Kinship and Descent And why they are important 7/17/2016

Kinship and
And why they are important
Kinship is a Total Social Fact in
Small-Scale Societies
Kinship emerged as an important area of study in social anthropology because most
anthropologists studied societies in which it was considered an important, if not the most
important institution.
Most anthropologists studied relatively small-scale societies which did not have a
centralized and separate apparatus of government or a separate sphere of the economy.
Kinship groups fulfilled many functions associated with politics, economics, and
Regulated marriage choices.
Regulated reproduction and socialization of children.
Political functions: acted as corporate groups, mediated conflicts, acted as support groups for
Economic functions: norms of reciprocity were embedded within kinship groups:
Generalized reciprocity: norms of mutual obligation for support, open-ended and having not fixed time
for ‘repayment’: these norms often functioned at the level of the household of the lineage segment.
Balanced Reciprocity, e.g. the kula or the potlatch: ceremonial distribution and exchange of wealth
often determined and regulated by kinship groups, e.g. in the potlatch, the giving of gifts was between
clans and had to be returned at a specified date in an equal or greater amount.
Negative reciprocity: attempt to get the better of another person or group, happens sometimes
between tribal segments.
Descent Groups
Descent groups can be of two types: unilineal and cognatic.
Cognatic: descent is traced from both mo and fa.
Unilineal descent groups trace descent from either the mother or the
 Patrilineal: descent is traced from the fa
 Matrilineal: descent is traced from the mo.
 Even in societies that are unilineal, there may be certain
functions associated with cognatic descent: e.g. sacrifice to an
ancestor among the Tallensi is made not only by the
patrilineage, but by all people descended from that person
through e.g. children of women of the descent group who
married into other groups.
 Today, about 60% of kin-based societies are patrilineal, 35% are
matrilineal, and the remainder are cognatic.
Reasons for Corporate Descent
Unilineal descent groups became prominent in human society after the
neolithic revolution, i.e. the emergence of food production, settled life, and
Defined relations of people to the land through time
Difference between a descent category and a descent action
The first consists of those people who are eligible for membership in a
particular corporate group.
The latter defines those who actually come together and exist as an active
part of a corporate group.
This provides flexibility in inheritance between groups that have different
population dynamics.
Provided units of collective labour organization, e.g. lineage members
could be called upon to clear forests or provide irrigation to crops.
For functionalists, descent groups provided the major form of social
cohesion in small-scale societies.
Kinship Symbols
Bilateral kindred: everyone is
related through both fa and mo
Matrilineal Descent:
male ego
Matrilineal descent:
female ego
Patrilineal descent: male ego
Patrilineal descent: female ego
Descent and Marriage
Unilineal descent groups must have rules about marriage, because
otherwise they wouldn’t be unilineal.
Generally, the unilineal descent groups is exogamous: this means that
in a patrilineal descent group, the daughters marry outside their lineage
or clan and are usually ‘absorbed’ into their husband’s clan. The
reverse is true for matrilineal societies: men marry outside their
mother’s clan and are sometimes ‘absorbed’ into their wife’s clan. In
some societies, there are moieties, i.e. the various clans group into two
broad groups. Often moieties are also exogamous.
Distinction between a descent group and a kindred: the kindred
includes all relatives of ego, both male and female. It is ‘actualized’
only on special occasions relating to ego: birth, marriage, birth of
children, death. The descent group is narrower and is defined by
descent from a common ancestor.
Descent and Spatial Divisions
Imagine a community of about 10,000 people made up of 6
districts. Each district is made up of 5-10 neighborhoods.
All of the people in the town have one of a dozen names:
Smith, Jones, Brown, etc.
No two people with the same last name are to marry.
In one neighbourhood, the houses and land are all owned by
people with the same name, e.g. the Smiths of Elm Street.
All are descended from Sam Smith the grandfather of the
oldest man living. Land is owned collectively. One of the
older Smiths acts as spokesperson in business and property
matters and leads them in religious services. This would be
the lineage or even the minimal lineage segment.
In another district, there may be other Smiths. Both Smiths
share a sense that they are related, but may not be able to
trace actual genealogical links. This is a clan of Smiths.
Each level has a more remote ancestor, and this is known as
segmental organization.
Descent and Locality
New couples can reside either with their father’s family, their mother’s family, or
In some societies, places of residence are stipulated.
Patrilocal residence: residence within or near the father’s house.
Matrilocal residence: residence within or near the mother’s house.
Neolocal residence: residence apart from either the mother’s or father’s side of the
Uxorilocal residence: residence with the mother’s brother: fairly common in
matrilineal societies. Mo bro is authority figure in matrilineal societies.
Descent and residence do not always coincide: for example among the Tsimshian
of the Skeena and Nass Valleys: descent is matrilineal, while residence is
patrilocal. Some anthropologists believe that this produces a central tension
between the children and the father, since people have to leave their father’s
residence to be socialized in their mother’s family group for long periods. This
tension is a central theme in their folklore, history and myths.
Theories of Kinship
Functional: descent groups exist because they function to
provide many social, economic and political ‘services’.
Psychobiological/social: basic ‘fact’ of kinship is mother/child
bond. All cultures believe there is a shared substance
between mother and child, even if they do not, e.g. in the
Trobriands, believe that the biological father had any role in
conception. Kinship mediates between biology and culture
and is hence associated with powerful emotions of sexuality
and parenting.
Symbolic: Kinship is a way of ‘explaining’ social organizing
principles and expressing them through the metaphor of