Kinship and Marriage: an Anthropological Perspective

By Robin Fox, 1967 

Anthropologist Robin Fox takes it on himself in this book to systematize what anthropologists have observed about the family structures in the many societies they have studied.  He thinks that anthropologists have been too shy about generalizing, so that the field has accumulated a wealth of isolated case studies without enough theory to give them context.  According to Fox, the various family structures are based on four universal, or nearly universal, principles:

1)      The women have the children.

2)      The men impregnate the women.

3)      The men usually (i.e. for all societies up till now) exercise control.

4)      Primary kin do not mate with each other.

These are the given parameters.  Families are what people do with these facts, how they use them to form social bodies which can outlast individuals.  There are basically three ways that a family can propagate itself from generation to generation; it can be matrilineal (inheritance through the female line), patrilineal (inheritance through the male line), or cognatic (inheritance through both parents).  Fox argues that each of these choices has its own intrinsic logic that influences the relationships between family members, and he cites a number of examples to show how these tendencies play out among actual tribes.  So, for example, the role of sister is crucial in matrilineal societies, since they produce the family’s next generation, while in patrilineal societies, the important female role is wife/mother.  On the other hand, the husband/father is central in patrilineal but not matrilineal organization.  In fact, Fox argues that husbands aren’t really necessary at all for the matrilineal family.  The mother’s brother fills the role of male authority figure, so women could be impregnated by random strangers, and the system would still work fine.  Indeed, it does seem that marriage and adultery are taken much less seriously in matriarchal societies.  His concentration on such cases leads Fox to believe that the role of husband/father, and therefore the nuclear family itself, are not natural in the way the four main principles are.  However, I don’t think that the facts he cites support such a radical conclusion.  Nearly all of the matrilineal societies Fox discusses do have important father/husband roles, even though they do indeed clash with the logic of matrilineality and present a rival to the authority it vests in the maternal uncle.  Of course, the majority of peoples are patrilineal, so for them these problems don’t arise. 

Cognatic inheritance is another beast entirely.  If a person belongs to both the family of his mother and the family of his father, then people will have multiple kinship groups.  This means that cognatic descent groups can’t focus like unilineal descent groups.  There are societies that operate on this principle, however, and it functions surprisingly well for some purposes.  To complicate matters, some tribes use unilineal descent when determining family connection for some purposes and cognatic descent when assigning it for other purposes.  There’s also a distinction to be made between descent groups, which have a corporate life of their own, and ego-centered groups (the set of my first cousins, for example), which cannot.  Unlike descent groups, ego-centered groups are intransitive:  just because A is my first cousin and B is my first cousin doesn’t mean that A and B are first cousins.  This group is entirely “me-relative”.    Fox additionally distinguishes lineality from locality, i.e. which parent you inherit your kinship group from vs. which parent you live with after marriage, but this was more detail than I was interested in.

Of course, there’s more to kinship than just deciding who counts as the next generation.  One can ask what happens when a family becomes too big and needs to be broken up.  One can study how groups of related families form clans.  One can look at the ways that neighboring families form alliances by trading women in marriage each generation.  Fox devotes space to all of these issues and others besides.

In order to keep the book on track, Fox doesn’t devote much space to describing the beliefs the people he describes have about their family roles.  For example, I get the impression that in many cases wives in patrilineal societies are “adopted” into the family of their husbands, but this never seems to happen to husbands in matrilineal societies.  Are these observations generally true?  It doesn’t affect which family the children belong to, but it does affect how spouses understand their stake in their children.  I think the lack of emphasis on beliefs (ideological superstructure, if you will) weakens the chapter on the incest prohibition.  Fox examines the common explanations and finds them unsatisfactory, but his own speculations seem inconclusive too.  I think the prohibition can be best understood by looking at how the acknowledged possibility of incest threatens peoples’ understandings of their family roles.  These are issues for another book, however.  Fox was right not to sacrifice the unity of his book, which is an excellent introduction to family structure based on simple descent rules.

5 Responses

  1. i am the student of anthropology in Qauid-e- Azam, university Islamabad,Pakistan.this is nice article about family kinship and marriage………………

  2. lam a student in anthropology in the university of zimbabwe really benneited a lot

  3. Its a very good article about kinship according to Robin Fox.

  4. Its a very good article about kinship and benefited me a lot.
    Thank you.

  5. You’re welcome.

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