Kinship and Descent

Kinship and Descent
And why they are important to anthropology
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
Most anthropologists studied relatively small-scale societies which did not
have a centralized and separate apparatus of government.
Kinship groups provided the most important institutional bedrock of such
Kinship groups had many functions:
Regulated marriage choices.
Regulated reproduction and socialization of children.
Political functions: acted as corporate groups, mediated conflicts,
acted as support groups for individuals.
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
•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 father.
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
Today, about 60% of kin-based societies are patrilineal, 35% are matrilineal,
and the remainder are cognatic.
Reasons for Corporate Descent Groups
Unilineal descent groups became prominent in human society after the neolithic
revolution, i.e. the emergence of food production, settled life, and agriculture.
Defined relations of people to the land through time
Difference between a descent category and a descent action group
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.
Descent and Marriage
Unilineal descent groups must have rules about marriage.
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.
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.