Kinship Study Group 2

Structural/Functionists:Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, Evans-Pritchard, Fortes

  • Interested in social functions, social structure, social continuity, maintenance of harmony in groups.
  • Remember Durkheim’s social solidarity.
  • With small scale societies where you don’t have a governement, as a result of the self-sustaining nature of the system, these systems function without a defined political or economic framework, with kinship relations standing in their place as a socially cohesive force.
  • Must be seen within context of early fieldwork and the societies studied – ethnocentric view of other societies
  • Studies in Africa in 50s, looking at small-scale  societies which had no formal political or economic systems.  Anthropologists compared to their own societies, believing all societies needed something to structure in absence of established systems.
  • As ‘primitive’ societies were presumed to be organised around kinship, this was taken as the key integrative system
  • In this sense, kin relations were not just about reproduction, but concerned with ‘law’ and ‘rules’
  • Kinship constituted political structure and formed basis of social continuity in stateless society.
  • Lineage/descent theory fits society together and makes it function – socially recognised links between ancestors and descendents
  • Two distinct systems: patrilineal (through males) and matrilineal (through females)
  • Both males and females are members, but links are only recognized through relatives of one gender … resulting in only one direct ancestor in each generation (matrilineal / patrilineal)
  • Both males and females are members, but links are only recognized through relatives of one gender … resulting in only one direct ancestor in each generation (matrilineal / patrilineal)
  • Within matrilineal descent system, mother’s brother is important male figure
  • MB is the man who most likely would have the formal kinship related responsibilities for a boy that European cultures would label as his ‘father’
  • Also the male family member from whom a man will most likely inherit wealth, titles, or other status
  • So important figure is still male, but male through the mother’s side rather than the father.
  • What can descent groups do? Regulate production/distribution of goods and services; manage economic rights and obligations
  • Kinship is about rules and regulations
  • Draws distinction between domestic and public domains
  • Domestic domain was regulated by moral obligations
  • In the public domain, jural rules applied and regulated/mediated relationships between groups
  • Kinship alone does not form the basis for formation of enduring groups
  • For their structures to be solid, groups had to be clearly delineated and organised in opposition to each other.  It was argued that this was enabled by the social form of unilineal descent groups, hence lineage theory organised through patrilineal or matrilineal descent.
  • Only unilineal descent groups unambiguously define group membership
  • Recruitment of individuals into groups is structurally determined by their descent, and their loyalty to the group, i.e the structure is the lineage
  • Individuals derive their main social identity from their membership of the group, whose rules on behaviour and intergroup relations have jural force, i.e. are established in law.
  • Being bound by such mutual rights and activities has three political consequences
    1. Juniors subject to political authority of the elders, from whom they inherit rights to essential subsistence resources belonging to the group
    2. Authority is vested collectively in elders
    3. Women often used by senior men to create strategic marriages which maintain inter-lineage relations in absence of an over-arching government .


  • Forges intrinsic connections between politics, economics, kinship organisation and ideology where there is no formal political or economic system.
  • Found to be more useful for analysing societies of nomadic pastoralists and subsistence farmers than static s-f models due to dynamic and historically sensitive analysis
  • Based on ethnocentric idea of what is needed to form a functioning society.
  • Inappropriate concept for Australasia and Americas

Structionalists Lévi-Strauss, Dumont, Leach, Needham

  • Alliance Theory interprets marriage as a structural principle
  • Less ethnocentric view of kinship, because although local people may have had kinship structured by lineage, they did not think about them in those terms. i.e. to them, marriage alliances were more important.
    • Kinship practice was not the same as kinship norms, eg Greek Island Cosmos – manipulating affinal marriages for own advantage
    • Classificatory constructs (categories) not in accordance with apparent social organisation
    • Marriage alliances between lineages became more important than the lineage itself
  • One of the most important general rules governing marriage is exogamy which prohibits marriage within a specific group or category
  • Ultimately derived from incest prohibitions – who could not be married – ‘wives’ versus ‘sisters’
  • L-S considers the essence of incest taboos is not the fact that they prohibit marriage between certain person but that they force men to seek spouses from another category than the one which is prohibited
  • L-S theory is prescriptive, not prohibitive.
  • Both help prevent local groups from becoming ‘sexually self-sufficient’, and enable wider social cohesion
  • Although conflation of incest rules and exogamy is open to challenge, in some societies, marriage does follow enduring patterns
  • L-S termed these the elementary structures of kinship
  • Elementary structures of kinship are characterised by both positive and negative rules of marriage, i.e. who must be married, who cannot be married
  • L-S viewed complex structures of kinship  as typified by negative rules
  • L-S identified three elementary structures:
    1. The prohibition of incest is a universal rule which prevents marriage within the family and creates society
    2. This prohibition  forces men to give their sisters and daughters to men of other families and to seek their wives in these other families , ie giving, receiving, duty to reciprocate
    3. This exchange of women links families together into groups of interrelatedfamilies and creates solidarity where none might otherwise exist
  • The structure of exchange between families integrates them into a larger social system – society.
  • Incest prohibitions were not based on genetic problems.
  • These are not as common as we would believe, nor were they commonly known to the people of other societies before the advent of modern medicine
  • The exchange of women is not an alternative to the exchange of valuables.
  • Exchange of women is the primary formof exchange because solidarity and the exchange of women are the same thing, i.e. it is the basis of society.
  • The object of the exchange – women – constitutes the relationship which it symbolises
  • The exchange of women is therefore the most elementary form of exchange, preceding the exchange of goods with its distinction between the goods exchanged and the relations of inter-group solidarity which it symbolises

Direct exchange of women is between two exogamous groups

  • Women from the first group A marry men from group B and women from group B marry men from group A
  • L-S views this as a rudimentary form of exchange and terms it ‘restricted exchange’, as it appears to link limited number of people, i.e restricted to two groups only.
  • In the simplest case, it involves bilateral cross-cousin marriage and all marriages involve first cross-cousins i.e. children of a brother and sister
  • The spouses are related on both their fathers’ sides (patrilaterally) and on their mothers’ sides (matrilaterally)
  • This type of exchange promotes mechanical solidarity between units
  • In reality, this exogamy can involve large descent groups, two villages, or in the case of ‘dual organisation’, the two groups make up the whole of the society

Generalised exchange involved more than two groups in circular structure

  • A women marry B men, B women marry C,men , C women marry D men, D women marry A men.
  • This entails a clear distinction between wife-givers and wife-takers
  • Prromotes greater social cohesion than restricted exchange, and permits more complex social systems to develop – promotes organic solidaritybecause
  • as each group is linked with at least two other groups, the one from whom it receives women, and the one to whom it gives.

Kinship is:

  • processualstructuring, and creative cultural practice and constraint, i.e. follows a process, has a structure, is created by culture
  • key dimension of the social fabric of embodied lived experience
  • a construct of anthropological and social scientific explorations of the social world