Monday, March 5, 2012

Clan or Family: What's the Difference?

One of the most common questions I get asked when I talk about family history is: what is the difference between a family and a clan? In my almost 20 years of doing family histories I have come to the conclusion that Filipino genealogy should not be compared to Western genealogy. While tracing family trees is an old tradition in the West, Filipinos have a different way and approach to things and thus we should always look at family history from a local perspective.

Let us begin with some definitions of "family" from the pre-Hispanic period:

In one definition, households were described as usually consisting of a man, his wife, and children, although in some cases two couples might decide to build a house together and live together as well.

Another description states that typical in most pre-Hispanic settlements in the Philippines towns were composed of scattered communities called barangays. The barangay, which was a family-government structure, had about thirty to one hundred families although some barangays formed a loose federation that resulted to as many as seven thousand inhabitants.

Then let us look at the definitions of a clan from other cultures' perspectives:

The word "clan" is derived from the Scots Gaelic word "clann" meaning the children, offspring or descendants. In terms of size there is no hard and fast rule but a "clan" is usually of a sufficient size to have established a territory and is likely to have a leader called a clan chief. In the Scottish Highlands, the concept of a "clan" grew beyond immediate family to cover an extended network of near and distant relatives who felt that they had loyalties to a particular clan chief. Sometimes the extension of the clan territory, and therefore the clan members, was achieved by conquest or by alliances or marriage.

In Somalia, society is organized into clan families, which range from 5,000 to more than 50,000 in size. The clan families are further divided into smaller groups called "lineage units", typically ranging from 2,500 to 10,000 members.

The modern Quechuas in Peru still follow the ancient kinship system of patrilineages. where the Incan village structure was also based upon. This system looked only at the father's side of the family tree, thus there system was always based on the paternal side.

There are many more definitions of a "clan" in other cultures but what we must understand is almost every definition has some variations. There is also a commonality is all these definitions: mother, father, and children form a basic unit called a family. They then form a bond with closer families and form an extended family group. From this they form a bigger group, which in our case was called a "barangay".

In other words "family" and "clan" are interchangeable words. For me, I prefer to use the Filipino terms that are similar to "clan"; in Tagalog it's called angkan, and in Cebuano it can be kaliwat or kabanay. In the end I usually tell people asking me about clans and families that the only difference here is that clans have become bigger and far from each other in terms of generational relationship. But I always add that if you trace all these different branches they all go back to a small group of people - a family!


  1. I never thought about this before but clan would make sense ASSUMING we're talking about the Cebuano word of course. But you already mentioned it in the end of your post that it does go back to the same group of people.

    I say this because where I'm from, I grew up on a small island and whose tradition (Hawaiian) is based on the communal system. The Hawaiian word for family actually refers to a much larger group, a communal society and clan would be no different to me, and this clan is my family.

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  2. Thank you for this post. I was thinking of this the other day( my kids ask me about family lineage), and we always thought we are the Singson clan growing in Cebu. I was always ask if I come from the family in the South or the North. I was the told that the family in the North was the brother of my grandfather who happen to marry there and establish his own family. So, you are right, it always goes back to the small group of people - family.

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