A clan is a group of people united by actual or perceived kinship and descent. Even if actual lineage patterns are unknown, clan members may nonetheless recognize a founding member or apical ancestor. The kinship-based bonds may be merely symbolical in nature, whereby the clan shares a "stipulated" common ancestor that is a symbol of the clan's unity. When this ancestor is not human, it is referred to as an animalian totem. Clans can be most easily described as tribes or sub-groups of tribes. The word clan is derived from 'clann' meaning 'children' in the Irish and Scottish Gaelic languages. The word was taken into English about 1425 as a label for the tribal nature of Irish and Scottish Gaelic society. The Gaelic term for clan is fine /finɨ/. Clans are located in every country; members may identify with a coat of arms to show they are an independent clan.
Organization of clans in anthropology
Some clans are patrilineal, meaning its members are related through the male line; for example, the clans of Armenia. Others are matrilineal; its members are related through the female line, such as in some Native American clans. Still other clans are bilateral, consisting of all the descendants of the apical ancestor through both the male and female lines; the Irish and Scottish clans are examples. Another example is the Jewish people defined mainly as the clan of descendants of one male ancestor (Jacob) and four female ancestors (Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah). Whether a clan is patrilineal, matrilineal, or bilateral depends on the kinship rules and norms of their society.
In different cultures and situations, a clan may mean the same thing as other kin-based groups, such as tribes and bands. Often, the distinguishing factor is that a clan is a smaller part of a larger society such as a tribe, a chiefdom, or a state. Examples include Scottish, Irish, Chinese, Japanese clans and Rajput clans in India and Pakistan, which exist as kin groups within their respective nations. Note, however, that tribes and bands can also be components of larger societies. Probably the most famous tribes, the 12 Biblical tribes of Israel, composed one people. Arab tribes are small groups within Arab society, and Ojibwa bands are smaller parts of the Ojibwa tribe in North America. In some cases multiple tribes recognized the same clans, such as the bear and fox clans of the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes.
Apart from these different traditions of kinship, further conceptual confusion arises from colloquial usages of the term. In post-Soviet countries, for example, it is quite common to speak of clans in reference to informal networks within the economic and political sphere. This usage reflects the assumption that their members act towards each other in a particularly close and mutually supportive way approximating the solidarity among kinsmen. However, the Norse clans, the ätter, can not be translated with tribe or band, and consequently they are often translated with house or line.
Polish clans differ from most others as they are a collection of families who bear the same coat of arms, as opposed to claiming a common descent. This is discussed under the topic of Polish Heraldry.
Clans in indigenous societies are likely to be exogamous, meaning that their members cannot marry one another. In some societies, clans may have an official leader such as a chieftain or patriarch; in others, leadership positions may have to be achieved, or people may say that 'elders' make decisions.