Kinship and Descent

The nuclear family has been called the unstable family. New families are continually founded and old ones fade away. The multiplicity of tasks within the family are particularly seen in primitive society. Such earlier families were organised according to generation and sex. The family was not only a reproductive unit, it was also a unit of economic co-operation. It was also a unit of training and mutual assistance.

Social and physical parenthood are distinct concepts – yet within the nuclear family reproduction takes place. The marriage bond ensures the child grows up with 2 social parents. While within the family incest prohibitions maintain separation of parents and children, and require that children seek mates outside the family. The nuclear family – provides for the continuous association of parents and children, but not for longer.

In a kinship system continuity over generations is achieved in two ways: (1) inter-personal relations developed in the nuclear family persist even when family members are dispersed; (2) in some societies nuclear families are submerged in larger domestic units that encompass several generations.

The elementary simple family is a unit of man, wife, and children living at home or outside it. This unit has a longer life than the nuclear family. Most people belong to two or more elementary families. In one, the family of orientation – they are children. In another, the family of procreation – they are the parents. Each elementary family is simultaneously a family of orientation and a family of procreation. Interlocking elementary families provide a framework on which the web (ramifications?) of kinship are constructed.

In descent systems acknowledge social parentage recognises a person may succeed office, or inherit property and become a member of a descent group. Some – all sons except the eldest – may be excluded from succession. Some – for example the daughters – may not inherit. In general  – everyone can claim membership in some group or kin. Stress is laid on distinction between succession, inheritance, and descent [W. H. R. Rivers. The Todas (1906).

In any society all three are closely related and often run in the same direction. There is no theoretical limit to the total number of ancestors as all descendants of each ancestor are potential kin. If no limitation is placed on kinship recognition then everyone would be kin to everyone else.

Most societies have limitations on kinship recognition. Thus a person regards some as kin and others as associates. An example is Australian Aboriginal society. Where the numbers are small everyone with whom a person came into contact is regarded as a kinsman. Social intercourse is impossible until kinship connection is ascertained.

In China – despite large numbers in social contact there is a large-range kinship system and kinship through males was recognised widely. The characteristic of kinship was recognition further in one direction than another – men and women.

Unilineal descent systems limit kinship recognition with emphasis on relationships through one parent. There are two main types – agnatic or patrilineal and matrilineal. Patriliny implies the man or woman is linked to patrikin or sons and daughters, son’s children, son’s son’s children, but cut off from daughter’s children. These have their own agnatic kin. Linkage with male means interlinking enduring group which is patrilineage or patrilineal. Divides into to lesser segments. Segments are centred around a core of men living in proximity.

Matrilineage – gives rise to groups of matrikin (woman, sons, daughters, children of daughters). Two modes of residence are found within matrilineages. These are local groups organised around the women of the matrilineage. The groups consist of the women, their husbands, and children. It may be based on the men of the matrilineage, consisting of them, their wives and children.

In the first instance a group of local women require counsel and leadership of man of matrilineage, who must live locally with his family. Conversely – some women of matrilineage may be married to men who are acting as local leaders for heir own sisters.

Competition among brothers for the allegiance and support of their sister’s sons may split a matrilineal group of organised co-resident men. Double descent is patrilineal and matrilineal principles being found together.


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