Alliance theory

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The alliance theory, also known as the general theory of exchanges, is a structuralist method of studying kinship relations. It finds its origins in Claude Lévi-Strauss's Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949) and is in opposition to the functionalist theory of Radcliffe-Brown. Alliance theory has oriented most anthropological French works until the 1980s; its influences were felt in various fields, including psychoanalysis, philosophy and political philosophy.

Structuralism theory that elements of human culture must be understood in terms of their relationship to a larger, overarching system or structure

In sociology, anthropology, and linguistics, structuralism is the methodology that implies elements of human culture must be understood by way of their relationship to a broader, overarching system or structure. It works to uncover the structures that underlie all the things that humans do, think, perceive, and feel. Alternatively, as summarized by philosopher Simon Blackburn, structuralism is "the belief that phenomena of human life are not intelligible except through their interrelations. These relations constitute a structure, and behind local variations in the surface phenomena there are constant laws of abstract structure".

Kinship human relationship term; web of social relationships that form an important part of the lives of most humans in most societies; form of social connection

In anthropology, kinship is the web of social relationships that form an important part of the lives of all humans in all societies, although its exact meanings even within this discipline are often debated. Anthropologist Robin Fox states that "the study of kinship is the study of what man does with these basic facts of life – mating, gestation, parenthood, socialization, siblingship etc." Human society is unique, he argues, in that we are "working with the same raw material as exists in the animal world, but [we] can conceptualize and categorize it to serve social ends." These social ends include the socialization of children and the formation of basic economic, political and religious groups.

Claude Lévi-Strauss French anthropologist and ethnologist

Claude Lévi-Strauss was a French anthropologist and ethnologist whose work was key in the development of the theory of structuralism and structural anthropology. He held the chair of Social Anthropology at the Collège de France between 1959 and 1982 and was elected a member of the Académie française in 1973. He received numerous honors from universities and institutions throughout the world and has been called, alongside James George Frazer and Franz Boas, the "father of modern anthropology".


The hypothesis of a "marriage-alliance" emerged in this frame, pointing out towards the necessary interdependence of various families and lineages. Marriages themselves are thus seen as a form of communication that anthropologists such as Lévi-Strauss, Louis Dumont or Rodney Needham have described. Alliance theory hence tries to understand the basic questions about inter-individual relations, or what constitutes society.

Communication is the act of conveying meanings from one entity or group to another through the use of mutually understood signs, symbols, and semiotic rules.

Rodney Needham was a British social anthropologist.

Alliance theory is based on the incest taboo: according to it, only this universal prohibition of incest pushes human groups towards exogamy. Thus, inside a given society, certain categories of kin are forbidden to inter-marry. The incest taboo is thus a negative prescription; without it, nothing would push men to go searching for women outside their inner kinship circle, or vice versa. This theory echoes with Freud's Totem and Taboo (1913). But the incest taboo of alliance theory, in which one's daughter or sister is offered to someone outside a family circle, starts a circle of exchange of women: in return, the giver is entitled to a woman from the other's intimate kinship group. Thus the negative prescriptions of the prohibition have positive counterparts. [1] The idea of the alliance theory is thus of a reciprocal or a generalized exchange which founds affinity. This global phenomenon takes the form of a "circulation of women" which links together the various social groups in one whole: society.

An incest taboo is any cultural rule or norm that prohibits sexual relations between closely related persons. All human cultures have norms that exclude certain close relatives from those considered suitable or permissible sexual or marriage partners, making such relationships taboo. However, different norms exist among cultures as to which blood relations are permissible as sexual partners and which are not. Sexual relations between related persons which are subject to the taboo are called incestuous relationships.

In philosophy, universality is the idea that universal facts exist and can be progressively discovered, as opposed to relativism. In certain theologies, universalism is the quality ascribed to an entity whose existence is consistent throughout the universe, whose being is independent of and unconstrained by the events and conditions that compose the universe, such as entropy and physical locality.

Exogamy is a social arrangement where marriage is allowed only outside a social group. The social groups define the scope and extent of exogamy, and the rules and enforcement mechanisms that ensure its continuity. In social studies, exogamy is viewed as a combination of two related aspects: biological and cultural. Biological exogamy is marriage of nonblood-related beings, regulated by forms of incest law. A form of exogamy is dual exogamy, in which two groups engage in continual wife exchange. Cultural exogamy is marrying outside a specific cultural group; the opposite being endogamy, marriage within a social group.

Elementary structures and complex structures

According to Lévi-Strauss's alliance theory, there are two different structural "models" of marriage exchange. Either the women of ego's group are offered to another group "explicitly defined" by social institutions: these are the "elementary structures of kinship". Or the group of possible spouses for the women in ego's group is "indetermined and always open", to the exclusion, however, of certain kin-people (nuclear family, aunts, uncles...), as in the Western world. Lévi-Strauss call these latter "complex structures of kinship".

A nuclear family, elementary family or conjugal family is a family group consisting of two parents and their children. It is in contrast to a single-parent family, to the larger extended family, and to a family with more than two parents. Nuclear families typically center on a married couple; the nuclear family may have any number of children. There are differences in definition among observers; some definitions allow only biological children that are full-blood siblings, but others allow for a stepparent and any mix of dependent children including stepchildren and adopted children.

Western world Countries that identify themselves with an originally European—since the Cold War, US American—shared culture

The Western world, also known as the West, refers to various nations depending on the context, most often including at least part of Europe, Australasia, and the Americas, with the status of Latin America in dispute. There are many accepted definitions, all closely interrelated. The Western world is also known as the Occident, in contrast to the Orient, or Eastern world.

Levi-Strauss' model attempted to offer a single explanation for cross-cousin marriage, sister-exchange, dual organisation and rules of exogamy. Marriage rules over time create social structures, as marriages are primarily forged between groups and not just between the two individuals involved. When groups exchange women on a regular basis they marry together, with each marriage creating a debtor/creditor relationship which must be balanced through the "repayment" of wives, either directly or in the next generation. Levi-Strauss proposed that the initial motivation for the exchange of women was the incest taboo, which he deemed to be the beginning and essence of culture, as it was the first rule to check natural impulses; and secondarily the sexual division of labour. The former, by prescribing exogamy, creates a distinction between marriageable and tabooed women and thus necessitates a search for women outside one's own kin group ("marry out or die out"), which fosters exchange relationships with other groups; the latter creates a need for women to do "women's tasks". By necessitating wife-exchange arrangements, exogamy therefore promotes inter-group alliances and serves to form structures of social networks.

In discussing consanguineal kinship in anthropology, a parallel cousin or ortho-cousin is a cousin from a parent's same-sex sibling, while a cross-cousin is from a parent's opposite-sex sibling. Thus, a parallel cousin is the child of the father's brother or of the mother's sister, while a cross-cousin is the child of the mother's brother or of the father's sister. Where there are unilineal descent groups in a society, one's parallel cousins on one or both sides will belong to one's own descent group, while cross-cousins will not.

Levi-Strauss also discovered that a wide range of historically unrelated cultures had the rule that individuals should marry their cross-cousin, meaning children of siblings of the opposite sex - from a male perspective that is either the FZD (father's sister's daughter in kinship abbreviation) or the MBD (mother's brother's daughter in kinship abbreviation). Accordingly, he grouped all possible kinship systems into a scheme containing three basic kinship structures, constructed out of two types of exchange. He called the three kinship structures elementary, semi-complex and complex.

Elementary structures are based on positive marriage rules that specify whom a person must marry, while complex systems specify negative marriage rules (whom one must not marry), thus leaving a certain amount of room for choice based on preference. Elementary structures can operate based on two forms of exchange: restricted (or direct) exchange, a symmetric form of exchange between two groups (also called moieties) of wife-givers and wife-takers; in an initial restricted exchange FZ marries MB, with all children then being bilateral cross-cousins (the daughter is both MBD and FZD). Continued restricted exchange means that the two lineages marry together. Restricted exchange structures are generally quite uncommon.

The second form of exchange within elementary structures is called generalised exchange, meaning that a man can only marry either his MBD (matrilateral cross-cousin marriage) or his FZD (patrilateral cross-cousin marriage). This involves an asymmetric exchange between at least three groups. Matrilateral cross-cousin marriage arrangements where the marriage of the parents is repeated by successive generations are very common in parts of Asia (e.g. amongst the Kachin). Levi-Strauss considered generalised exchange to be superior to restricted exchange because it allows the integration of indefinite numbers of groups. [2] Examples of restricted exchange are found in some tribes residing in the Amazon basin. These tribal societies are made up of multiple moieties which often split up, thus rendering them comparatively unstable. Generalised exchange is more integrative but contains an implicit hierarchy, for instance amongst the Kachin where wife-givers are superior to wife-takers. Consequently, the last wife-taking group in the chain is significantly inferior to the first wife-giving group to which it is supposed to give its wives. These status inequalities can destabilise the entire system or can at least lead to an accumulation of wives (and in the case of the Kachin also of bridewealth) at one end of the chain.

The term matrilateral describes kin (relatives) "on the mother's side".

Jingpo people ethnic group

The Jingpo people are an ethnic group who are the largest subset of the Kachin peoples, which largely inhabit the Kachin Hills in northern Myanmar's Kachin State and neighbouring Yunnan Province of China and India's Arunachal Pradesh. While they mostly live in Myanmar, the Kachin are called the Jingpo in China and Singpho in India — the terms are considered synonymous. The greater name for all the Kachin peoples in their own Jingpho language is the Jinghpaw Wunpawng.

Amazon basin drainage basin in South America drained via the Amazon River into the Atlantic Ocean

The Amazon Basin is the part of South America drained by the Amazon River and its tributaries. The Amazon drainage basin covers an area of about 7,500,000 km2 (2,900,000 sq mi), or roughly 40 percent of the South American continent. It is located in the countries of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela.

From a structural perspective, matrilateral cross-cousin marriage is superior to its patrilateral counterpart; the latter has less potential to produce social cohesion since its exchange cycles are shorter (the direction of wife exchange is reversed in each successive generation). Levi-Strauss' theory is supported by fact that patrilateral cross-cousin marriage is in fact the rarest of three types. However, matrilateral generalised exchange poses a risk, as group A depends on being given a woman from a group that it has not itself given a woman to, meaning that there is a less immediate obligation to reciprocate compared to a restricted exchange system. The risk created by such a delayed return is obviously lowest in restricted exchange systems.

Levi-Strauss proposed a third structure between elementary and complex structures, called the semi-complex structure, or the Crow-Omaha system. Semi-complex structures contain so many negative marriage rules that they effectively come close to prescribing marriage to certain parties, thus somewhat resembling elementary structures. These structures are found amongst societies such as the Crow and Omaha native Indians in North America.

In Levi-Strauss' order of things, the basic building block of kinship is not just the nuclear family, as in structural-functionalism, but the so-called kinship atom: the nuclear family together with the wife's brother. This "mother's brother" (from the perspective of the wife-seeking son) plays a crucial role in alliance theory, as he is the one who ultimately decides whom his daughter will marry. Moreover, it is not just the nuclear family as such but alliances between families that matter in regard to the creation of social structures, reflecting the typical structuralist argument that the position of an element in the structure is more significant than the element itself. Descent theory and alliance theory therefore look at two different sides of the same coin: the former emphasising bonds of consanguinity (kinship by blood), the latter stressing bonds of affinity (kinship by law or choice).

See also


  1. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Les structures élémentaires de la parenté, Paris, Mouton, 1967, 2ème édition, p.60
  2. Cf. Barnard and Good, 1984:96

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In cultural anthropology, reciprocity refers to the non-market exchange of goods or labour ranging from direct barter to forms of gift exchange where a return is eventually expected as in the exchange of birthday gifts. It is thus distinct from the true gift, where no return is expected. Reciprocity is said to be the basis of most non-market exchange. David Graeber argues, "as currently used, 'reciprocity' can mean almost anything. It is very close to meaningless."

Structural anthropology is a school of anthropology based on Claude Lévi-Strauss' idea that immutable deep structures exist in all cultures, and consequently, that all cultural practices have homologous counterparts in other cultures, essentially that all cultures are equitable.

<i>Totem and Taboo</i> book by Sigmund Freud

Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics, or Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics, is a 1913 book by Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, in which the author applies his work to the fields of archaeology, anthropology, and the study of religion. It is a collection of four essays inspired by the work of Wilhelm Wundt and Carl Jung and first published in the journal Imago (1912–13): "The Horror of Incest", "Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence", "Animism, Magic and the Omnipotence of Thoughts", and "The Return of Totemism in Childhood".

Cousin marriage marriage between related people

Cousin marriage is marriage between cousins. Opinions and practice vary widely across the world. In some cultures and communities, cousin marriage is considered ideal and actively encouraged; in others, it is subject to social stigma. In some countries, this practice is common; in others it is uncommon but still legal. In others, it is seen as incestuous and is legally prohibited: it is banned in China and Taiwan, North Korea, South Korea, the Philippines and 24 of the 50 United States. Supporters of cousin marriage where it is banned may view the prohibition as discrimination, while opponents may appeal to moral or other arguments. Worldwide, more than 10% of marriages are between first or second cousins.

Sir Edmund Ronald Leach was a British social anthropologist.

Milk kinship, formed during nursing by a non-biological mother, was a form of fostering allegiance with fellow community members. This particular form of kinship did not exclude particular groups, such that class and other hierarchal systems did not matter in terms of milk kinship participation.

The exchange of women is an element of alliance theory — the structuralist theory of Claude Lévi-Strauss and other anthropologists who see society as based upon the patriarchal treatment of women as property, being given to other men to cement alliances. Such formal exchange may be seen in the ceremony of the traditional Christian wedding, in which the bride is given to the groom by her father.

Cousin marriage is allowed and often encouraged throughout the Middle East. Anthropologists have debated the significance of the practice; some view it as the defining feature of the Middle Eastern kinship system while others note that overall rates of cousin marriage have varied sharply between different Middle Eastern communities. There is very little numerical evidence of rates of cousin marriage in the past.

House society

In anthropology, a house society is a society where kinship and political relations are organized around membership in corporately-organized dwellings rather than around descent groups or lineages, as in the "House of Windsor". The concept was originally proposed by Claude Lévi-Strauss who called them "sociétés à maison". The concept has been applied to understand the organization of societies from Mesoamerica and the Moluccas to North Africa and medieval Europe.

Variations in the number of lexical categories across the languages is a notable idea in cultural anthropology. A former study on "color terms" explores such variations. Brent Berlin and Paul Kay (1969) argued that these qualitative and quantitative differences can be organized into a coherent hierarchy. As far as kinship terms are concerned, the variation is not found as an hierarchical organization, but as a result of conditions or constraints. That is to say, the number of kinship terms varies across the languages because of sociocultural conditions or constraints on the biological traits.

The Karieri people were an Indigenous Australian people of the Pilbara, who once lived around the coastal and inland area around and east of Port Hedland.

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