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Comparative Analysis

Comparative Methods In The Study Of Kinship, The Family, And Marriage

Kinship and family relations were early subjects of comparison and debate in the social sciences. Studies of kinship and the family have formed the core of British social anthropology and have dominated North American and European anthropology throughout the twentieth century. Family and kinship were central to the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century debates about the origins and evolution of society. Henry Maine (1861 [1911]), James McLennan (1865, 1886), and Johann Bachofen (1967 [1861]) examined forms of family and marriage. Maine compared Greek, Roman, and more contemporary British and continental family law. Bachofen, confusing matrilineality as matriarchy, argued that social authority originally developed from mothers' roles in primitive families that were transformed during cultural development into male authority in patriarchies. McLennan traced social evolution though changes in forms of marriage, from primitive promiscuity though marriage by capture and eventually the monogamous marital relationships of Victorian England.

L. H. Morgan, a U.S. lawyer, is considered the father of kinship studies in anthropology, however. He described the legal or jural dimensions of family and kinship among the Iroquois of the state of New York, and compared their family and clan structures with those of European societies and Australian Aborigines (who have figured significantly in comparative studies of kinship) (Morgan 1870, 1963 [1877]). From his analysis of kinship, Morgan developed a theory of evolution in which the division of labor within the family was the basis for the development of more complex forms of social organization including the nation-state. Another enduring contribution was to distinguish between kin terms used to describe and classify individuals. This opened the door to the use of kin terms as the basis for comparisons of kinship terms as cultural systems of classification.

Morgan's evolutionary schema had a marked impact upon another social theorist, Karl Marx. Though Marx initially replaced Morgan's focus on the family with private property in his social and economic analysis, Marx and Frederick Engels returned to the centrality of the family in their discussion of the origin of private property (Engels 1988 [1884]). Studies of kinship and the family took second place in diffusionist theories to explanations of the transmission of material culture, particularly technology and religious beliefs.

During the later half the twentieth century, comparative studies of kinship dominated anthropology. They were of three types, each closely aligned with the theories of Boas, Durkheim, and Weber, and concerned with social structure rather than history. The first is the controlled case study approach recommended by Radcliffe-Brown and Forde (1950) and Evans-Pritchard (1963). These comparative studies of social forms focused on kinship and marriage and the structural relationships among kin groups. They compared societies' rules concerning the rights and obligations that established group membership, inheritance, and succession. They described them with terms they believed were universal features of kinship and family: descent, generation, gender, collaterality (or siblingship), and marital relations. Their units of study were the nuclear family, the lineage, and the clan. They reduced the variability among their comparative units by concentrating their research on regions of Africa with patrilineally and matrilineally based societies. Social organizations were classified by the rules of group membership, inheritance patterns, laws of succession, and patterns of prohibited and preferred marriage and post marital residence.

British structural-functionalist analyses concentrated attention on kinship to the expense of the family, many contending that lineage and clan relations were the logical and psychological extension of ties among nuclear family members. These anthropological analyses of the structures of family and kinship relations were similar to the functionalist analyses of families and family structures that developed sociology. Comparative sociologists examined the functions and structural attributes of families, household composition, and family dynamics as did anthropological studies of the time. In addition they considered more emotional and psychological issues such as love (Goode 1959). Comparisons by sociologists focused on variations across time and national, ethnic, and class lines, rather than across cultures.

Claude Levi-Strauss developed another method based on the comparison of structural principles. His structuralist treatment of kinship and marriage (referred to as alliance theory) examined the nature of relationships among groups, rather then focusing upon groups' rules of composition. Levi-Straus's seminal Elementary Structures of Kinship 1969) began by examining the significance of incest rules and rules of group exogamy (the practice of marrying outside of one's group) that used marriage as a means of both delineating group boundaries (in terms of those whom one may or may not marry) and establishing alliances. From this starting point, he compared the complex patterns of marriage-based alliances among a number of Australian aboriginal groups and societies in Southeast Asia and India, to compare the various conceptual elaborations of the principles of marriage exchange and alliance.

During the 1960s and 1970s comparative studies declined, in part due to methodological and epistemological debates that questioned the concepts employed in comparative research. Studies of kinship and the family were at the heart of these debates. Questions were raised about the nature of analytical definitions and the use of Western European concepts such as descent, marriage, and kinship as analytical constructs for the description and analysis of systems in other cultures (Needham 1971). Examination of other cultures' theories of conception and paternity even called into question the very nature of kinship and its recognition as a universal phenomena. David Schneider (1968) contended that kinship systems were culturally constructed idioms of social relations. Nevertheless, comparative studies of kinship terminologies continued to use Western concepts such as descent as analytical concepts in comparisons of kinship semantics and the cognitive classifications of kin (Tyler 1969). Consequently, Leach (1966) raised serious doubts about the value of the typologies developed to describe the kinship systems. These questions further undermined the already weak reception for statistical studies such as those of Murdock. Networks and Process. Anthropologists also became increasing concerned about variation within the kinds of social units that they had previously used in comparisons. Case studies that were the staple of the method of controlled comparison of British structure-functionalists and Levi-Straussian structuralism treated families, clans, societies, and cultures as closed systems. Migration by members of formerly isolated societies forced researchers to face growing diversity and the disjunction of features—language, common history, religious beliefs and practice—that had coincided in geographically bound populations. Studies of networks and their structures attempted to overcome the restrictions of geographically defined analytical units (Sanjek 1978). The development of network theory and formal models such as directed graphs provided researchers with new ways to describe and compare families structures and systems of kinship and marriage (Hage and Harary 1996), kin terms, (Schweizer and White 1998), and ties between household and family members and their communities (Wellman and Berkowitz 1997).

Not only were classical comparative studies called into question on epistemological grounds, their adequacy in representing kinship and family systems was attacked for their substantive limitations grounds. Earlier studies had focused on the legal and political aspects of kinship that were dominated by men. Feminist critics argued that they generally ignored women and the domestic sphere, thereby undermining the adequacy of earlier conventional studies. This criticism reinvigorated comparative studies of the family, women's roles, socialization, and gender relations (Yanagisako 1979) that found antecedents in the early comparative work of Boas's student, Margaret Mead (Mead [1935] 2001; Mead and Malinowski [1930] 2001). The reconsideration of the role of women, the family, and socialization also coincided with Bourdieu's attention to the processes of social reproduction (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977).


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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of FamiliesComparative Analysis - General Strategies Of Comparative Methods, Comparative Methods In The Study Of Kinship, The Family, And Marriage