Kinship, Descent, Marriage and Gender:
The following materials are key presentation points developed by the instructor during
class lectures. They are not a substitute for student participation in the class lectures,
but a highlighting of the pertinent items considered.
Overall Theme: How do we define "a rich person?"
How do we define "family?"
defining qualities are in part related to how we orient our social relationships. In this
section we will contrast the "collective" orientation of Tribal-Traditional
peoples with the "individualistic" orientation of Euro-American peoples. In
addition, we will discuss how have people defined their "social experiences" and
related to other human beings? The focus of this discussion will revolve around different
forms of social organizations, such as the "family" and "clan," and
two-section and four-section marriage systems. Is a particular society characterized by an
equalitarian or a hierarchical approach to political and economic power? Each orientation
can have a marked effect on how population segments within a society gain access to
decision making, privilege and status, and on the manner in which interpersonal crime and
intra-group prejudice, conflict and war are played out.
Reiterations and Foundations:
- The foundation: we have males and females, as biological species,
that can procreate and perpetuate the species.
- But the ways in which the nature of relationships between and among males and females
can be defined (with whom and how) can be quite variable, all culturally
constructed. Consider the example of the Arapesh (both
male/female act maternally), Mundugumor (both male/female act
aggressively), and Tchambuli (male as passive and female as
aggressive) of Papua New
Guinea, and how roles are culturally defined.
- As with all the ethnographic materials we have dealt with this semester,
"male," "female," as well as "kinship," "marriage"
and "social organization" are cultural constructions of
reality. They entail symbolic both "relationships"
and "categories," vested with particular expectations,
obligations and roles, all of which are cultural specific and relative to given societies.
The behavioral and social manifestations of such constructions are expressed in "corporate
entities," such as -- "father," or such entities as --
"individual," "family," "clan," or
"community." The term, "corporate," refers a culturally
defined entity that has specific functions and an existence regardless of the enrollment by
actual people. A entity or group can exist in name alone. For
the Hopi, the clan functions fully, even if there are few living
members to fulfill all its functions and duties, as
the corresponding clan in the underworld continues to perform all the
ceremonies and clan duties. Like wise, the power of the
corporate entities can dissolve the living, as in the example of the Nuer
Consider the example of "father." A "father"
entails expectations given its relationship with a "son" or
"daughter," which are typically different from a "father's"
relationship his sister's "son," for example. And further, the category
"father" can potentially include a large host of individuals, as it does for the
Hopi or Crow Indians, and it can even transcend gender to include females, as it does among the
Nuer of East African and "female fathers."
We thus find tremendous social organizational variation between and
among cultures throughout the world today, and we must be cautious of assuming universal
relationships and categories taken for granted. Take the examples of
how we define the corporate entities: a "rich person" and
- In American society, a "rich person" is often defined in terms of "individualism"
and acquiring "material possessions" -- the greater the individual autonomy and
ownership of property the greater the mark of success. With
material wealth comes autonomy and independence from others, and thus individualism.
Thus the understanding, "a
poor man shames himself."
- In tribal-traditional society, a "rich person" is often defined in terms of social
integration and ethic of sharing -- the greater number of linkages with others and the giving
away of possessions to those others, the greater the mark of success -- kinship
and family. Consider the example of the Crow give-away, following the state basketball championship
or after one's high school graduation (a network of exchanges in which gifts
are given out rather then received upon achieving an accomplishment; a group
rather than individual focus). These cultural values are expressed
among such peoples as the Weyewa and Gabra.
Weyewa -- "There must be an exchange of favors, of knowledge, of labor. . . . I am
in your debt, you are in my heart. I am in your heart, you are in my debt."
Gabra -- "Most of all, camels are for giving." "If you are a selfish man,
you will die alone under a tree." And thus the understanding, "a poor man shames
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- In American society, "individualism" (as a key corporate entity) is often
essential to and expressed in terms of political freedom and rights, economic producers
and consumers and material possessions, biomedical health and well-being, athletic winners
and losers, spiritual redemption (saving of souls), philosophical free will, and the ethos
of "rugged individualism" and "pulling yourself up by your boot
- While certainly expressed in other societies and throughout European history, this
"social construct" has assumed prominence in American society only within the
last two centuries, first coined by Alex de
Tocqueville in the 1830s.
- "Individualism" is thus not a universal social category, nor even
a primary corporate entity in
- Why has "individualism" assumed such importance in
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Kinship and Descent
- Kinship and many forms of descent are used by all human
societies. Among the
examples we'll consider are the Crow (matrilineal descent), Omaha, (patrilineal
descent), Eskimo (ambilineal descent) and Hawaiian (non-descent).
- Nearly two-thirds of all human societies are organized around unilineal (matrilineal or
patrilineal) descent principles. Individuals are related to each other based upon "kinship,"
by blood ties or "consanguinity," e.g., a child and its mother.
form corporate groups, e.g., "clans" and "lineages," which transcend
and have existence beyond the individuals composing them. Membership is necessarily
involuntary, i.e., by birth. A matrilineal system defines membership along the mother's
descent line, i.e., male and female offspring of each proceeding generation of mothers
(you belong to your mother's clan). Uxorilocal residence, the husband moves in with his
wife's parent's household, is often associated with matrilineal societies.
systems defines membership along the father's descent line, i.e., male and female offspring
of each proceeding generation of fathers (you belong to your father's clan).
residence, the wife moves into her husband's parent's household, is typically associated
with patrilineal societies. A given "household" (actually comprising multiply
adjoining residential structures) can thus include several extended families, e.g., the
wives and offspring of brothers, as well as the wife and offspring of the father of those
brothers and all the relations of the brothers of one's father. Such a kinship group is
typically called a "lineage."
- Descent groups are highly successful, clearly defining one's place in the social world
and integrating individuals into a vast network of mutually supportive ties. They address
problems associated with the need to provide strong internal organization within
groups by clearly demarcating succession of members from generation to generation (who
belongs and doesn't belong to your group) -- "replacement" -- and
delegation of authority and rights (who makes the decisions and who are granted
privileges, and who are not) -- "delegation of authority."
- Matrilineal Case: characterized with women as "trustees" of property
and men with divided residences and loyalties. The "matrilineal challenge" for
men: keep social, religious and political ties secured with one's mother's clan, the
ultimate source for one's own identity and status, yet at the same time providing for
economic and emotional support for one's wife's household, including one's children.
addition, matrilineal systems are characterized by strong mutually, cooperative
relationships including siblings (both brother-brother and sister-sister, and less so with
brother-sister), mother-daughter, and, most importantly, mother's brother-sister's
children dyads. Unique to matrilineal system are how the father-child and father's
sister-brother's children dyads are expressed, and the parent-in-law relations.
The terminology orientation is illustrated in the Hopi
Kinship System (an example of the matrilineal, Crow kinship system).
As part of the Crow
system, a particularly exemplary dyad father-child dyad is that found
in the biilapxe relationship (using the actual Crow Indians as the
example). Both the "strong" and "unique" dyads
are characterized by their mutual exchange and reciprocity of goods and services.
Given "cross-generation equivalencies" as well as "classificatory"
and "bifurcate merging" (kinship terms such as Mo and MoSi are
called by the same term, or Fa and FaBr are called by the same term)
inclusions, all these kinship categories designate a vast assemblage of individuals of
potentially differing generational orientation, e.g., a "brother" can refer to
someone of one's own generation, as well as someone of one's father's and grandfather's
generation, and someone of one's son's and grandson's generation -- so simply put, all
male members of one's mother's clan. In turn, the least enduring, social significant and
cooperative relationship in a matrilineal system is that found between husbands and wives.
Most importantly, a breakup of the marriage bond does not translate and result in a
breakup of the family. The critical social, economic and nurturing roles continual to be
fulfilled by matrilineal kinsmen, i.e, mother's brothers and other in-marrying husbands
within the lineage-based household.
The "clan" (as a corporate entity) is made up of several matrilineal or
patrilineal related extended families or lineages, has numerous functions. They can
include: common name and identity, exogamous marriage rules, common religious obligations,
property ownership, mutual economic and political support, education, government, and
protection from a rival or aggressor, among others. In short, the clan and its designated
kinship roles address and attempt to provide for all the critical functions necessary for
a healthy human life. While a matrilineal system may seem overly-complicated, for
instance, it can provide all the security and comforts of any other form of kinship
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- Marriage relations create and are based on "affinal" ties, e.g., husband and
wife (as opposed to consanguineal ties). While marriage serves essential kinship and
descent functions, e.g., procreation of new clan members and legitimizing
of descent, marriage systems also focus on
solidifying external ties between groups -- integration among groups.
this sense, descent structures and marriage relations complement each other, functioning
hand-in-hand, one providing for internal organization while the other seeks external
- Characteristics of marriage include: 1. relationships between
groups, 2. transfer of rights and responsibilities
between groups, and among married partners and their offspring,
3. strict monogamy as the rule is the exception, with polygyny (one
husband and multiple wives; example of the Wodaabe of West Africa) a
permitted ideal in many societies, with polyandry (one wife and multiple husbands; example
of the Nyinba of Nepal) rarely occurring, though noted as one expression of
human variation, 4, sexual relations may or may not be
restricted to the marriage partnership, and 5.
"romantic love," as the motivation means to create the
marriage bond, is the exception rather than the rule. Such
"love" is often considered a threat to the stability of the
marriage institution, and societies have dealt with it in varying
ways. Within many societies marriage does not entail sexual relations
at all, with procreation accomplished through "lovers" outside the
marriage relation. European and Euro-American societies have
defined themselves, for the most part, as monogamous societies that have
limited the only form of legitimate sexual relations to married partners. While
Roman Law permitted prostitution, concubinage, and sexual access to slaves,
the Christianized European and Euro-American societies formally banned these
practices with laws against adultery,
and other relationships outside a monogamous, lifelong covenant.
Children born outside of the marriage partnership are considered "illegitimate,"
and without rights or inheritance. In contrast, consider the example of "ghost marriage"
among the Nuer. What is "love"?
How many ways can one "love" another person?
- Polygyny may seem to offer the husband a sense of status and prestige, but it may
not be all that it is cracked up to be for him (from the male perspective).
There can be
issues of equitable treatment by the husband of all his wives and their children and even
of his wives banding together against him for their mutual benefit.
Consider the examples of the polygyny among the Gusii and Tallensi of
- While defined in various ways, the incest taboo, which seeks to regulate sexual
and marriage relations, comes close to being one of the few cultural universals.
pervasiveness can be attributed to the following factors: 1. a "natural
aversion" as a result of familiarity ("familiarity breeds contempt"),
"natural desire" (Freudian) and thus need to separate, 3. prevention of
in-breeding (biological), 4. a tradition of out-breeding given early demographic patterns
(historic), and 5. a tradition of "marrying out or being killed out" (historic).
Consider the example of the Taiwanese "minor marriage."
- While the "incest taboo" refers to restrictions on sexual relations, exogamy
focuses on restrictions on marriage relations, i.e., one is prohibited from marrying
within a prescribed group, e.g., within one's clan. The two do not necessarily overlap.
- While the incest taboo and exogamy can be understood as a "negative" marriage
rule, i.e., who one should not marry, there are also "positive" marriage rule,
i.e., designating who one should marry. This is not to be confused with "arranged
marriages," where parents select your spouse while you might still be a child
yourself. Two-section and four-section marriage systems are examples of
"positive" marriage patterns.
- Bilateral Cross-Cousin Marriage or a two-section system is one form of
brother-sister marriage exchange that can help integrate an entire society. This is the
simplest and probably the oldest mode of integration formation. Imagine an entire society
made up of two exogamous groupings (lineages and/or clans). In order for you to marry the
proper spouse, the rule you would follow is that you marry the opposite sex, the same
generation and, critically, the opposite group or "section." In these societies,
kinship terminology makes it easy to figure out, i.e., all you need to know is the
appropriate kinship term. You marry someone termed "wife" or
"husband." As it turns out such a person is your "cross-cousin,"
one's mother's brother's child or father's sister's child, which is, in fact, the same
person! It is thus as "classificatory system," a large number of individuals are
grouped and classified by the appropriate kinship term. Interestingly, as a result of this
marriage pattern, all people in your society are related to each other by blood or
consanguinity. This system is found among peoples from southern India
and Sri Lanka, Pacific Islands, and both North and South America.
- Four-Section system. In a society in which the population is much larger and thus
the level of complexity and diversity greater, and yet a bilateral cross-cousin marriage
pattern is followed, a four-section marriage system provides a solution to societal
integration. First of all, to maintain the principle of exchange between two groups, the
entire population is classified and divided into a "moiety," into two halves.
You and all the various clans and lineages of your society thus belong to one or the other
side of the moiety. To further assist you in the proper designation of your potential
spouse, and help you avoid the possibility of marrying someone is who is classified as an
"uncle" or "aunt," or even "mother" or "father,"
each generation within both sides of the moiety are assigned different names and then
alternated each subsequent generation, e.g., Bears and Tigers for one generation, followed
by Lions and Foxes the next, and them repeating Bears and Tigers, with Bears and Lions
making up one moiety and Tigers and Foxes the other side of the moiety. If you are born a
Bear, you know to select a spouse from the Tigers, as a Lion would be made up of kinsmen
of your own moiety from your parent's and children's generation, while Foxes, even though
of the correct marrying moiety, would comprise individuals classified the generation above
or below your own. A four-section system is correlated with Iroquois kinship terminology.
The Mardu Aborigines practice a form of Four-Section marriage system.
- Patri-lateral cross-cousin marriage. In both the two-section and four-section
marriage systems, the exchange of spouses between two groups is direct and reciprocal,
each group (however defined) exchanging spouses with the other. But there are instances
when a binary structure (division of society into two groupings) is not present and
indirect marriage exchanges occur. Such is the case with patri-lateral cross-cousin
marriage. As a male member of your clan, you would only marry your father's sister's
daughter. To illustrate, imagine yourself a member of the Eagle patrilineal clan. In your
generation, you seek a spouse from the Hawk clan, while the Hawk clan seeks a spouse from
the Goose clan, who, in turn, seeks a spouse from your clan, the Eagles. Each clan is thus
linked and integrated, but only indirectly, each needing the other two clans. Now when
your son seeks a wife, following the rule of marrying his father's sister's daughter, in
his generation, he would would of course still be a Eagle, but he would seek a spouse from
the Goose clan, while a Goose member seeks out a Hawk spouse, and a Hawk member looks to
your clan, the Eagles. Interestingly, within each subsequent generation the direction of
the wife exchanges is thus reversed! The result is that no pair of grouping can achieve
self-sufficiency without all the groupings, thus leading to a generalized dependency on
all the clans.
- In comparison with two-section and four-section marriage patterns, patri-lateral
cross-cousin marriage patterns are rare, occurring in less the 1% of all known societies.
Nevertheless, the question must be asked. Why did some people select to create this level
of social sophistication and elaboration? In the larger context, what does it say about
the human experience?
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Gender: Women's Roles and Status
Tribal-Traditional peoples, e.g., in gatherer/hunter societies, "women"
(as a corporate entity) and their roles and positions are typically defined in terms of:
- Metaphorically linked to "earth" -- expressed naturally and spiritually as
"nurturer" and "regulator," as exemplified in Changing
Woman among the Navaho, Sedna among the Inuit, or
White Buffalo Calf Woman among the Lakota
- By extension, focus on "domestic" roles -- which are challenging, creative,
nurturing, and politically and economically powerful. "Domestic" doesn't mean
"private," but a very public role.
- A role separate from men, with clear and often rigid demarcation
- Nevertheless, female and male roles are complementary and equal in power and privilege
- With option of interchangeability with men's role, e.g., "women
With stratification of society into classes and the domestication of plants
and animals, an asymmetrical relation develops between men and women. Women
become subordinated to men for the first time.
stratification refers to differential access to resources, power and
privilege – some benefit while others do not – a new social order
domestication refers to deliberate manipulation and control of a once
wild plant or animal, for the benefit human – a new ecological world
Among the reasons for the change in the status of women are:
1. With an agricultural orientation, women denied access to means of
production; no longer major economic contributor. Examples in various
Marxist and Praxis-based theories.
– men assume control over modes of food production and trade (where had
essential role in both)
2. Given that males are traditionally anchored in the "public
realm," they are associated with cultural involvements revolving around
economics, politics and religion, i.e., all expression of power over nature,
that help create artificial symbolic and technological mediations that that
increase the control of humans over nature. In contrast women are anchored
traditionally in the "domestic realm," focused on "natural"
involvements, such as giving birth and nurturing young, as well as providing
food and health. With domestication, a new ideology further emphasized the
need for control over "nature"
i.e., – wild nature in fact a threat to cultivated fields and livestock –
barriers established between – separation – and towers erected to
watch and control over – subjugation. With domestication, the earth is
now envisioned as "wild" and a "threat" to what is
domesticated, as well as something to be "controlled" and a
"natural resource" to benefit mankind. Example in
theories of Sherry Ortner.
– As "women" express "natural" processes, that
which is "natural" in women – women's biological roles as
child-bearers and nurturers – are, by extension, subjugate by men.
– This domination is further amplified to the extend that women were
formally linked to and associated with the earth itself.. In its most
extreme expression, those values are, in turn, transferred to women
-- a "resource" to be controlled, as "property" for what
they can "produce," i.e., children, and certainly kept
"separate" from and subordinated to men.
Domestication certainly would have unfolded differently had the image of a
"nurturing" and "motherly" earth persisted. No one would
want to exploit their "mother"!
3. In the newly developed, competitive and hostile world of class
stratification, and animal and plant domestication, also associated with the
reduced need for rites of passage for both men and women, men in comparison with women
develop relatively low "self-esteem." Example in theories of
A women's self identity continues to be fostered by her life-cycle
natural maturation, including close ties with her mother and reiteration of
self-identity via menses, childbearing and infant nurturing.
A generalized low male "self-esteem" becomes translated and
attempts by men at compensation through overt acts of aggression toward and
subjugation of women.
To the extent these theories hold water, it is ironic that that which gives a
woman a strong sense of self-identity has become the basis for her own
subordination, whether from males attempting to extend control over
nature and thus what is natural in her or from a comparative lack of
self-identity by men!
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Summary Points -- Among Tribal-Traditional peoples, kinship
(descent), marriage systems and gender roles provide the following and can be generally
defined in terms of:
- Integration with others -- social Inclusivity
- Equal distribution of rights and obligations -- social equality
- Gender differentiation yet balance -- gender equality
- Ethic of sharing -- indebtedness to others
- Key theme: The well-being of the individual is dependent on and a reflection of
the well-being of the entire social world -- family, clan, tribe and landscape. The
individual is "rich" to the extent the entire social world is "rich."
Conversely, "a poor man shames us all" (Gabra).
Questions remain -- Of all the possible ways to culturally orient yourself, why have
Tribal-Traditional peoples so vigorously sought an integration with the world about them?
And what are the implications for Euro-American culture?
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