Kinship and Family (1)


(a really excellent interactive tutorial on many of the ideas covered here is at

The subject of kinship, family and marriage has traditionally taken up a large part of analysis in cultural anthropology. The basic reason for this is that kinship is the idiom in which all sorts of other kinds of relations – economic, political, even religious - are often expressed. Thus, for example, we may isolate among the Trobrianders relationships we call "economic" or "political" but on closer analysis it runs out that in large measure the Trobrianders themselves think of these at least partially in terms of what we might call "kinship". In small scale societies kinship is thus the cement in which all sorts of other social relationships are expressed.


Kinship and family in US and other industrial societies has been reduced to its bare minimum.  We have stripped the family of all its functions except the basic practical ones involving nurturance of offspring, and a vague set of emotional needs in which the family provides “ a haven in a heartless world”.  This shift is subtly exemplified in the  Dickens Christmas Carol.  Dickens was writing at a time when Christmas was in the process of being transformed from being primarily a minor religious ceremony to being a secular quasi religious celebration which celebration the family. The tragedy of Scrooge is that he is a kinless person.

The basic statistical realities of kinship are that your ancestors theoretically increase in a geometric ratio.  Assuming an average generation of 30 years, this means that 300 years ago (less than the Mayflower) you had 2 to the power of 10 (1024) ancestors   (this assumes an infinite gene pool, which of course is not the case – there is always some back breeding and gene pools as a practical matter are quite variable in size). 600 years ago slifhtly over one million, 900 years ago about a billion.  Chances that we are all related to William the Conquerer  (the only difference between us and Queen Elizabeth is she can prove it).



The Prohibition Against Incest


The starting point for any analysis of family and kinship has got to be incest and the prohibition of incest.

We are talking here about the universal prohibition against sexual relations (and marriage) between member of the nuclear family other than the basic Husband- wife pair. But, in some societies the prohibition is extended to include other sorts of kinpersons, and it can also be used to imply not only who one should not marry, but also who one should marry. These extensions of the prohibition (sometimes called the "incest taboo") will not initially concern us.


This is a fascinating topic in social anthropology for two reasons:

1.      The rule is highly specific and universal. It is arguably the only such highly specific and universal moral rule, and thus appears to be "natural". But at the same time it is also clearly a conscious moral rule, and hence "cultural. So we have something which is both natural and cultural at the same time -- and this makes it interesting.


2.     Without the prohibition against incest the universal distinction between affinal ("in laws" in our terminology) and consanguine ("blood" in our terminology) kinpersons would not be possible.

[ Bear in mind that the term "blood" is a metaphor which is conventionally employed in our culture to refer to "biological" relatives. But it is not just a "dead" metaphor because historically we sometimes have given it a certain literalness:

1.      Blood banks and the U.S. military until quite recently kept "black blood’ separate from "white blood" to avoid "racial" mixing.

2.     In 18th century France, particularly in the aristocratic classes, a married women could with more or less impunity commit adultery while pregnant because it was sure that the ‘blood" could not then be corrupted (this was important since property and political office tended to be passed down in the male line.)


Most cultures have some sorts of prime symbols of kinship. Blood in our culture, but in some places it is bones, or milk, or semen, etc. Basic symbols of kinship are often bodily fluids. ]

Kinship is the US is deeply connected with mystical ideas about biology.  Most people of the world are truly amazed at the length which Americans will go to find their “real parents”


Theories of Incest Prohibition

1.      Most mammals spontaneously refrain for having sex with parents and siblings. This makes evolutionary and genetic sense and it can be assumed that it is the same for humans as well. But, there is a problem, because if the prohibition is just an expression of some automatic "instinct" then why the intensity of the rule against that which people presumably would not do anyway?

A further consideration is that even if there is a scientific biological basis for the prohibition, it is still the American folk explanation for the rule. That is, if you survey people walking in Harvard Square, most will give a biological rationale for the rule. But this is a potential problem, because if biology is the only reason not to commit incest then people living in households with non-biological kin (say, unmarried teenagers by divorced and remarried parents) may use this rationale to justify having sex.


 But the incest prohibition serves other social functions as well. In particular, it prevents the formation of incompatible sentiments within the family. Thus if father and daughter are involved, father may lose his authority over his daughter lest she withhold favors, and the mother and daughter (even subconsciously) become rivals.

1. Many theorists (particularly Freud) have argued that the prohibition serves to prevent the formation of socially inappropriate sentiments. Even though those sentiments might (subconsciously) be psychologically pleasurable.

In Totem and Taboo (about 1922?) Freud created a scenario in which in some sort of hypothetical primal horde the father monopolized all the women, including his daughters, to the annoyance of the sons. The sons banded together to kill the father and take the women. Afterwards, they felt guilty and atoned for the guilt by making a rule that from then on there would be no more incest.

It is doubtful that Freud really thought this actually happened as such. It is a powerful allegory or moral fable which demonstrates the consequences of incest and the need to prohibit it. It has to be understood in the context of his theories of the oedipal urges in which the son is jealous of the father vis a vis the mother.

3. One of the earliest theory of the incest prohibition was proposed by E.B Tylor who argued that the prohibition against incest is really a rule that one must mate and marry outside one’s one nuclear family. Thus, the prohibition serves to bind together families into larger units of alliance: "marry out or die out".

4. A somewhat similar approach has been taken by the French anthropologist Claude Levi –Strauss who sees in the incest prohibition the most fundamental rules regarding the sentiment of reciprocity. In order to understand his approach, it is necessary to suspend ones disbelief in the sheer political incorrectness and apparent sexism of the theory and try to understand it as an interesting, elegant, but perhaps too clever approach to the problem.

Women are the most valuable items men have to exchange, he says. The prohibition against incest is thus a rule that says to each man that in return for giving up access to the women under his control (his daughters and sisters), he will be entitled to a reciprocal gift of a woman from the brother or daughter of the woman received. Remember this is a kind of very abstract model; he doesn’t mean that individual men are necessarily conscious of all this. He distinguishes three kinds of reciprocity in marriage exchange:

1.      symmetrical reciprocity, as in a rule of sister marriage, in which two brothers exchange sisters(or women who are considered "like sisters"). There are actually a number of places where this is the ideal, such as the Tiv of Nigeria, although for practical reason the ideal cannot always be achieved. The Tiv are patrilineal and view the sister exchange as part of an exchange between two lineages (one must marry exogamously outside one’s lineage).

2.     Asymmetrical exchange - in which there are a number of groups, say A, B, C and D (these are usually lineages, but they can be any kind of group). A gives to B and receives from D, B gives to C and receives from A, C gives to D and receives from B, etc. There are a very few societies (mostly in eastern Indonesia) that actually have systems like this, or at least they try to practice it .


3.     Generalized exchange – in which every man puts the women under his control into a kind of collective "pot", and thereby is entitled to take a woman out of the common pot at some time. Remember again this is a very abstract model, so don’t take it literally. Whether correct or not, Levi-Strauss’ approach is highly original and though provoking.

Levi Strauss once referred to eating off ones own best china alone as "incestuous". Why? Because best china is reserved for guests and to be shared. Eating off it without sharing is, so to speak, like eating one’s sister – who should be shared]

My own take on the problem is eclectic. All of these approaches have something to them. It is precisely because the incest prohibition serves so many necessary functions in society that the taboo is so strongly enforced. The prohibition against incest is: 1) biologically useful, 2)contributes to interpersonal harmony with the family, 3)binds families together into larger units, and 4) is a way of structuring the patterns of marriage in a society.


In those rare cases where incest is culturally sanctioned (as in brother-sister marriage among the Ancient Egyptian aristocracy), it has to be understood in the context of religion, and the fact that tyrants and powerful political leaders often use their position to symbolically affirm that they are not subject to the rules of ordinary society.

The incest prohibition is often extended outside the nuclear family to other degrees of relatives. There is great cultural variation here. Americans are usually divided on whether first cousin marriage is "wrong", but for the Tausug it is considered an ideal form of marriage (it keeps property within a close group, and they say that marriages last longer because the parents are siblings, although I have no evidence that this is in fact the case).

One final point: one must distinguish between the prohibition against incestuous sex from the prohibition against marriage. Trobrianders absolutely cannot marry within their matrilineage, but it is considered a bit spicy to pull off a sexual liaison with a distant clan member ( although they technically defined it as incest). People may gossip, but unless there is a public accusation, nothing is done.


The word ‘marriage" has been difficult to define satisfactorily in a cross-cultural manner, precisely because there are so many different kinds of institutions (sometimes more than one in a given society) which all seem to have some, but not all, of the characteristics of "marriage" as defined in our culture.

Marriage can perform a number of easily identifiable functions:

1) the regulation and channeling of sexuality, 2) creating the sexual division of labor, 3) the foundation of the nuclear family, 4) a means to structure economic exchanges between kin groups and bond these groups together, 5) provide an institution for the socialization and enculturation of children.

And there are other functions you might list.

It would be easy to say the marriage exists in all human societies (it does) because it performs these useful functions. But this idea would be subtly wrong, I think.

Most (but not all) cultures take marriage as giving the partners sexual access to each other, sometimes exclusively. Of course, cheating on your spouse occurs everywhere as a fact (although with much varying frequency) and the obligation to remain faithful is much more likely to fall more heavily on the wife than the husband (again, there’s lots of variability here), So without marriage there would be a free for all and presumably much fighting, so the argument goes. But the scarcity of women (or men) is the result of marriage, not necessarily its cause.

Sexuality in all societies is very strictly controlled ( do not confuse social control with "looseness" here). Sex can be used as a reward for people who conform to cultural norms, But only if sex is hard to get at, or perhaps it would be better to say societies pretty universally require people to "jump through hoops" of one sort or another to get it.

All of the so-called "functions" of marriage, important as they are, can be performed by other institutions, and anthropologists can give many examples of this.

Whatever else marriage is, it is always based on dissimilarity and complementarily, and ultimately the principle of reciprocity. One sees this very clearly in societies which allow same-sex marriage (with or without any presumption of sexual behavior). In same sex marriage, almost always one of the partners assumes the legal identity and sometimes social persona of the "usual" sex. Although many European and American societies have recognized same sex bonds as having certain identifiable legal and other rights, the possibility of same sex marriage is quite contentious, not necessarily because it is thought to be immoral, but because it is often seen as ‘illogical": a bringing together of that which is already the same: a redundancy which undermines the presumed dissimilarity and complementarities of marriage.


Your text discusses the widespread Amerindian institution of the berdache (this is the name given by French traders in the 17th century) who were males who could assume female roles and sometimes marry other men.

One classic case of same-sex marriage is that of the Dahomeans (who are the major ethnic group in African nation of Benin), who were studied by my first teacher in Anthropology, Melville Herskovits. He identified a number of Dahomean institutions which roughly corresponded to "marriage".

Women in West Africa in general have a rather high position, in part because small marketing and trading is usually (but not everywhere) in the hands of women, who usually can personally keep the rewards of their extra-domestic( outside the household) labor. Women can thus often acquire independent wealth.

The Dahomeans form patrilineal descent groups, and it might happen that an older woman desires to secure her place in her own patrilineage (remember that her own children by her original marriage will be filiated (attached or assigned to) her husbands lineage). She will marry a younger woman from another patrilineage, and have children by that women (via a genitor or biological father usually taken from her own lineage) The child’s fostering mother and father will usually be the biological mother and the presumed "biological" genitor (remember that biological motherhood – the genetrix—is always a matter of fact, while biological fatherhood is always a matter of cultural presumption), while the legal father (whom we can call the pater , using the Latin word) will be the older woman. That is, the child in this cases receives very important social and legal obligations as well as lineage position (which are quite important and numerous), from the older woman. The child belongs to her patrilineage lineage and may take her position in it for certain legal purposes.


Note here that it is necessary to distinguish biological parenthood (genitor and genetrix) , fostering parenthood (fostering father and mother), and legal parenthood (pater and mater). It is important to make this distinction because the terms "father" and "mother" are just too ambiguous, even in our own culture where there is a presumption that these three roles will ideally be held by the same person.

We can see this distinction more clearly in the Nuer, also a patrilineal society. (The Nuer are a cattle herding pastoral people in the Southern Sudan –there are not doing too well these days because of the horrendous civil war in that area.) Nuer consider it important that every male leave his position in the lineage to an offspring, so that if a young man dies without children, his brother or other male kinsman may "marry a wife to his name". The brother becomes the genitor and fostering father of the child, while the child will refer to the dead brother(who he has never met) by a term for "father" which might better be translated as pater., or legal father.

All of the so-called basic functions of marriage can, and in some instances are, performed by other institutions. Raising children, for example, does not have to occur in a nuclear family based household. As we shall see, for the traditional Ashanti the household was typically formed around a brother-sister unit.

There is the case of the Nayar of S. India, discussed in your text. Formerly the Nayar were a militaristic caste of sorts with younger men off fighting as mercenaries. They have matrilineal descent groups. A girl is married before menarche to a man who becomes the pater to all children born, but after menache the girl takes lovers who sire her children. The kids are raised in matri-centered housholds with close ties to their maternal uncles. The "husband" is pretty much out of the picture.

Formerly (perhaps today) in parts of the Arab world a man could take a wife for a specified period of time (usually the pilgrimage to Mecca) She is paid and the union has a definite length to it. This has been variously described, using our terminology, as "prostitution" or "concubinage", but these are very ethnocentric terms.


A working definition of marriage: a more or less permanent culturally recognized union between two opposite gender roles (usually opposite sexes as well) with the expectation that the children born within the union will be socially acceptable (legitimate) in certain defined ways. This a vague, but if you want a definition that works everywhere, you have to put up with some vagueness.

A word about marriage as a ceremony. Some cultures such as the Eskimo would appear to have no ceremonial recognition of marriage at all. Once a couple haven living together long enough and there is a community recognition of the union by consensus. In some cultures, (our own, obviously) there is a definite ceremony, and people are either married or they are not. But in other cultures is possible for the marriage ceremony to stretch out over a period of time, with a slow transition between single and married roles.

Marriage exchanges. These fall into two distinct types: bridewealth (formerly called bride price) and dowry.

Bridewealth is a payment by the man and/or his kin to the woman and/or her kin, It cements the alliance between two kin groups, and in societies which have wealth stratification, the amount of the bridewealth is often a symbol of social status and prestige.

Dowry is much less common than bridewealth, and seems to be most prevalent in Europe, the Mediterranean, and South Asia. It superficially seems to be the opposite of bridewealth, with payments going from man’s kin to woman’s kin, but is actually more of a payment to the woman which she brings to the marriage. It occurs most often in societies where important property (land or livestock) is inherited by the son(s), and the dowry can be considered a kind of pre-mortem inheritance. In traditional rural Ireland, land was usually inherited by the eldest son (tracts were often small and could not easily be divided) while the younger sons often joined the clergy (or emigrated). The daughter was given her share of the patrimony in the form of a dowry (usually movable property or money) which she brought to the marriage before her father died (while the eldest son often waited around as a "boy" to get his until the father finally died).

Domestic Groups

Obviously once married, the couple have to live somewhere, and there is an older anthropological classification of post marital residence:

Patrilocal or virilocal - residence with or very near the husbands parents. Matrilocal - residence near or with the womans parents. Neolocal – living in a new separate household. There are other types as well. The problem here is whether this classification tells us anything interesting or useful.

A better analysis of this would look at households in terms of what the basic dyadic pair which is considered to be (ideally) the most enduring and least breakable.

In a typical American household, although there may be all sorts of different kin or (even non kin) involved (in-laws, unmarried aunts, etc.). If an irreconcilable dispute arises, say, between a man and his mother-in law, it is the mother in law who must leave. This the ideal – it doesn’t always work out that way as you know.

1. Households based on the husband-wife relationship. This is by far the most common in the world.

Example: The iban-iban  of Sarawak (Malaysian Borneo). Live in longhouses stretched along river banks for some distance. The whole continuous house is in effect one village. It consists of a series of connected bilek which translates as both "room" and "domestic group". The bilek is usually a three –generation extended family, based on links through either daughters or sons. As the bilek approaches it maximum size (perhaps 8-10 people), one of the middle generation married couples splits off (sometimes after a dispute) and simply move down the end of the longhouse and build another addition. This forms a new household based on a married couple and their young children, and then the cycle starts over again.

2. Households based on the father-son relationship. This is the next most common form, and is common in patrilineal societies.

Among the Tiv of central Nigeria, women marry outside their patrilineage and go to live in their husband’s compound, near and very close to his father and brothers. Ideally, the father son bond is the last one to be broken, so if a young wife cannot get on with her father in law or brothers in law, the marriage might be dissolved. Their (male) attitude is "you can always get a new wife but you only have one father."

3. Households can also be founded on the primacy of the mother-daughter relationship, and this is often seen in societies with matrilineal descent groups. The traditional Hopi of Arizona are a good example. A man considers his sister’s house his "real" house and keeps his ritual property (medicine bundles, etc.) there. He more or less lives in his wife’s household, but if he cannot get on with his mother-in law, the marriage might be dissolved.

4. Households formed on the sibling-sibling relationship. The traditional Ashanti or Akan (Ghana) are a good example of this. Meyer Fortes recounts that at dinnertime women could be seen scurrying about with great pots of cooked food. They were delivering cooked food to their husbands (with whom they did not live). Husbands and wives typically live in households based around their siblings, and children alternate (according to their own whims) between the two households after infancy. The Ashanti are matrilineal and often the elder mother and perhaps her brother may also be part of the household. Akan household composition is actually quite variable. Check out