A brief history of ‘marriage,’ part 8

The significance of ‘classification kinship’

In this installment, we deal with Lewis Henry Morgan’s crucial “classification kinship” discovery. Classificatory kinship patterns, described below, present a seeming conundrum that has alternately been puzzled over, dismissed or, for many years now, largely ignored by anthropologists of the bourgeois schools. Morgan, however, faced their reality head on and drew from their pervasive existence among foraging and hunting groups a provocative conclusion regarding early human social/sexual relations.

Lewis Morgan’s 590-page “Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family” contains an extensive survey of kinship terms used by various Indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere, Asia, Africa, Oceania, Europe and the Near East. From an analysis of the recurring patterns he found, he drew a profound conclusion. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997; reprinted from the original 1871 edition)

‘Classificatory’ vs. ‘descriptive’ kinship

On page 143, Morgan elaborates on the distinction between “classificatory” and “descriptive” kinship terms:

“[In the classificatory system] my father’s brother’s son is my ‘brother’ … and I apply to him the same term I use to designate [my] own brother: the son of this collateral brother and the son of my own brother are both my ‘sons.’ And I apply to them the same term I would use to designate my own son. In other words, the person first named is admitted into the same relationship as my own brothers, and these last named as my own sons. The principle of classification is carried to every person in the several collateral lines, near and remote, in such a manner as to include them all in the several great classes. Although apparently arbitrary and artificial, the results produced by the classification are coherent and systematic. …

“As now used and interpreted, with marriage between single pairs actually existing, it is an arbitrary and artificial system, because it is contrary to the nature of descents, confounding relationships which are distinct, separating those which are similar, and diverting the streams of the blood from the collateral channels into the lineal. Consequently, it is the reverse of the descriptive system. It is wholly impossible to explain its origin on the assumption of the existence of the family founded upon marriage between single pairs; but it may be explained with some degree of probability on the assumption of the antecedent existence of a series of customs and institutions, one reformatory of the other, commencing with promiscuous intercourse and ending with the establishment of the family, as now constituted, resting upon marriage between single pairs.”

Morgan was, it now appears, overly cautious in drawing this conclusion, using the phrase “with some degree of probability.” In the almost century and a half since the appearance of “Systems,” no one has advanced a clearer or more parsimonious explanation for the prevalence of classificatory kinship terms among Indigenous peoples.

‘All things … change’

Dorothy Ballan’s insightful 1971 pamphlet, “Feminism and Marxism,” gave a succinct and accurate explanation of how and why Marxism is such a powerful tool in the investigation of human history and prehistory: “Marxism teaches that all things in nature and society are in constant, uninterrupted and everlasting change. Nothing is eternal; everything has a beginning, goes through a period of development, growth and decadence, and ultimately a transformation into other forms. And that, of course, applies no less to the development of the family.” (p. 6) And, we might add, to the institution of marriage.

Chris Knight, a contemporary Marxist anthropologist, revisits Morgan’s discovery in a paper titled “Early Human Kinship Was Matrilineal.” (In N. J. Allen, H. Callan, R. Dunbar and W. James, eds., “Early Human Kinship.” Oxford, England: Blackwell, 2008, pp. 61-82)

Taking up Bronislaw Malinowski’s criticism of Morgan’s discovery, in which Malinowski claimed that “the facts of kinship would always turn out to be (a) biological and (b) individual,” Knight counters: “Classificatory kinship is anything but ‘individual.’ … It is the kind of kinship we would expect if bonds of siblinghood consistently prevailed over marital ties. Let me be more precise. It is the kind of kinship we would expect if groups of sisters drew on support from brothers in periodically standing up to husbands — a reproductive strategy aimed at enhancing female bargaining power and driving up male mating effort. … For obvious reasons, opposite-sex siblings cannot always ‘stand in’ for one another in quite the same straightforward way as same-sex siblings. But where kinship is classificatory, sibling unity in general is accorded primacy over marital bonds.” (p. 62)

In this paper, Knight also explores some further ramifications that are suggested by classificatory kinship. “Although it doesn’t eliminate intimacy or individuality, classificatory kinship operates on a grander level. … Establishing chains of connection stretching across thousands of miles these [Australian] Aborigines’ mathematically elegant section and subsection systems — logical extensions of the simple principle of sibling equivalence — were built to a scale quite beyond the conception of scholars familiar only with kinship in its truncated Western forms.”

As a demonstrative example, he quotes an anthropological report that concludes, “[An Aboriginal] native could, at least theoretically, traverse the entire continent, stopping at each tribal boundary to compare notes on relatives, and at the end of his journey know precisely whom in the local group he should address as grandmother, father-in-law, sister, etc., whom he might associate freely with, whom he must avoid, whom he might or might not have sexual relations with, and so on.” (p. 64)

Levirate/sororate marriage

Knight continues: “A further expression of the equivalence of siblings is the levirate (or sororate) — inheritance by a person of his or her deceased sibling’s spouse. … In the levirate/sororate, a person steps into the marital role of a deceased sibling with little or no ceremony and as a matter of course. In a sense, the living sibling was ‘married’ to the deceased’s spouse already, since siblings are kin equivalents and marital contracts are arrangements not between private individuals but kin groups on either side. … To the extent that ‘classificatory’ principles prevail — the logic implies that in each generation, those entering into relationships are neither individuals nor marital couples. They are self-organized coalitions of sisters/brothers.” (pp. 64-65)

With regard to the prevalence of levirate/sororate marriage among foraging and hunting peoples, anthropologist Robert Lowie writes in “Primitive Society” that “It is easier to count cases where the custom is positively known to be lacking than to enumerate instances of its occurrence.” (New York: Harper, 1920, p. 32)

Knight touches on several other issues in his paper, concluding with his take on the material basis for matrilocality among forager/hunter groups. “Whether in Australia, Africa or the Americas, a young bridegroom must not only visit his bride in her camp but also work strenuously for her, surrendering to his in-laws whatever game he catches. This, after all, is the essence of ‘bride-service’ — the fundamental economic institution in any hunter-gatherer society. … Females, then, obtain the best deal when they remain following marriage with close kin.” (p. 80)

Knight has much more to say about what he terms the “conflicting demands” of the male and female members of the primordial hominin bands and clans. In the next few installments of this series, after an introduction to the important role of women in hominin society and some background information on Chris Knight and Evelyn Reed, another Marxist scholar, we’ll summarize their efforts to make sense of the many practices and beliefs of foraging and hunting groups, specifically involving relations between the sexes, to which most anthropologists have reacted with incomprehension and, often, disparagement. Both of these authors address the processes that are likely to have resulted in “modern” human culture, but with somewhat different hypotheses.

McCubbin is the author of “The Roots of Lesbian and Gay Oppression: A Marxist View,” New York: World View Forum, 3rd ed., 1993. To order, send $10 to World View Forum, 147 W. 24th St., 2nd Floor, NY, NY 10011 with name and address or order from Amazon.com.