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The incest taboo is a term used by anthropologists to refer to a class of prohibitions, both formal and informal, stated and unstated, against incest, the practice of sexual relations between certain or close relatives, in human societies. There are various theories that seek to explain how and why an incest taboo originates. Some advocates maintain that some sort of incest taboo is universal, while others dispute its universality. Research on the incest taboo necessarily involves research into what different societies consider "incest" which, according to anthropology, varies strikingly from one society to another. The term may encompass, but is not identical to, the legal regulation of marriage by states.

Researching the incest tabooEdit

Since humanity developed writing only around 5,000 years ago, anthropological research on sex and marriage has largely focused on non-literate or only recently literate societies. Such societies may not have written laws concerning marriage and incest. Nevertheless, anthropologists have found that the institution of marriage, and rules concerning appropriate and inappropriate sexual behavior, exist in every society [1] The following excerpt from Notes and Queries, the most well-established field manual for ethnographic research, illustrates the scope of ethnographic investigation into the matter.

Incest is sexual intercourse between individuals related in certain prohibited degrees of kinship. In every society there are rules prohibiting incestuous unions, both as to sexual intercourse and recognized marriage. The two prohibitions do not necessarily coincide. There is no uniformity as to which degrees are involved in the prohibitions. The rules regulating incest must be investigated in every society by means of the Genealogical Method. The prohibition may be so narrow as to include only one type of parent-child relationship (though this is very rare), or those within the elementary family; or so wide as to include all with whom genealogical or classificatory kinship can be traced. The more usual practice is that unions with certain relatives only are considered incestuous, the relationships being regulated by the type of descent emphasized. In some societies unions with certain persons related by affinity are also considered incestuous.
What penalties fall on (a) the individuals concerned; (b) the community as a whole? Are such penalties enforced by authority, or are they believed to ensure automatically by all action of supernatural force? Is there any correlation between the severity of the penalty and the nearness of the blood-tie of the partners in guilt? Should children be born as the result of incestuous unions, how are they treated? Are there any methods, ritual or legal, by which persons who fall within the prohibited degrees and wish to marry can break the relationship and become free to marry?[2]

As this excerpt suggests, anthropologists distinguish between social norms and actual social behavior; much social theory explores the difference and relationship between the two. For example, what is the purpose of prohibitions that are routinely violated (as for example when people claim that incest is taboo yet engage in incestuous behavior)?

It should be further noted that in these theories anthropologists are generally concerned solely with brother-sister incest, and are not claiming that all sexual relations among family members are taboo or even necessarily considered incestuous by that society. These theories are further complicated by the fact that in many societies people related to one another in different ways, and sometimes distantly, are classified together as siblings, and others who are just as closely related genetically are not considered family members.

Moreover, the definition restricts itself to sexual intercourse; this does not mean that other forms of sexual contact do not occur, or are proscribed, or prescribed. For example, in some Amerindian societies in the Arctic, and traditionally in Bali, mothers would routinely stroke the penises of their infant sons; such behavior was considered no more sexual than breast-feeding.[3][4]

It should also be noted that in these theories anthropologists are primarily concerned with marriage rules and not actual sexual behavior. In short, anthropologists were not studying "incest" per se; they were asking informants what they meant by "incest," and what the consequences of "incest" were, in order to map out social relationships within the community.

This excerpt also suggests that the relationship between sexual and marriage practices is complex, and that societies distinguish between different sorts of prohibitions. In other words, although an individual may be prohibited from marrying or having sexual relations with many people, different sexual relations may be prohibited for different reasons, and with different penalties.

For example, Trobriand Islanders prohibit both sexual relations between a woman and her brother,[5] and between a woman and her father,[6] but they describe these prohibitions in very different ways: relations between a woman and her brother fall within the category of forbidden relations among members of the same clan; relations between a woman and her father do not.[7] This is because the Trobrianders are matrilineal; children belong to the clan of their mother and not of their father. Thus, sexual relations between a man and his mother's sister (and mother's sister's daughter) are also considered incestuous, but relations between a man and his father's sister are not.[8] Indeed, a man and his father's sister will often have a flirtatious relationship, and, far from being taboo, Trobriand society encourages a man and his father's sister, or the daughter of his father's sister to have sexual relations or marry.[9]


Instinctual and Genetic ExplanationsEdit

One theory, proposed by Havelock Ellis suggests that the taboo expresses a psychological revulsion that people naturally experience at the thought of incest.[10] Most anthropologists reject this explanation, since incest does in fact occur.[11][12][13]

Another theory is the Westermarck effect, first proposed by Edvard Westermarck, that children reared together, regardless of biological relationship, form a sentimental attachment that is by its nature non-erotic.[14] Melford Spiro argued that his observions that unrelated children reared together on Israeli Kibbutzim nevertheless avoided one another as sexual partners confirmed the Westermarck effect.[15] According to another study, however, out of 2516 marriages documented in Israel, only 200 were between couples reared in the same kibbutz. These marriages occurred after young adults reared on kibbutzim had served in the military and encountered tens of thousands of other potential mates, and 200 marriages is higher than what would be expected by chance. Of these 200 marriages, five were between men and women who had been reared together for the first six years of their lives. This research disconfirms the Westermarck hypothesis.[16]

Another theory is that the observance of the taboo would lower the incidence of congenital birth defects caused by inbreeding. This theory was first proposed by jurist Henry Maine, who did not have knowledge of modern genetics, but who did draw on his observations of animal husbandry[17] Anthropologists reject this explanation for two reasons. First, inbreeding does not directly lead to congenital birth defects per se; it leads to an increase in the frequency of homozygotes. [18] An increase in homozygotes has diverging effects. A homozygote encoding a congenital birth defect will produce children with birth defects, but homozygotes that do not encode for congenital birth defects will decrease the number of carriers in a population. The overall consequences of these diverging effects depends in part on the size of the population. In small populations, as long as children born with heritable birth defects die (or are killed) before they reproduce, the ultimate effect of inbreeding will be to decrease the frequency of defective genes in the population; over time the gene pool will be healthier. In larger populations, however, it is more likely that large numbers of carriers will survive and mate, leading to more constant rates of birth defects.[19]

Second, anthropologists have pointed out that the social construct "incest" (and the incest taboo) is not the same thing as the biological phenomenon of "inbreeding". In the Trobriand case a man and the daughter of his father's sister, and a man and the daughter of his mother's sister, are equally distant genetically. Biologists would consider mating in both instances, but Trobrianders consider mating in one case incestuous and in the other, not. Anthropologists have documented a great number of societies where marriages between some first cousins are prohibited as incestuous, while marriages between other first cousins are encouraged. Therefore, the prohibition against incestuous relations in most societies is not based on or motivated by concerns over biological closeness.[20] Nor can it be explained by the effects of inbreeding or natural selection.[21][22]

Anthropological ExplanationsEdit

The Incest Taboo and ExogamyEdit

The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss developed a general argument for the universality of the incest taboo in human societies. His argument begins with the claim that the incest taboo is in effect a prohibition against endogamy, and the effect is to encourage exogamy. Through exogamy, otherwise unrelated households or lineages will form relationships through marriage, thus strengthening social solidarity. That is, Lévi-Strauss views marriage as an exchange of women between two social groups. This theory is based in part on Marcel Mauss's theory of The Gift, which argued

that exchange in primitive societies consists not so much in economic transactions as in reciprocal gifts, that these reciprocal gifts have a far more important function than in our own, and that this primitive form of exchange is not merely nor essentially of an economic nature but is what he aptly calls 'a total social fact', that is, an event which has a significance that is at once social and religious, magic and economic, utilitarian and sentimental, jural and moral.[23]

It is also based on Lévi-Strauss's analysis of data on different kinship systems and marriage practices documented by anthropologists and historians. Lévi-Strauss called attention specifically to data collected by Margaret Mead during her research among the Arapesh. When she asked if a man ever sleeps with her sister, Arapesh replied "No we don't sleep with our sisters. We give our sisters to other men, and other men give us their sisters." Mead pressed the question repeatedly, asking what would happen if a brother and sister did have sex with one another. Lévi-Strauss quotes the Arapesh response:

What, you would like to marry your sister? What is the matter with you anyway? Don't you want a brother-in-law? Don't you realize that if you marry another man's sister and another man marries your sister, you will have at least two brother's-in-law, while if you marry your own sister you will have none? With whom will you hunt, with whom will you garden, who will you visit?[24]

By applying Mauss's theory to data such as Mead's, Lévi-Strauss proposed what he called Alliance theory. In "primitive" societies, he argued, marriage is not fundamentally a relationship between a man and a woman, it is a transaction involving a woman that forges a relationship - an alliance - between two men.[25] His Elementary Structures of Kinship takes this as a starting point and uses it to analyze kinship systems of increasing complexity found in so-called primitive societies, that is, those not based on agriculture, class inequalities, and centralized government.

This theory was debated intensely by anthropologists in the 1950s. It appealed to many because it used the study of incest taboos and marriage to answer more fundamental research interests of anthropologists at the time: how can an anthropologist map out the social relationships within a given community, and how do these relationships promote or endanger social solidarity?[26][27] Nevertheless, anthropologists never reached a consensus, and with the Vietnam War and the process of de-colonization in Africa, Asia, and Oceania, anthropological interests shifted away from mapping local social relationships.

Although many anthropologists reject the universailty of alliance theory most accept Lévi-Strauss' argument that the incest taboo is related to the preference for and advantages of exogamy. Most anthropologists and sociologists today believe that nuclear family incest avoidance can be explained in terms of the ecological, demographic, and economic benefits of exogamy.[28]

Incest and EndogamyEdit

Exogamy between households or descent groups is typically prescribed in classless societies. Societies that are stratified, that is, divided into unequal classes, often prescribe different degrees of endogamy. Endogamy is the opposite of exogamy; it refers to the practice of marriage between members of the same social group. A classic example is India's caste system, in which unequal castes are endogamous.[29] Inequality between ethnic groups and races also correlates with endogamy.[30] Class, caste, ethnic and racial endogamy typically coexists with family exogamy and prohibitions against incest.

An extreme example of this principle, and an exception to the incest taboo, is found among members of the ruling class in certain ancient states, such as the Inca, Egypt, China, and Hawaii; brother-sister marriage (usually between half-siblings) was a means of maintianing wealth and political power within one family.[31] In Roman-governed Egypt this practice was also found among commoners.[32]

See alsoEdit

Further ReadingEdit

  • Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1969 The Elementary Structures of Kinship revised edition, translated from the French by James Harle Bell and John Richard von Sturmer. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • George Homans and David M. Schneider, Marriage, Authority, and Final Causes: A Study of Unilateral Cross-Cousin Marriage
  • Rodney Needham, Structure and Sentiment: A Test Case in Social Anthropology
  • Arthur P. Wolf and William H. Durham (editors), Inbreeding, Incest, and the Incest Taboo: The State of Knowledge at the Turn of the Century, ISBN 0-8047-5141-2

NotesEdit

  1. Marvin Harris 1997 Culture, People and Nature: An Introduction to General Anthropology 7th edition Longman pp 250, 253
  2. A Committee of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 1951 Notes and Queries on Anthropology. 6rh edition. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, Ltd. p. 113-114
  3. Briggs, Jean Louise Never in anger: portrait of an Eskimo family 1970 Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.)
  4. Gregory Bateson, Steps to an ecology of mind: collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology preface by Mark Engel 1972 Chandler, San Francisco 112-115
  5. Bronislow Malinowski 1929 The Sexual Life of Savages in North-West Melanesia: An Ethnographic Account of Courtship, Marriage and Family Life Among the Natives of the Trobriand Highlands, British New Guinea Boston: Beacon Press 389, 392
  6. Bronislow Malinowski 1929 The Sexual Life of Savages in North-West Melanesia: An Ethnographic Account of Courtship, Marriage and Family Life Among the Natives of the Trobriand Highlands, British New Guinea Boston: Beacon Press 384
  7. Bronislow Malinowski 1929 The Sexual Life of Savages in North-West Melanesia: An Ethnographic Account of Courtship, Marriage and Family Life Among the Natives of the Trobriand Highlands, British New Guinea Boston: Beacon Press 384
  8. Bronislow Malinowski 1929 The Sexual Life of Savages in North-West Melanesia: An Ethnographic Account of Courtship, Marriage and Family Life Among the Natives of the Trobriand Highlands, British New Guinea Boston: Beacon Press450-451
  9. Bronislow Malinowski 1929 The Sexual Life of Savages in North-West Melanesia: An Ethnographic Account of Courtship, Marriage and Family Life Among the Natives of the Trobriand Highlands, British New Guinea Boston: Beacon Press 449-450
  10. Havelock Ellis 1906 Sexual Selection in Man Philadelphia
  11. Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1969 The Elementary Structures of Kinship revised edition, translated from the French by James Harle Bell and John Richard von Sturmer. Boston: Beacon Press. 17
  12. Cicchetti and Carlson eds. 1989 Child Maltreatment: Theory and Research on the Causes and Consequences of Child Abuse and Neglect. New York, Cambridge University Press
  13. Glaser and Frosh 1988 Child and Sexual Abuse Chicago: Dorsey Press.
  14. Westermarck, Edvard A. (1921). The history of human marriage, 5th edn. London: Macmillan
  15. Spiro, M. (1965). Children of the Kibbutz. New York: Schocken.
  16. Hartung, John 1985 "Review of Incest: A Biological View by J. Shepher in American Journal of Physical Anthropology 67: 167-171
  17. Henry Main 1886 Dissertations on Early Law and Custom New York, p. 228
  18. Livingstone, Frank B. 1969 "Genetics, Ecology, and the Origins of Incest and Exogamy" in Current Anthropology 10:45-62
  19. Thornhill, Nancy, ed. 1993 The Natural History of Inbreeding and Outbreeding. Chicago: UNiversity of Chicago Press
  20. Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1969 The Elementary Structures of Kinship revised edition, translated from the French by James Harle Bell and John Richard von Sturmer. Boston: Beacon Press. 13-14
  21. Alexander, Richard 1977 "Natural Selection and the Analyusis of Human Sociology" in The Changing Scenes in the Natural Sciences, 1776-1976 pp 283-337 Academy of Natural Science Special Publication 12
  22. Bittles et. al. 1991 "Reproductive Behavior and Health in Consangueneous Marriages" in Science 2(52): 789-794
  23. Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1969 The Elementary Structures of Kinship revised edition, translated from the French by James Harle Bell and John Richard von Sturmer. Boston: Beacon Press. 52
  24. Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1969 The Elementary Structures of Kinship revised edition, translated from the French by James Harle Bell and John Richard von Sturmer. Boston: Beacon Press. 485
  25. Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1969 The Elementary Structures of Kinship revised edition, translated from the French by James Harle Bell and John Richard von Sturmer. Boston: Beacon Press. 492-496
  26. H. Befu "Social Exchange" in Annual Review of Anthropology. Volume 6, Page 255-281, Oct 1977
  27. M.G. Peletz "Kinship Studies in Late Twentieth-Century Anthropology" in Annual Review of Anthropology. Volume 24, Page 343-372, Oct 1995
  28. Leavitt, Gregory 1989 "Disappearance of the Incest Taboo" in American Anthropologist 91: 116-131
  29. Marvin Harris 1997 Culture, People and Nature: An Introduction to General Anthropology 7th edition Longman pp 250, 311
  30. Marvin Harris 1997 Culture, People and Nature: An Introduction to General Anthropology 7th edition Longman pp 317-318
  31. Bixler, Ray 1982 "Comment on the Incidence and Purpose of Royal Sibling Incest" in American Ethnologist 9: 580-582
  32. Hopkins, Keith 1980 "Brother-Sister Marriage in Ancient Egypt" in Comparative Studies in Society and History 22: 303-354
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