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8.3: Descent Groups

In all societies there are social groups whose membership is based on descent; members share a common ancestor or living relative. Descent groups help to define the pool of potential mates, the group of people who are obligated to help in economic and political issues, and may even dictate which religion is followed, particularly in unilineal descent groups.

Unilineal Descent Groups

Lineages trace lines of descent to the same ancestor. A matriline is traced through the mother’s family line and partrilines are traced through the father’s. Ambilines are traced through either the mother’s or father’s line; the choice, which might be made based on friendship or availability of resources, is left open.

Clans are groups who acknowledge a common ancestor but the exact genealogy might not be remembered. Oftentimes, the ancestor may be so far back in time that history becomes distorted so that the ancestor takes on heroic proportions. For instance, Native American groups have clans, an ancient lineage that is often just referred to as an animal (wolf, raven). Clans can be quite big, with a large number of people.

Phratries are groups of clans (at least three clans) who are believed to be related by kinship. There are not usually economic ties between the clans.

Moieties are also linked clans; however, in this case, there are only two clans involved. There may be economic ties between moieties.

Non-Unilineal Descent Groups

There is only one type of non-unilineal descent group, the kindred. Kindreds count all individuals from each parent as relatives. This kind of descent group is usually seen where small family groups are more adaptive than large ones and individual mobility is high, e.g., industrial societies. Often, kindreds fall apart when the unifying individual dies.

References

  1. Bonvillain, Nancy. 2010. Cultural Anthropology, 2nd edition. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.
  2. Crapo, Richley. 2002. Cultural Anthropology: Understanding Ourselves and Others. Boston: McGraw Hill Higher Education.
  3. Ember, Carol R. and Melvin Ember. 2011. Cultural Anthropology, 13thedition. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.
  4. Harris, Marvin and Oran Johnson. 2007. Cultural Anthropology, 7thedition. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.
  5. Lavenda Robert H. and Emily A. Schultz. 2010. Core Concepts in Cultural Anthropology, 4th edition. Boston: McGraw Hill Higher Education.
  6. Rassumussen, Susan J. 1996. Tuareg. In Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Vol. 9., Africa and the Middle East. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, p. 366-370.
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