Kinship, Descent, Marriage and Gender:

Power and "Rich Person"

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.

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Overall Theme: How do we define "a rich person?"   How do we define "family?"  The defining qualities are in part related to how we orient our social relationships. In this section we will contrast the "collective" orientation of Indigenous 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:

  1. The foundation: we have males and females, as biological species, that can procreate and perpetuate the species.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 "living dead."
  5. 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 "individual."

Variation Example #1  "Rich Person" - A Successful Person

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 us all."

videos: Weyewa Stone (21 min., notes on Weyewa Stone), Gabra Stranger (13 min., notes on Gabra Strange),

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Variation Example #2  "Individual"

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A.  Kinship and Descent


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B.  Marriage

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 Africa.

Videos: Wodaabe Love (17 min., notes on Wodaabe Love), Nyinba Brothers (19 min., notes on Nyinba Brothers)

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C. Gender: Women's Roles and Status

Among Indigenous peoples, e.g., in gatherer/hunter societies, "women" (as a corporate entity) and their roles and positions are typically defined in terms of:

  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. A role separate from men, with clear and often rigid demarcation
  4. Nevertheless, female and male roles are complementary and equal in power and privilege
  5. With option of interchangeability with men's role, e.g., "women warriors"

Videos: Beatrice (13 min., followers the life of a Navajo woman; notes) and Wodaabe Beauty (18 min.)

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 view

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 Nancy Chodorow.

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 manifested into 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 Indigenous peoples, kinship (descent), marriage systems and gender roles provide the following and can be generally defined in terms of:

Questions remain -- Of all the possible ways to culturally orient yourself, why have Indigenous peoples so vigorously sought an integration with the world about them? And what are the implications for Euro-American culture?

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