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examine the descent approach to the study of kinship

Evolution of Descent Approach


 The functionalist anthropologist in the early stages of the emergence of the discipline of anthropology were in search of an answer to the question, what integrates society. As the primitive societies, studied by anthropologists, were seen as kinship based, integration of the social structure was located in kinship system. As groups were seen as segments of society, they would be integrated only if the principal of kinship organisation were unilineal. For Radcliffe-Brown, only group formed on the basis of unilineal descent did not overlap. Thus the understanding of unilineal decent group as essential for the formation and continuity of social structure. Most anthropological literature during this period were concerned with societies whose social structure rested on unilineal descent and thus creating an impression that descent was the organising principal. The descent approach was the transformation of the theoretical problems raised by 19th century anthropologists, mainly Maine and Morgan. These early anthropologists were concerned in finding the relationship between kinship and territory and also find the differentiation between family as a bilateral group (tracing relation through both parent) and clan as unilateral group. The main concern was to investigate the constitution of primitive society and their political institution. The unilineal descent group was taken as the criteria for regulating political relations and providing stability to the group. According to Maine (1861), the earliest history of primitive society reveals that the political structure was based on extended ties of territorial relations. Morgan similarly believed that all forms of government can be classified into two categories – society or ‘societas’ (clan as unit of organization) and state (formed on basis of territory and property). The British anthropologist, unlike their predecessor, were not interested in the evolution of the society. They were more concerned with the constitution of the structure and the inter relations between different parts. Therefore society was viewed as having a systematic order resulting due to the inter relation and dependence of different parts. On the basis of the ethnographic study these anthropologist arrived at the understanding that residence/territory  and descent coexisted in the same society. This formed the base of the descent theory that supports the idea of all agnates (male member from same line of descent) have common residence and hence forming the patrilineal descent group. Similarly all uterine (female member from same line of descent) formed the matrilineal group. In both cases, descent provided the basis of group integration


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Features of Descent Principal

The key features of descent principal as found in the theories of anthropologist using descent  approach are

  1. Descent principles have parallel rules of post-marital residence:

 and children live in husband’s community. Usually found

with patrilineal descent.  and their children live in wife’s community, associated with matrilineal descent

  1. Descent rules are used to determine parenthood, identify ancestry and assign people to social categories, groups, & roles on basis of inherited status.

. The descent approach emphasis on the formation of social groups or descent group and have described these groups as exhibiting certain features:

  1. a) Descent groupsare permanent social units, whose members claim common

ancestry.The membership of the group is determined at birth and is a life-long

membership. The descent group endures over time even though membership changes.

  1. b) Descent groups function successfully as long-term jointproperty owners and economic productionteams.
  2. c) Descent groups assume important corporate functions suchas land ownership, political representation and mutual aid and support.

d).Descent groups were the mechanisms for maintaining political order in stateless societies.

The principle was used to trace lines of inheritance and succession as chieftain.

  1. In the development of theory of family and kinship, the descent theories made reference to  genealogical charts that helped trace connections between kin.
  2. The descent principle helped in the allocation of roles and responsibility among the  members of a particular group, kinship terminology were relevant in indicating the   allocation.


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