Functions

Having described unilineal descent structures, we must now turn to the central issue of detailing and analyzing their functions and the importance they assume for their members and the wider social order in which they are incorporated.

Descent groups, as well as many other kinship structures, function as primary groups, i.e., institutions which normally recruit personnel by the criterion of inherited status. In this capacity, the group's unity and character reflect bonds formed upon common origin and identity and and are concerned with the general welfare of the membership rather than a specific and intentionally defined objective. (This characteristic of kin groups illustrates Emile Durkeim's concept of "mechanical solidarity"). Accordingly, the range of responsibilities that descent groups organize is quite extensive, although the number and type of functions varies crossculturally. These include the major activities of economic, political, and religious life. In a general sense, the kinship unit often constitutes a corporate group which becomes a legal entity in itself and is assigned collective rights on behalf of its members and their estates.

Functional analysis helps to explain the reason for which unilineal descent systems have played such an important part in the development of social organization. Two theories for the occurrence, one economic and the other political in emphasis, have been particularly convincing.

The economic theory focuses on corporate land owning patterns. It maintains that individual tenure systems cannot allocate farmland in cultivation regimes that depend upon long fallow periods and extensive land reserves. (This subsistence pattern is labeled horticultural,.) Since farmers are constantly taking plots out of production and seeking fresh land for new fields, private ownership is not practical. Their long term resource needs are best met by relying on a communal unit to hold land in reserve for the group as a whole. Lineages provide just the right scale and continuity to coordinate these allocations at optimal efficiency. This argument is consistent with the analytical principles of cultural ecology.

The political explanation focuses on the need for social order in stateless societies that lack centralized political systems with formal institutions of law enforcement. U nder these conditions, strong and permanent alliances within and between large family based organizations are necessary to establish the sanctions needed to control disruptive behaviour among their members and to assist them when violence does occur. This approach is associated with the structural-functionalist school.

Of the unilineal structures that we will investigate, the Akan and Igbo descent organization best conform to the corporate group model, assuming the fullest range of functions. The Turkish village system and the Dani descent groupings exhibit the narrowest.

Cultures Territorial
Organization
Land
Ownership
Inheritance Marriage
Regulation
Social
Control
Political
Represtation
Feud
Support
Ritual
Observance
Akan

X

X

X

X

X

X

0

X

Igbo

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

Hebrews

X

X

X

0

X

X

X

0

Yanomamo

X

0

0

X

X

0

X

0

Turkish

0

0

0

0

0

0

X

0

Dani

?

?

?

?

?

?

?

?

You have finished the section on unilineal descent.
At this point you may want to more fully investigate the illustrations of lineage functions in the case-study societies by following the links in the table above. Alternatively you may want to:

© Brian Schwimmer, All rights reserved
Department of Anthropology
University of Manitoba