Differences between Matrilineal and Patrilineal Systems

One of the classical paradoxes about matrilineality is that it is not the mirror image of a patrilineal system. It differs in one important feature that has important structural consequences. Schneider (1961, p. 7) pointed out that the lines of authority and descent diverge in matrilineal societies, but converge in patrilineal societies. This is because males are usually the political leaders in all societies. So in a patrilineal society, descent and political authority (if there is a rule of succession) pass through males; authority, like membership, passes from father to son. In a matrilineal society, descent passes through females, but authority is passed from a man to his sister's son. Recall that in a matrilineal system, children take their descent membership from their mother, so brothers and sisters always share the same descent group membership. The father would not be the authority figure in that descent group; rather, the mother's brother would be. If there is an authority position held by males, the successor is normally the sister's son.

Schneider (1961, p. 27; cf. Kloos, 1963) also pointed to the greater difficulty of maintaining a one-kin group community in matrilineal societies as compared with patrilineal societies. The difficulty arises from the fact that if males are to be effective authority figures for their matrilineal kin groups, it would be better if they did not move far away when they marry; that is, it would be better if marital residence were matrilocal. In fact, most matrilineal societies have matrilocal residence. Accordingly, we would expect another difference between patrilineal societies and matrilineal societies: matrilineal matri-local societies should be unlikely to require marriage with someone outside the community (local exogamy). Aberle (1961, pp. 715-717) found that matrilineal societies are significantly less likely to have local exogamy than patri-lineal societies; we also found (M. Ember & Ember, 1971) that matrilocal societies are significantly less likely to have local exogamy. The flip side of this is that matrilineal matrilocal societies are much more likely to have communities composed or more than one descent group. If a unilineal society requires marriage outside the descent group, which is commonly the rule, there would be no one to marry in the community unless it contained more than one descent group.

Earlier we mentioned the psychological stress experienced by an in-marrying female in a patrilocal society. We raised the question of whether men would feel the same kind of stress. Although we do not know for sure, the structural differences between the two types of society suggest that men in matrilocal matrilineal societies would probably not be exposed to the same degree of stress. Husbands would generally not have to move far away when they got married if marriages generally involve people from the same community. Thus the men could still retain important roles in their own descent groups. In contrast, females in patrilocal patrilineal societies not only generally have to move to other communities, but they also have to move into a community whose core members belong to a descent group that is not theirs. Ties to their own descent group would mostly be severed or minimized by the distance from their "home" community.

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