Descent Theory, or the Idea of the Corporate Person Concept of filiation, or social recognition of parenthood; Uses of filiation in producing descent groups; Descent groups as corporations or persons; Descent, residence, and social interaction; Hypodescent and racial groupings in the contemporary U.S. 1. Filiation In an earlier lecture, we examined families and the husband-father role in human societies, observing that the latter role makes humans distinct from
their most closely related primate relatives. We gave various reasons for suggesting that the husband-father role might be a cultural invention, rather than something dictated by genes. Today, we want to focus on different aspect of these relationships, namely, their dependence upon social recognition by a broader group of people. The view put forth prominently in the latter half of the twentieth century by the British anthropologist, Meyer Fortes. "Social recognition... converts genealogically identified, imputed, or represented connections into kinship relations" (Fortes, Kinship and the Social Order, p. 251, Aldine 1969). marriage
o Social recognition filiation Social recognition
o culture --------------------------------------------------------------------------mating o o giving birth
-----> nature Filiation = the relationship created by the social recognition of legitimate parentage. Broader social acknowledgement: (1) that the relationship exists; and (2) that it entails certain rights, duties, and expectations; and (3) that, therefore, it is a role relationship. The relationship does not exist just in the minds or behaviors of the participants to the relationship. It exists also in the minds and behaviors of others external to the relationship. Those others maintain
the position of overseers or keepers of the relationship, such that, if the rights, duties, or expectations are not complied with, external sanctions can be brought to bear. A difference between the inside and the outside views of the relationship. In many societies around the world, there are ceremonies or rites that implicitly, if not explicitly, acknowledge the parent-child relationship to a broader public. Christening, baptisms, and other kinds of naming ceremonies are explicitly about the child, but implicitly they represent a public acknowledgment of the connection between that child and its parents. In one society (Xokleng Indians in Brazil), at a major communal ceremony infant or toddler boys are given lip plugs and girls thigh tattoos. A game
played by all of the adults in the community consists in throwing back and forth through the air three fiber sacks called "the father," "the mother," and "the child." The abstract role relationships of parent to child are part of culture. They vary from culture to culture and have to be socially learned. But so too are the concrete relationships between individuals assimilated to culture through processes of filiation. Part of this is linguistic. The community learns to refer to the individuals in question by relationship terms: "He is the son of X," "She is the mother of Y." That learning process is a process of social transmission. In this way, the concrete relationships themselves become abstract ideas in the minds
of individuals. And those ideas can socially circulate, and, hence, form part of culture. In other words, not just the general idea of the parent-child bond is part of culture, but also the idea of bonds between specific individuals becomes part of culture. 2. Descent and Descent Groups Descent = tracing of ties through relationships of filiation for some purpose, e.g., - transmitting property or wealth; transmitting political office (like kingship);
transmitting names; transmitting membership in social groups. A group constituted by a rule of descent (e.g., that you belong to the same group that your parents do) is a called a descent group. Nations are in large measure descent groups -- parentage allows you membership, even if choice can supersede parentage. Bilateral descent group = where both parents determine membership in the group. Unilineal descent group = where either the F or the M determines membership in the group, but not both:
a. Patrilineal descent group = where membership in the group is determined by the group membership of the F. Scottish clan. Naming in the U.S. has been patrilineal, though some shifts underway here in the last 30 years. b. Matrilineal descent group = where membership in the group is determined by the group membership of the M. The Iroquois, whose kinship terminology we looked at earlier, had matrilineal descent groups.
Patrilineal descent group structure
Matrilineal descent group structure Many of the societies studied by anthropologists have unilineal descent groups Africa, New World Indians, Australian aborigines, Chinese, etc. This has led to questions about the nature of descent groups. Why should peoples invent them? In trying to answer this question, we're going to discover an interesting way of looking at the contemporary U.S. In particular, we'll look at racial and
ethnic groups as kinds of descent group. First, an important point. The descent group as we have defined it is neutral as to how a spouse is to be treated. Is the spouse a member of the descent group or not? Other rules determine this. Rules of marriage. Two, in particular, are relevant to descent group composition. Exogamy = you must marry someone who is NOT a member of your (descent) group. In this case, spouses are not (and do not become) members of the descent groups into which they marry. They continue to be members of the descent groups into which they are born. Endogamy = you must marry someone who is already a member of
your (descent) group. Typically, where descent groups are endogamous, the groups are socially ranked, forming classes (as in the old European distinction between the nobility (aristocracy) and commoners (peasantry) or castes (as in the system found in the Hindu areas of traditional South Asia). Where we find unilineal descent groups (Africa, Amerindian New World, Australia), we ypically (though not universally) find that the descent group is exogamous. Marriage occurs across descent group lines. This will be important in the next lecture in terms of understanding the institution of marriage. With exogamy, coupled with unilineal descent, you may be (and very often will be) marrying someone who is a traditional enemy or at least
Exogamous matrilineal descent group A last important point about descent groups: they do not necessarily form a residential grouping. This depends on another kind of rule (a residence
rule), which look at in little bit. The unilineal descent group may (or may not) be geographically dispersed. What is crucial is that the descent group involves social recognition of relationship, based upon filiation. The descent group exists as part of the mental set within a population. That mental set is part of culture, and, hence, is socially transmitted, socially learned. The descent group is part of the mental set not only of those who are its members, but also, and critically, of those who are not its members. It is recognized as a group from the outside. Nevertheless, the descent group typically does assemble (even it is normally dispersed) for ritual purposes. The following slides are from Meyer Fortes's classic study of the Tallensi of Northern Ghana (The Dynamics of Clanship
among the Tallensi, Oxford U Press, 1945), who have exogamous patrilineal descent groups. 3. Descent Groups as Corporate Groups or Legal Persons So why do cultures so often invent descent groups, and accord to them and to the specific social relationships making them up, social recognition? In the case of filiation, we can readily imagine an argument from the perspective of biology and culture. Recognizing parent-child bonds, on the part of a broader society, simultaneously recognizes the centrality of certain core social relationships for the purposes of biological reproduction and also social reproduction (i.e., the transmission of culture). The domestic group,
built around parentage, is the workshop of culture. But it is harder to make this argument about descent groups, which might consist of hundreds or thousands of people. The vast majority of people within the descent group may play no role in the socialization of any given child. Why should such larger scale descent groups be accorded social recognition? Dr. Mann gave some insight into the problem early in the semester. Culture has to figure out ways to get people to live together. If you can get people to live together, then all individuals can receive some of the benefits of the accumulated culture housed in a large population. Think of the benefits we receive on a daily basis from the accumulated culture of doctors, engineers,
computer scientists, and so forth. If the population were not large enough to support these specialist groups, we as individuals would not have their benefits. But if descent groups are one cultural invention for holding people together, how do they do so? Descent groups, such as the patrilineal lineages of the Tallensi, are primary legal persons, in the sense that the group as a whole is recognized as accountable for the behavior of any one of its individual members. The individual members of the group are representatives of the larger entity in almost all aspects of their behavior. What they do as individuals is attributed to (or socially recognized as) the conduct of the collectivity.
Thus, if a member of group A kills a member of group B, then group A as a whole is held accountable. Consequently, there is pressure on every member of the descent group to monitor the actions of others within their group, and to try to get those others to conform to socially recognized norms of proper conduct. responsibility for reflects
upon Descent group A Descent group B Descent group C Correspondingly, a society consisting of thousands or even millions of
people can be understood in terms of the interactions among a much smaller number of legal persons the descent groups. This makes large scale social processes intelligible to individuals. Conclusion: as cultural inventions, descent groups are ways of (1) making a broader collectivity intelligible to its individual members, and also (2) bringing the force of the group to bear on each individual member. 4. Descent and Residence We mentioned earlier that descent groups are not necessarily found in one locale as a residential cluster. This depends on patterns of
post-marital residence, and this is a complex topic. We can only mention it here. Question of residence: Where do husbands and wives live after they get married. General answer: they tend to reside together in a household (although there are variants of this general tendency; for example, the men's house in ancient Sparta or in many Amazonian Indian societies). But where does the couple reside relative to their parents (we'll be talking about questions of incest in the next lecture; here I assume that sibling are not marrying each other)?
General tendency in the contemporary U.S., neolocality: husband and wife establish a new residence independently of the residences of either of their parents. But the majority of cultures studied by anthropologists are not of this sort (even though there is a wide-scale tendency towards neolocality as peoples modernize). Two basic patterns: patrilocality = a woman goes to live with her husband(s) in the husband's father's household. matrilocality = a man goes to live with his wife (wives) in the wife's mother's household. In the one, men stay together, in the other women.
How does this combine with descent groups? Harmonic regimes are those in which the rule of residence "harmonizes" with the rule of descent, i.e., patrilineal descent coupled with patrilocal residence matrilineal descent coupled with matrilocal residence Descent group household
But we do also find disharmonic regimes, where the rules of descent and residence clash, for example, among the Xavante Indians of central Brazil. They have patrilineal descent groups, but matrilineal residence. Consequently, the descent groups do not have fixed places of residence, but move around. They are socially recognized corporate entities, but not geographically localized ones.
5. Racial Groupings as Descent Groups An issue for you to think about, although we cannot go into detail on it today: are racial and ethnic groupings in the U.S. forms of descent groups? In a later lecture, we'll contrast the idea of race as having to do with the phenotypic characteristics of individual bodies, resulting in the social recognition of phenotypic groups, versus race as a descent group notion. The issue is complex in the contemporary U.S., but there are some ways in which race is treated as a descent group. Some people
who are phenotypically white but identify as black. Some people who are phenotypically black but identify as American Indian. Then there is the case of Colin Powell, our Secretary of State. Phenotypically black, but culturally indistinguishable from military-business elite, which is predominantly white. Attempts to assimilate Powell into the white grouping by virtue of descent. Interesting to think about race in America in terms of descent groups and the idea of the corporate person. Do racial groupings help to make the broader collectivity of America intelligible to individuals by simplifying the incredible complexity of the whole into a much smaller set of corporate persons (black, white,
Hispanic)? So much of news reporting seems to simplify the world in this way. Correspondingly, do individual Americans tend to hold the racial groupings responsible for the behavior of their individual members? We can find evidence for this, for example, in racial stereotyping in police activity, or in the attribution of responsibility for crime to a racial grouping, or even in the claim that surfaces periodically throughout recent history that Jewish people are usurers, or the suspicion that people of Italian descent must have ties to the Mafia.
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