Main Question: What does descent mean? What is the disctincion between social and biological descent?

Introductory Terms | References

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Introductory Terms

Agnatic: Descent traced through males (sometimes misleadingly termed "patrilineal")
Uterine: Descent traced through females (sometimes termed "matrilineal")
Agnates: "Male or female descendants by male links from the same male ancestor" (Schusky)
Uterine Kin: Male or female kin linked to ego through female links
Bilateral: "A practice which links a person with a group of close relatives through both sexes" (Schusky) (sometimes also termed "cognatic")
Cognatic Kin: Relatives by "blood" without particular emphasis on male or female links
Unilineal Descent: The tracing of relationship through either the male or female line
Bilineal Descent: The tracing of relationship through both male and female links
Double Descent: An individual belongs to one group through agnatic descent, another through uterine descent; frequently different types of property and rights are passed through the two sexes.
Group: Set of persons who meet regularly, are self-aware of their membership
Corporation: A property-holding unit, never dies
Unilineal Descent groups (UDG): Group of persons recruited on the basis of links through one sex; lineages and clans are examples
Lineage: "A consanguineal kin group practicing unilineal descent, which includes only persons who can actually trace their relationship to a common ancestor; that is, a lineage is all the unilineal descendants of a known common ancestor or ancestress" (Schusky)
"Nuer lineages are not corporate, localized, communities, though they are frequently associated with territorial units…" (Evans-Pritchard)
Clan: "A clan may be defined as a group of persons of both sexes, membership of which is determined by unilineal descent, actual or putative… the clan may consist of a group of lineages" (Notes & Queries): "in a lineage group each member can actually, or at least theoretically, trace his genealogical connection with any other member by descent from a known common ancestor, connection with any other member by descent from a known common ancestor, whereas in a clan… this is not possible… it is usual to apply the term ‘clan’ to both patrilineal and matrilineal groups, but some American ethnographers use the term ‘clan’ only for matrilineal groups and ‘gens’ for patrilineal…" (Radcliffe-Brown)
Patrilineage: Lineage based on links through males (composed of both sexes)
Matrilineage: Lineage based on links through females (composed of both sexes)
Segments: "Each male member of a patrilineage is himself the potential founder of a lineage of his own, which then forms a branch or segment of the original lineage. Thus in some societies each lineage is a segmented group, divided into major segments each of which is divided into lesser segments…" (Barnes). (The three usual terms are maximal [largest] –major -minimal).
Segmentary: "A merging series of subgroups of increasing inclusiveness, two groups that stand in contraposition at one level of segmentation merge when opposed to a group of a higher order of segmentation" (Goody). When centralized administration is absent these are known as "segmentary" (or ‘acephelous’ – without a head) societies.


Fortes, M. (1953) "The structure of Unilineal Descent Groups", American Anthropologist, 55 (reprinted in Fortes, Time and Social Structure and Other Essays, and partially in Goody, J., Ch.17, (eds) Kinship, Penguin)
Fox, R., Chs. 3-6, in Kinship & Marriage, Penguin
Goody, J. (1968) "Descent Groups" in Int. Enc. Soc. Sci
Keesing, R., Chs. 2-4, in Kin Groups and Social Structure
Malinowski, B. "The Principle of Legitimacy", reprinted in Goody J., Ch.2, (eds) Kinship, Penguin
Richards, A.I., "Some Types of Family Structure amongst the Central Bantu" in Radcliffe-Brown, A.R. & Forde, D. (eds) African Systems of Kinship and Marriage, partially reprinted in Goody, J., Ch.18, (eds) Kinship, Penguin
Fox, R., Chs. 6 & 9, in Kinship & Marriage, Penguin
Freeman, J.D. (1961) "On the Concept of the Kindred", Jnl. Roy. Anth. Inst., 91, partially reprinted in Bohannon, P. & Middleton, J., Ch. 17, (eds) Kinship & Social Organizations
Friedl, Vasilika
Goody, J. (1969) "Inheritance, Property and Marriage in Africa and Eurasia", Sociology, 3(1)
Homans, G.C., Chs. 8 & 9, English Villagers of the Thirteenth Century
Keesing, R., Chs. 6 & 7 in Kin Groups and Social Structure
Pherson, R.N., "Bilateral Kin Groupings" reprinted in Goody J., Ch. 19, (eds) Kinship, Penguin