Kinship Studies

Research Leaders:  Frederik Swennen and Mariano Croce


The broader framework for this line is the FWO Scientific Research Network (WOG 2015-2024) RETHINKIN – Rethinking Legal Kinship & Family Studies in the Low Countries, for which we act as core group.

The recognition and regulation of new kinship structures is at the heart of recent developments in family law worldwide. The label kinship in this context encompasses a variety of phenomena related to basic forms of mutual dependency, which include birth, child-rearing, reciprocal care, relations of emotional support, illness, and death (cf. J. BUTLER). Against the background of this broad conception, attention will be devoted to how demographic, economic, and cultural changes have impacted kin relationships and family ties. Increasing rates of divorce, the recognition of non-conventional family relationships, the spread of (cross-border) assisted reproductive technologies, and massive migratory phenomena have favoured the emergence of alternative configurations of kinship. These configurations pose a challenge to conventional family models and call for far-reaching revisions of conventional legal definitions. These issues are researched from the perspective of assemblage theory for partnership, parenthood, and the assemblages of persons, animals, and things.

Our research will also revolve around the conceptualisation of the normativity of social practices. This is to tackle the key issue of how the state could or should deal with emerging kinship practices. The interplay between fundamental theory, doctrinal analysis, and empirical studies will be of strategic importance. The interplay will be particularly relevant to the interpretation of how the law operates its selective choices, whereby the state devises a specific set of policy measures to support some kinship practices to the (potential) detriment of other, minority practices. Such a theoretically-grounded analysis will aim to interrogate both the grounds on which the state operates its choices and the condition of practices that are confined to a state of juridico-political invisibility. In this respect, the underlying theme will be the interaction between multiple sources of social normativity and the regulatory activity of legal normativity.

Finally, research attention will be devoted to the empowerment and protection of vulnerable adults, particularly in the family sphere, for example the prevention of elder abuse.


The first objective of this line of research is to map, from a unifying perspective, the various strategies for legal recognition of non-conventional kinship formations. It will be important to account for changes in state policies and family law that are meant to accommodate new family formations vis-à-vis three core elements of legal recognition: (1) formation of the relationship which results in legal recognition; (2) legal consequences and benefits of the recognised family formation; and (3) the breakdown of the relationship.

The second objective relates to the impact and effects of the (cross-border, e.g. in case of surrogacy) use of assisted reproductive technologies on the family at both a social and a legal level. The multiplication of non-reproductive family formations is dislodging the assumption that kinship has a biological basis. However, developments in reproductive technologies and genetics research are trapped in an ambiguous relationship with biological or ‘natural’ understandings of kinship. It is important to pin down this relationship to understand: first, what the consequences are of technologies on legal definitions of key parental roles (and therefore rights/responsibilities/liabilities attached to them); second, the way kinship practices react to the ambivalent interplay between law and technologies. Our perspective here is that of “elective kinship”, that is: private ordering.

The third objective lies at the intersection of the different research lines of this Group. The developments in kinship practices raise questions as to the nature of kinship relations (contract vs. status), the private versus public character of kinship formations, and the relative autonomy of kinship units. In light of phenomena like increased migration, it will also be important to understand how the regulation and accommodation of new kinship phenomena are changing the nature of kinship in general, and its role with regard to fundamental questions of state policies in particular. A central point of interest here will be legal pluralism and the role of private international law.

As mentioned above, we will also devote attention to the increasing group of vulnerable adults.

A last ambition is to focus on future (private) housing challenges, jointly with the research lines Personality Rights and Contractualisation. Individual life transitions (e.g. divorce, recomposed families) and the ageing of the population require new forms of housing. This raises issues such as flexibility, interactions between older and young people and aspects of care.

Specific Research Topics

  1. Drawing a reliable picture of the dynamic interrelation between evolutions in social practices and transformations in legal provisions and state policies. 
  2. How should the law deal with the creation and legal recognition of homo- or poly-parental ties through reproductive technologies that exceed the binaries of wife/husband and mother/father? 
  3. How should the law address cross-border aspects of non-conventional family relations that are related to migratory phenomena (e.g. kafala, surrogacy). 
  4. How should we understand the shortcomings and deficiencies of the legal and policy frameworks that govern kinship structures and family life and their (in)direct consequences on the psycho-physical and social conditions of individuals involved? 
  5. How do we deal with differences in national laws relating to the acceptance of new forms of families/kinship? 
  6. How can we both empower and protect vulnerable adults, particularly in the context of a risk of elder abuse? 
  7. With regard to new housing forms, issues will be detected and mapped on an empirical and socio-legal basis. This will enable appropriate legal techniques (real rights and property rights/real estate) to be defined and advised, both in public law and in private law (and PPP initiatives).