Studying kinship helps Anthropologists see more larger picture items such as political organization, social organization, as well as economics. By studying the characteristics that are found in marriages, including but not limited to: exchanges between families (dowries, bridewealth, bride service, & more modern gift giving), partner selection, organization of the family unit (polygamy or monogamy), residential patterns, and the taboos common inside of marriage including (divorce, incest, adoption, etc.), anthropologists can piece together information that can be used to look at the entire culture as a whole. For example, while currently illegal in the United States, certain past and present cultures have practiced polygamy for multiple reasons; including lack of a certain sex within the marriage, or to increase (or decrease) genetic diversity, or simply because of economic pressures. For instance in the past a family of three brothers may all contribute a bridewealth (in the form of chickens, goats, etc.) to the bride’s family to all have her as their wife in a poor village.

Incest has been taboo in nearly every culture over time with a few notable exceptions (for example royal families, in an attempt to keep the blood lines pure). The main reason for this “universal” taboo in incest is that marriage is a social construct; it brings families together, and in turn communities. Incest creates isolation, and does not strengthen community ties, therefore anthropologically speaking incest became taboo because it was in direct opposition to community which advances civilization. Although in the lecture, natural revulsion is labeled a myth, there is, at a genetic level, the need for every species to have genetic diversity. In-breeding, a result of incest reproductively, goes counter to our basic genetic, evolutionary programming to diversify. Because siblings or parent/child pairings offers smaller genetic diversity, over time our species (as well as countless others) that favored or at least condoned incest, where out-competed by those that didn’t and had greater genetic diversity.

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6 Responses to incest

  1. Jordyn Gibson says:

    Jason, I really enjoyed reading your post. You did a great job at putting into words why anthropologists study kinship. In all my college courses that have dealt with other cultures, I have found it to be so interesting how kins are formed. For example, is the kin a family, is it headed by a woman, a man, how the people relate to each other. It really shows a lot about a culture. It is hard to believe that some cultures still have dowries for brides and arranged marriages, etc. Those are great ways that kins relate to the economy though. Patterns by which people group themselves are one of the easiest ways to learn about a culture- it speaks volumes.

    I was also very interested about your topic of incest. It is a practice that still goes on today, but isn’t talked about often. Before listening to the lectures, I hadn’t realized that the old royals had incestual relations in order to keep the bloodlines pure. They were so dazed. I am sure that is why most royals had so many genetic problems. I think that is the worst part about consensual incest, the fact that the offspring usually have genetic defects.

    I am not sure if you have heard about the case of Josef Fritzl, the man who held his daughter captive for 24 years; and fathered 7 children with her. Her mother lived in the home (upstairs) and was completely in the dark about her daughter being down there. I think this is the saddest and most disgusting story I have ever heard. Here is a link if you are interested in more information on the story:

  2. Dan Elkins says:

    I really enjoyed your post i would have to agree with your post on kinship and that plays a very important role in all of are lives, both politically, socially and economically. I believe kinship is the most influential part on our upbringing as a whole. Are culture that is first thrown upon us with is though or kinship from are parents weather they be maternal or from adoption. Even though it’s hard for us going up in western societies to rationalize that arranged marriages and dowries for brides are still common place in some cultures it’s kinship and passing of these tradition that makes them thrive and live on.

    Your blog about incest is a very interesting taboo. Back in history incest was not as taboo as it is today with royal families keeping bloodlines intact. Back in the 19th century it was not uncommon for people to marry there first cousins the famous American author Allan Poe is an example of this type of union. Up until the civil war after that most states lead a prohibition against fist cousin marriage. The main purpose of marriage prohibitions was increasingly seen as less maintaining the social order and upholding religious morality and more as safeguarding the creation of fit offspring. Today it is also looked as a counter evolutionary way to diversify one’s community. One of the main reasons for marriage is to socially diversify in one’s community, incest is the direct opposite correlation of his and is one of the main reason i believe it has become taboo culturally today.

  3. Kalim Khan says:

    I agree with the other posters in that I did enjoy reading this blog entry. It listed the main points covered in this section and explained the concepts discussed succinctly and knowledgably. Studying kinship relations in a society help put economic, social and political aspects of that society in perspective. Kinship relations most often serve a specific function in a given society. Unlike some others, I don’t find it hard to believe that there are still cultures that engage in dowrie or customs similar to that. Many times these marriage customs serve vital functions such as a security for the groom’s or bride’s family incase the marriage falls apart. It is unfortunate that there is still kinship practices that harm some of the individuals involved for example child marriages performed in the small villages and communities in India or Pakistan, as well as some Middle Eastern nations. Many people find first cousin marriages repulsive and unnatural. Something interesting I learned in my biology classes though is that first cousin marriages are not as “incestual” as many believe. There is actually quite a bit of genetic diversity that still comes from the swapping of DNA between first cousins, and even more with increasingly distant relatives. I am not advocating first cousin marriages because I find it as repulsive as the next western socialized individual, but I found this little tidbit interesting and eye-opening. It allows me to realize not to be too quick to judge individuals in other cultures who may practice this custom.

  4. Gary Schlack says:

    Much like the previous posters, I really enjoyed reading your summary of why anthropologists study kinship relations. You gave an easy to understand explanation of what you can expect when you began to study kinship from the point of view of an anthropologist. However, I think when you gave examples in parenthesis, it made it too general and not enough outside the box. For example, when you mentioned the family unit, I believe you could have mentioned how there are more family patterns then just polygamy or monogamy, but they are the most common found in society. Additionally, I would have given sources to your example of why it is currently illegal in the United States to be in polygamy relationship. Nevertheless, I believe it was a very good post and very informative.

    On the topic of incest, I completely agree with you. Incest always has seemed to be taboo in all cultures across the board with few exceptions. Also, I would like to note that incest can come in many different forms and in my opinion can hurt families more than anything else. Yet, I liked you example of using royal families as an example of incest, but would like to point out that from a brief glance, royal families today seem to finally be marrying for love rather than to extend their bloodlines. I personally feel that’s the reason you should be marrying, but all the same I also believe that divorce should be used as an absolute last result. I believe in society today, couples often get divorced too often without trying to deal with their problems in all possible ways. In the end, divorce is bad, but incest is worse.

  5. Bianca Stoner says:

    Studying kinship structures in a society is definitely crucial to understanding any given culture as a whole, mainly because it is usually a mirror of the political, residential, and economic patterns of a society. One could argue the kinship structure is a byproduct of these institutions, or the cause of them. What’s interesting is the types of living conditions and the level of technological development seem to be correlated to whether a society is hunting and gathering, horticultural, etc. These food gathering methods along with level of technology influence gender stratification, which impacts kinship. What I find interesting is how the taboo of incest is stronger than the taboo for polygamy. While many people view polygamy as “morally wrong”, the argument for it (that you mentioned) supports why incest is almost universally prohibited—for the purpose of genetic diversity.

    While marriage is a social construct, the taboo against incest focuses on incestual intercourse (not so much the construct of marriage). Even though there may be some sort of natural “revulsion” to incest, it is interesting how certain royal families still participate in in-breeding (this goes against the natural biological instinct to genetically diversify through breeding, this casting light on just how much influence social constructs have on our behavior and makes it difficult to generalize about social practices based on scientific approaches). What is also interesting is how in one of the articles it mentioned that in-breeding, it takes many generations to start noticing defects, which contrasts the extreme stereotypical image of a child born of incest as having “webbed-feet”. Incest and in-breeding produce a topic where arguments can be made from either a scientific or humanist approach.

  6. Emily Annal says:


    I thought your post was on the money in every way. Kinship is really important and I agree that through studying kinship anthropologists are able to view how people interact within their own families and how these interactions can shape the forces throughout the entire community. Your example about the three brothers all contributing to the dowry and sharing a woman as a wife in one village is a perfect example of how the relationship between the brothers and that cultures view on marriage and family shapes what the community looks like and how relationships within the community and culture are formed.

    You bring up interesting and valid points about incest being very culturally taboo, although I think the majority of people in the U.S. agree with you, incest is legal and practiced in many countries and cultures. Curious about this I googled incest laws and found a Wikipedia page that lists the different laws in several countries and was surprised at how many countries declare marriage and/or sexual acts between consenting adults legal. For example in Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, all of which, as “the west” we would expect to be culturally taboo, but instead are allowed. Even in the U.S., which in general finds incest to be a huge taboo, the laws vary considerably with some states outlawing it completely while some only outlaw it between direct descendents such as between siblings, or between someone’s parent or grandparent. This wouldn’t include aunts, uncles or cousins. It is strange to learn that while incest is a cultural taboo for most (at least in the U.S.) and can result in severe birth defects that could harm offspring, there are obviously some people who do not see it this way and continue to practice it.

    Here is the link to the Wikipedia article,

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