Male and Female Oriented Descent Groups

It is one thing to live together in the same community with relatives; it is quite another to have unilineal descent groups. Unilineal (literally, "one line") descent groups exist where people consider themselves to be descended from a common ancestor through one gender only. If we speak of patrilineal descent, membership in the patrilineal descent group is passed through males only (membership is acquired from the father); members of both sexes belong through their fathers. If we speak of matrilineal descent, membership in the matrilineal descent group is passed through females only (membership is acquired from the mother). A group is more than a category of people, so to call it a group there must be some things that are done or regulated by the group (e.g., collectively using land owned by or assigned to the group, collectively avenging an attack on a member of the group). Some close relatives are always excluded from your own unilineal group. For example, if a society has matrilineal descent groups, membership in a group (usually named) is acquired from your mother (full brothers and sisters are always in the same unilineal group because they share the same mother), but your father is usually not in your kin group. If the society is patrilineal, your mother is not usually in your kin group. Most societies with unilineal descent have a rule of exogamy with respect to at least one level of kin group; you are usually precluded from marrying someone in your smallest unilineal group. The rule of exogamy often extends to the largest unilineal group. Among the Luo of Kenya, for example, one is prohibited from marrying anyone in the same maximal lineage that might extend back 14 or more generations (C. R. Ember, 1970). Societies with parallel-cousin marriage, that is, marriage to father's brothers' children and mother's sisters' children, which is common in the Arab world, are exceptional to the rule that unilineal descent groups are normally exogamous. In the Arab world, your father's brothers and their children, your parallel cousins, belong to your group, and marriage may be allowed or even preferred with a parallel cousin.

Besides regulating marriage, unilineal descent groups may have many different functions in a society. Many unilineal descent groups function as corporate landholders, allocating portions of the group's land for use by descent group members. Labor may be organized by descent group. Different unilineal groups may have their own gods, goddesses, or ancestral spirits. And unilineal groups also often function politically, either with elders or heads functioning as arbiters of disputes, or as offensive or defensive fighting units.

Why do unilineal descent groups develop? It has generally been assumed that patrilocal or matrilocal residence is a necessary precondition for the emergence of unilineal descent (Lowie, 1961, pp. 157-162; Murdock, 1949, pp. 59-60; Service, 1962, p. 122). After all, if a rule of descent is followed over time, then persons who descend from a common ancestor will be localized in the same neighborhood. Therefore it would be easy for those people to conceive themselves as descending from a common ancestor. But there are reasons to be skeptical that unilocal residence is a sufficient reason for creating unilineal descent. First, it may be easy to form a group, but that does not require people to do so. Second, in a cross-cultural comparison looking at the relationship between unilocal residence and unilineal descent (C. R. Ember, Ember, & Pasternak, 1974), only 72% of unilocal societies had unilineal descent. This is a high percentage, but 28% of the unilocal societies lack unilineal descent, consistent with the idea that the residence pattern is not sufficient to explain the development of unilineal descent groups. On the other hand, unilocal residence does look necessary in order for unilineal descent groups to develop. Of the unilineal societies in the sample, 97% have unilocal residence!

What condition or conditions would push a unilocal society to develop unilineal descent? Building on Service's (1962, p. 117; cf. Sahlins, 1961) observation that intersociety competition favors the development of pan-tribal sodalities such as unilineal kin groups to provide fighting units for offense and defense, we have suggested (C. R. Ember et al., 1974) that in the absence of centralized political systems, unilineal kin groups are the most likely solution to any kind of warfare, internal or external. First, unilineal kin groups provide unambiguous sets of kin with no conflicting loyalties. Everyone knows exactly who is in, and who is not in, their unilineal group. In bilateral societies, which have no descent groups, any transfamily kin groups are overlapping and nondiscrete, and therefore loyalties are conflicting. Second, unilineal kin groups, in contrast with neighborhood associations, have the advantage of being able to draw upon larger sets of people to whom connections can be remembered (or sometimes invented). (We discuss below why age-sets, or nonkin associations, may also develop.) The presence of warfare does improve our ability to predict that a unilocal society will also have unilineal descent. In contrast to the 72% of unilocal societies that have unilineal descent (mentioned earlier), 91% of unilocal societies with warfare have unilineal descent. Thus, although we cannot be certain that warfare causes unilineal descent to develop, in the absence of centralized political organization, the data are consistent with that theory (C. R. Ember et al., 1974).

There is one kind of descent system that is gender neutral. (Bilateral kinship is not a descent system.) Ambilineal descent is found in some societies. Instead of taking the descent group membership of one parent, some societies allow individuals to join a descent group through males or females. Ambilineal descent, however, is probably a departure from unilineal descent caused by a switch to bilocal or multilocal residence (C. R. Ember & Ember, 1972).

Some societies have double unilineal descent, both matrilineal and patrilineal groups exist. Murdock (1940/1965) and others have speculated that these are societies in transition from one form of descent system to another.

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Responses

  • zufan
    Where does descent group exist?
    7 years ago

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