four. As an example, here is the Warlpiri system. In this system there are masculine and feminine fors of each subsection (labelled m and f).

Table 3. Warlpiri subsections



The two halves of the matching section system  are in a relationship of  mother’s mother- woman’s daughter’s child to each other in a subsection system. These two halves of the notional sections are given the section codes A-B-C-D, plus 1 and 2 to distinguish the subsections: A1- A2…etc

The Warlpiri subsections and a number of others have masculine and feminine prefixes (ja- and na- or similar respectively). This is not a characteristic of all subsection systems however.

The origin and distribution of subsections

Subsections are found in the north central part of Australia, across the savanna belt of the Northern Territory, the southern Kimberley or WA and part of Western Queensland. Sections are found on both sides of this distribution. Generally either sections or subsections are found in a language group, not both at once.

This distribution results from subsections arising from an amalgamation of two section systems in the centre of the current distribution of subsections near to Katherine, NT, perhaps 1000-2000 years ago. From there they spread out in all directions by cultural diffusion, replacing sections in some regions.

One of the components that contributed to the foundation of the subsection system was the western section system, as illustrated for Kariera (Kariyarra) in Table 2. For instance the subsection terms A1 panangka; C1 kamarra and D1 paljarri are related to the section terms A panaka; C karimarra; and D palyarri, respectively.

The Function of subsections

The function of subsections is similar to that of sections, to allow people to extend a version of the kinship systems to people who cannot be traced by genealogy and thus to make cooperation and sharing easier. Subsections, like sections, also designate the ‘straight’ partner in marriages. In most subsection systems this preferred spouse is a second cousin like a mother’s mother’s brother’s daughter’s daughter for a man. This differs from sections where a first cross-cousin (mother’s brother’s child or father’s sister’s child) is the preferred partner. This does not mean that people marry the actual cousin but someone classified as the same by the kinship or ‘skin’ system.

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