Matrilateral Cross Cousin Marriage Definition Essay

Structural anthropology is a school of anthropology based on Claude Lévi-Strauss' idea that immutable deep structures exist in all cultures, and consequently, that all cultural practices have homologous counterparts in other cultures, essentially that all cultures are equitable.

Lévi-Strauss' approach arose in large part from dialectics expounded on by Marx and Hegel, though dialectics (as a concept) dates back to Ancient Greek philosophy. Hegel explains that every situation presents two opposing things and their resolution; Fichte had termed these "thesis, antithesis, and synthesis." Lévi-Strauss argued that cultures also have this structure. He showed, for example, how opposing ideas would fight and were resolved to establish the rules of marriage, mythology and ritual. This approach, he felt, made for fresh new ideas. He stated:

people think about the world in terms of binary opposites—such as high and low, inside and outside, person and animal, life and death—and that every culture can be understood in terms of these opposites. "From the very start," he wrote, "the process of visual perception makes use of binary oppositions.

Only those who practice structural analysis are aware of what they are actually trying to do: that is, to reunite perspectives that the "narrow" scientific outlook of recent centuries believed to be mutually exclusive: sensibility and intellect, quality and quantity, the concrete and the geometrical, or as we say today, the "etic" and the "emic."

In South America he showed that there are "dual organizations" throughout Amazon rainforest cultures, and that these "dual organizations" represent opposites and their synthesis. As an illustration, Gê tribes of the Amazon were found to divide their villages into two rival halves; however, members from each half married each other, resolving the opposition

Culture, he claimed, has to take into account both life and death and needs to have a way of mediating between the two. Mythology (see his several-volume Mythologies) unites opposites in diverse ways.

Three of the most prominent structural anthropologists are Lévi-Strauss himself and the British neo-structuralists Rodney Needham and Edmund Leach. The latter was the author of such essays as "Time and False Noses" (in Rethinking Anthropology).


Further information: Alliance theory

Lévi-Strauss took many ideas from structural linguistics, including those of Ferdinand de Saussure, Roman Jakobson, Émile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss. Saussure argued that linguists needed to move beyond the recording of parole (individual speech acts) and come to an understanding of langue, the grammar of each language.

Lévi-Strauss applied this distinction in his search for mental structures that underlie all acts of human behavior: Just as speakers can talk without awareness of grammar, he argued, humans are unaware of the workings of social structures in daily life. The structures that form the "deep grammar" of society originate in the mind and operate unconsciously (albeit not in a Freudian sense).

Another concept was borrowed from the Prague school of linguistics, which employed so-called binary oppositions in their research. Roman Jakobson and others analysed sounds based on the presence or absence of certain features, such as "voiceless" vs. "voiced". Lévi-Strauss included this in his conceptualization of the mind's universal structures. For him, opposites formed the basis of social structure and culture.


In his early work Lévi-Strauss argued that tribal kinshipgroups were usually found in pairs, or in paired groups that oppose each other yet need one another. For example, in the Amazon basin, two extended families would build their houses in two facing semicircles that together form a big circle. He showed too that the ways people initially categorized animals, trees, and other natural features, were based on a series of oppositions.

In his most popular work, The Raw and the Cooked, he described folk tales of tribal South America as related to one another through a series of transformations—as one opposite in tales here changed into its opposite in tales there. For example, as the title implies, raw becomes its opposite cooked. These particular opposites (raw/cooked) are symbolic of human culture itself, in which by means of thought and labour (economics), raw materials become clothes, food, weapons, art and ideas.

While Durkheim thought that taxonomies of the natural world are collective in origin (the "collective conscious"), meaning that social structures influence individual cognitive structures, Lévi-Strauss proposed the opposite, arguing that it is the latter that gives rise to the former. Social structures mirror cognitive structures, meaning that patterns in social interaction can be treated as their manifestations. While structural-functionalists looked for structures within social organisation, structuralism seeks to identify links between structures of thought and social structures. Possibly the most significant influence on structuralism came from Mauss' The Gift. Mauss argued that gifts are not free, but rather oblige the recipient to reciprocate. Through the gift, the givers give part of themselves, imbuing the gift a certain power that compels a response. Gift exchanges, therefore play a crucial role in creating and maintaining social relationships by establishing bonds of obligations. Gifts are not merely physical, incidental objects; they possess cultural and spiritual properties. It is a "total prestation" as Mauss called it, as it carries the power to create a system of reciprocity in which the honour of both giver and recipient are engaged. Social relationships are therefore based on exchange; Durkheimian solidarity, according to Mauss, is best achieved through structures of reciprocity and related systems of exchange.

Lévi-Strauss took this idea and postulated three fundamental properties of the human mind: a) people follow rules; b) reciprocity is the simplest way to create social relationships; c) a gift binds both giver and recipient in a continuing social relationship

Structures are universal; their realization is culturally specific. Lévi-Strauss argued that exchange is the universal basis of kinship systems, the structures of which depend on the type of marriage rules that apply. Because of its strong focus on vertical social relations, Lévi-Strauss' model of kinship systems came to be called alliance theory.


Lévi-Strauss' model attempted to offer a single explanation for cross-cousin marriage, sister-exchange, dual organization and rules of exogamy. Over time, marriage rules create social structures because marriages are primarily forged between groups and not just between spouses. When groups exchange women on a regular basis, they marry together; consequently, each marriage creates a debtor/creditor relationship that must be balanced through the "repayment" of wives, either immediately or in the next generation.

Lévi-Strauss proposed that the initial motivation for the exchange of women was the incest taboo. He deemed this the beginning and essence of culture, as it was the first prohibition to check natural impulses; secondarily, it divides labor by gender. Prescribing exogamy creates a distinction between marriageable and tabooed women that necessitates a search for women outside one's own kin group ("marry out or die out") and fosters exchange relationships with other groups. Exogamy promotes inter-group alliances and forms structures of social networks.

Lévi-Strauss also discovered that a wide range of historically unrelated cultures had the rule that individuals should marry their cross-cousin, meaning children of siblings of the opposite sex - from a male perspective that is either the FZD (father's sister's daughter) or the MBD (mother's brother's daughter). Accordingly, he grouped all possible kinship systems into a scheme containing three basic kinship structures constructed out of two types of exchange. He called the three kinship structures elementary, semi-complex and complex.

Elementary structures are based on positive marriage rules that specify whom a person must marry, while complex systems specify negative marriage rules (whom one must not marry), thus leaving room for choice based on preference. Elementary structures can operate based on two forms of exchange: restricted (or direct) exchange, a symmetric form of exchange between two groups (also called moieties) of wife-givers and wife-takers; in an initial restricted exchange FZ marries MB, with all children then being bilateral cross-cousins (the daughter is both MBD and FZD). Continued restricted exchange means that the two lineages marry together. Restricted exchange structures are generally quite uncommon.

The second form of exchange within elementary structures is called generalised exchange, meaning that a man can only marry either his MBD (matrilateral cross-cousin marriage) or his FZD (patrilateral cross-cousin marriage). This involves an asymmetric exchange between at least three groups. Matrilateral cross-cousin marriage arrangements where the marriage of the parents is repeated by successive generations are very common in parts of Asia (e.g. amongst the Kachin). Lévi-Strauss considered generalised exchange to be superior to restricted exchange because it allows the integration of indefinite numbers of groups. Examples of restricted exchange are found, for instance, in the Amazon basin. These tribal societies are made up of multiple moieties that often split up, rendering them comparatively unstable. Generalised exchange is more integrative but contains an implicit hierarchy, as e.g. amongst the Kachin where wife-givers are superior to wife-takers. Consequently, the last wife-taking group in the chain is significantly inferior to the first wife-giving group to which it is supposed to give its wives. These status inequalities can destabilise the entire system or can at least lead to an accumulation of wives (and in the case of the Kachin, also of bridewealth) at one end of the chain.

From a structural perspective matrilateral cross-cousin marriage is superior to its patrilateral counterpart; the latter has less potential to produce social cohesion since its exchange cycles are shorter (the direction of wife exchange is reversed in each successive generation). Lévi-Strauss' theory is supported by fact that patrilateral cross-cousin marriage is in fact the rarest of three types. However, matrilateral generalised exchange poses a risk as group A depends on receiving a woman from a group that it has not itself given a woman to, producing a less immediate obligation to reciprocate compared to a restricted exchange system. The risk created by such a delayed return is obviously lowest in restricted exchange systems.

Lévi-Strauss proposed a third structure between elementary and complex structures, called semi-complex structure or Crow-Omaha system. Semi-complex structures contain so many negative marriage rules that they effectively prescribe marriage to specific parties, thus somewhat resembling elementary structures. These structures are found, for example, among the Crow Nation and OmahaNative Americans in the United States.

In Lévi-Strauss' view, the basic building block of kinship is not just the nuclear family, as in structural-functionalism, but the so-called kinship atom: the nuclear family together with the wife's brother. This "mother's brother" (from the perspective of the wife-seeking son) plays a crucial role in alliance theory, as he is the one who ultimately decides whom his daughter will marry. Moreover, it is not just the nuclear family as such, but alliances between families that matter in regard to the creation of social structures, reflecting the typical structuralist argument that the position of an element in the structure is more significant than the element itself. Descent theory and alliance theory therefore look at two sides of one coin: the former emphasising bonds of consanguinity (kinship by blood), the latter stressing bonds of affinity (kinship by law or choice).

The Leiden school[edit]

Main article: The Leiden school

Much earlier, and some 450 miles north of Paris, a specific type of applied anthropology emerged at Leiden University, Netherlands that focused frequently on the relationship between apparent cultural phenomena found in the Indonesian archipelago: Batak, Minangkabau, Moluccas, etc., though it was primarily aimed at training governors for colonial Indonesia. This type of anthropology, developed by late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century scholars, was eventually called "de Leidse Richting," or "de Leidse School,".

Multiple researchers were educated in this school. This theory attracted students and researchers interested in a holistic approach, that was broad and deep, that related economic circumstances with mythological and spatial classifications and that explored the relationship between the natural world and religious, symbolic systems. This was long before structuralism. The "Leiden" perspective drove research for many decades, influencing successive generations of anthropologists.

The most recent chairs were held by J. P. B. de Josselin de Jong (chair: 1922–1956, 1964), who coined the concept of the Field of Ethnological Study in 1935, and later his nephew P. E. de Josselin de Jong (chair: 1956–1987, 1999).

British neo-structuralism[edit]

The British brand of structuralism was mainly espoused by Rodney Needham and Edmund Leach, who were both critical towards the structural-functionalist perspective and who drew on Lévi-Strauss as well as Arthur Maurice Hocart. They also found grounds for critiquing Lévi-Strauss. Leach was more concerned with researching people's actual lives than with the discovery of universal mental structures.

He found that the latter's analysis of the Kachin contained serious flaws. According to Leach, Lévi-Strauss' project had been overly ambitious, meaning that his analyses were too superficial and the available data treated with too little care. While part of his analysis of the Kachin was simply based on incorrect ethnographic information, the rest reflected Kachin ideology but not actual practice.

In theory, Kachin groups were supposed to marry in a circle ideally consisting of five groups. In reality, the system was strongly unbalanced with built-in status differences between wife-givers and wife-takers. Lévi-Strauss had incorrectly assumed that wife-takers would be of higher rank than wife-givers; in reality, it was the other way round, and the former usually had to make substantial bridewealth payments to obtain wives. Overall, some lineages would accumulate more wives and material wealth than others, meaning that the system was not driven primarily by reciprocity. The marriage system was quite messy and the chance of it breaking down increased with the number of groups involved.

In generalised exchange systems, more groups imply greater complexity to ensure that all wife-givers will eventually be on the receiving end, an issue that Lévi-Strauss had already foreseen. He thought that in practice there would be competition for women, leading to accumulation and therefore asymmetries in the system. According to Leach, in Kachin reality instabilities arose primarily from competition for bridewealth. Men sought to get the maximum profit in forms of either bridewealth or political advantage from their daughters' marriage. Lévi-Strauss had only accorded a symbolic role to marriage prestations, effectively overlooking their significance within the system. Leach argued that they are also (or even primarily) economic and political transactions and are frequently connected to transfers of rights over land, too.

Marriage exchanges need to be analysed within their wider economic and political context rather than in isolation, as Lévi-Strauss attempted. Leach charged the latter with neglecting the effects of material conditions on social relations. He also challenged the claims to universality made by Lévi-Strauss about the model, doubting whether structures generated by marriage rules would be the same in different social contexts.



By the late 1970s/early 1980s, alliance theory had lost influence. With the advent of postmodern, interpretive-hermeneutic thought, structuralist and functionalist theories went receded. Internal incoherence and a range of intrinsic limitations further reduced its appeal.

Excessive emphasis of affinal ties[edit]

By overstressing the structural significance of affinal ties, alliance theory effectively neglected the importance of descent and genealogical ties. Some societies (e.g. African tribal societies) employ descent as their primary organizational principle. In others, alliances are of primary significance, as in e.g. many Southeast-Asian societies and amongst Amazon tribes; and still others emphasise both. The Yanomami fit very well into the alliance theory mold, while the Tallensi or Azande do not. Holý (1996) pointed out that some Middle-Eastern societies cannot be conclusively explained by either descent or alliance theory.

Critics also saw weaknesses in Lévi-Strauss' methods, in the fact that he looked for ideal structures, thereby neglecting the reality and complexity of actual practices. His model explained practices that were not observed. Kuper pointed out that if the structures of the mind really are universal and Lévi-Strauss' model is correct, then why do not all human societies act accordingly and structure their kinship systems around alliances and exchanges? Kuper allowed that exchange was the universal form of marriage, but there could be other significant factors. And even if reciprocity was the primary principle that underlies marriages, the return would not have to be in kind but could take other forms (such as money, livestock, services or favours of various kinds). Also, social cohesion through reciprocity does not have to rest primarily on the bride exchange. Mauss showed that different cultures use all kinds of gifts to create and maintain alliances.

Feminists critique Lévi-Strauss' claim that the underlying principle according to which all societies work is the exchange of women by men, who dispose of them as if they were objects. Others, for example Godelier, critiqued structuralism's synchronic approach that led it to be essentially ahistorical.

Materialistic perspectives[edit]

Marxists shifted the attention within anthropology from an almost exclusive preoccupation with kinship to an emphasis on economic issues. For them, social structures were primarily shaped by material conditions, property relations and class struggles.


Structuralism's main propositions were not formulated in a way so that they could be subject to verification or falsification.[6] Lévi-Strauss did not develop a framework that could prove the existence of his concept of the fundamental structures of human thought, but simply assumed their existence. Boyer pointed out that experimental research on concepts in psychology have not supported a structuralistic view of concepts, but rather a theory-oriented or prototype-based view.

See also[edit]



  • Barnard, A. 2000. History and Theory in Anthropology. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Barnard, Alan; Good, Anthony (1984). Research practices in the study of kinship. Academic Press. 
  • Barnes, J.A. (1971). Three Styles in the Study of Kinship. Taylor Francis. ISBN 978-1-136-53500-0. 
  • Barnes, J. 1971. Three Styles in the Study of Kinship. London: Butler & Tanner.
  • Boyer, P. (31 May 2013). Mccorkle, William W.; Xygalatas, D, eds. Explaining religious concepts. Lévi- Strauss the brilliant and problematic ancestor. Mental Culture: Classical Social Theory and the Cognitive Science of Religion. Durham, UK: Acumen. pp. 164–75. ISBN 978-1-84465-664-6. 
  • D'Andrade, Roy G. (27 January 1995). The Development of Cognitive Anthropology. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-45976-1. 
  • Devlin, D. 2006. Late Modern. Susak Press.
  • Holy, L. 1996. Anthropological Perspectives on Kinship. London: Pluto Press.* Kuper, Adam (1988). The Invention of Primitive Society: Transformations of an Illusion. Psychology Press. ISBN 978-0-415-00903-4. 
  • Kuper, A. 1996. Anthropology and Anthropologists. London: Routledge.
  • Layton, Robert (1997). An Introduction to Theory in Anthropology. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-62982-9. 
  • Leach, E. 1954. Political Systems of Highland Burma. London: Bell.
  • Leach, E. R. (1966). Rethinking Anthropology. Berg Publishers. ISBN 978-1-84520-004-6. 
  • Lévi-Strauss, C. 1969. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. London: Eyre and Spottis-woode.
  • Lévi-Strauss, C. 1963, 1967. Structural Anthropology. Translated by Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1972). Structuralism and Ecology. 

External links[edit]

Cousin marriage is marriage between cousins (i.e. people with common grandparents or people who share other fairly recent ancestors). Opinions and practice vary widely across the world. In some cultures and communities, cousin marriage is considered ideal and actively encouraged; in others, it is subject to social stigma. Cousin marriage is common in the Middle East, for instance, where it accounts for over half of all marriages in some countries.[1] In some countries outside that region, it is uncommon but still legal. In others, it is seen as incestuous and is legally prohibited: it is banned in China and Taiwan, North Korea, South Korea, the Philippines and 24 of the 50 United States.[2][3] Supporters of cousin marriage where it is banned may view the prohibition as discrimination,[4][5] while opponents may appeal to moral or other arguments.[6] Worldwide, more than 10% of marriages are between first or second cousins.[7]

In the past, cousin marriage was practised within indigenous cultures in Australia, North America, South America, and Polynesia. Various religions have ranged from prohibiting sixth cousins or closer from marrying, to freely allowing first-cousin marriage. Cousin marriage is an important topic in anthropology and alliance theory.[8]

Children of first-cousin marriages may have an increased risk of genetic disorders, particularly if their parents both carry a harmful recessive mutation, but this can only be estimated empirically, and those estimates are likely to be specific to particular populations in specific environments. Children of more distantly related cousins have less risk of genetic disorders. In fact, a study of Icelandic records indicated that marriages between third or fourth cousins (people with common great-great- or great-great-great-grandparents) may produce the most children and grandchildren.[9]


According to Professor Robin Fox of Rutgers University, 80% of all marriages in history may have been between second cousins or closer.[10] The founding population of Homo sapiens was small, 700 to 10,000 individuals; therefore, a certain amount of inbreeding is inevitable.[11] Proportions of first-cousin marriage in Western countries have declined since the 19th century.[12][13] In the Middle East, cousin marriage is still strongly favoured.[14][15][16]

Cousin marriage has often been chosen to keep cultural values intact, preserve family wealth, maintain geographic proximity, keep tradition, strengthen family ties, and maintain family structure or a closer relationship between the wife and her in-laws. Many such marriages are arranged (see also pages on arranged marriage in the Indian subcontinent, arranged marriages in Pakistan, and arranged marriages in Japan).[7][10][17][18][19]

The Americas[edit]

United States[edit]

Cousin marriage was legal in all states before the Civil War.[citation needed] Anthropologist Martin Ottenheimer argues that marriage prohibitions were introduced to maintain the social order, uphold religious morality, and safeguard the creation of fit offspring.[20] Writers such as Noah Webster (1758–1843) and ministers like Philip Milledoler (1775–1852) and Joshua McIlvaine helped lay the groundwork for such viewpoints well before 1860. This led to a gradual shift in concern from affinal unions, like those between a man and his deceased wife's sister, to consanguineous unions. By the 1870s, Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–1881) was writing about "the advantages of marriages between unrelated persons" and the necessity of avoiding "the evils of consanguine marriage", avoidance of which would "increase the vigor of the stock". To many, Morgan included, cousin marriage, and more specifically parallel-cousin marriage, was a remnant of a more primitive stage of human social organization.[21] Morgan himself had married his cousin in 1853.[22]

In 1846, Massachusetts GovernorGeorge N. Briggs appointed a commission to study mentally handicapped people (termed "idiots") in the state. This study implicated cousin marriage as responsible for idiocy. Within the next two decades, numerous reports (e.g., one from the Kentucky Deaf and Dumb Asylum) appeared with similar conclusions: that cousin marriage sometimes resulted in deafness, blindness, and idiocy. Perhaps most important was the report of physician Samuel Merrifield Bemiss for the American Medical Association, which concluded cousin inbreeding does lead to the "physical and mental depravation of the offspring". Despite being contradicted by other studies like those of George Darwin and Alan Huth in England and Robert Newman in New York, the report's conclusions were widely accepted.[23]

These developments led to 13 states and territories passing cousin marriage prohibitions by the 1880s. Though contemporaneous, the eugenics movement did not play much of a direct role in the bans. George Louis Arner in 1908 considered the ban a clumsy and ineffective method of eugenics, which he thought would eventually be replaced by more refined techniques. By the 1920s, the number of bans had doubled.[5] Since that time, Kentucky (1943) and Texas have banned first-cousin marriage and since 1985, Maine has mandated genetic counseling for marrying cousins to minimise risk to any of serious health defect to their children. The National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws unanimously recommended in 1970 that all such laws should be repealed, but no state has dropped its prohibition.[3][10][24]


Early Medieval Europe continued the late Roman ban on cousin marriage; under the law of the Catholic Church, couples were forbidden to marry if they were within four degrees of consanguinity.[clarification needed][25] In the ninth century, the church raised the number of prohibited degrees to seven and changed the method by which they were calculated.[26] Eventually, the nobility became too interrelated to marry easily as the local pool of unrelated prospective spouses became smaller; increasingly, large payments to the church were required for exemptions ("dispensations"), or retrospective legitimizations of children, in what amounted to a 'protection racket' by the church.[27] In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council reduced the number of prohibited degrees of consanguinity from seven to four.[28][29] The method of calculating prohibited degrees was changed also.[30] Instead of the former practice of counting up to the common ancestor then down to the proposed spouse, the new law computed consanguinity by counting back to the common ancestor.[30] In the Roman Catholic Church, unknowingly marrying a closely consanguineous blood relative was grounds for a declaration of nullity, but during the 11th and 12th centuries, dispensations were granted with increasing frequency due to the thousands of persons encompassed in the prohibition at seven degrees and the hardships this posed for finding potential spouses.[31] After 1215, the general rule was that while fourth cousins could marry without dispensation, the need for dispensations was reduced.[31]

For example, the marriage of Louis XIV of France and Maria Theresa of Spain was a first-cousin marriage on both sides.[32] It began to fall out of favor in the 19th century as women became socially mobile. Only Austria, Hungary, and Spain banned cousin marriage throughout the 19th century, with dispensations being available from the government in the last two countries.[33] First-cousin marriage in England in 1875 was estimated by George Darwin to be 3.5% for the middle classes and 4.5% for the nobility, though this had declined to under 1% during the 20th century.[34]Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were a preeminent example.[35]

The 19th-century academic debate on cousin marriage developed differently in Europe and America. The writings of Scottish deputy commissioner for lunacy Arthur Mitchell claiming that cousin marriage had injurious effects on offspring were largely contradicted by researchers such as Alan Huth and George Darwin.[37][38] In fact, Mitchell's own data did not support his hypotheses and he later speculated that the dangers of consanguinity might be partly overcome by proper living. Later studies by George Darwin found results that resemble those estimated today. His father, Charles Darwin, who did marry his first cousin, had initially speculated that cousin marriage might pose serious risks, but perhaps in response to his son's work, these thoughts were omitted from a later version of the book they published. When a question about cousin marriage was eventually considered in 1871 for the census, according to George Darwin, it was rejected on the grounds that the idle curiosity of philosophers was not to be satisfied.[39][40]

Ancient Rome[edit]

Cousin and sibling marriage were legal in ancient Rome from the Second Punic War (218–201 BC), until it was banned by the Christian emperor Theodosius I in 381 in the West, and until after the death of Justinian (565) in the East,[41][42] but the proportion of such marriages is not clear. Anthropologist Jack Goody said that cousin marriage was a typical pattern in Rome, based on the marriage of four children of Emperor Constantine to their first cousins and on writings by Plutarch and Livy indicating the proscription of cousin marriage in the early Republic.[43] Professors Brent Shaw and Richard Saller, however, counter in their more comprehensive treatment that cousin marriages were never habitual or preferred in the western empire: for example, in one set of six stemmata (genealogies) of Roman aristocrats in the two centuries after Octavian, out of 33 marriages, none was between first or second cousins. Such marriages carried no social stigma in the late Republic and early Empire. They cite the example of Cicero attacking Mark Antony not on the grounds of cousin marriage, but instead on grounds of Antony's divorce.

Shaw and Saller propose in their thesis of low cousin marriage rates that as families from different regions were incorporated into the imperial Roman nobility, exogamy was necessary to accommodate them and to avoid destabilizing the Roman social structure. Their data from tombstones further indicate that in most of the western empire, parallel-cousin marriages were not widely practiced among commoners, either. Spain and Noricum were exceptions to this rule, but even there, the rates did not rise above 10%.[44] They further point out that since property belonging to the nobility was typically fragmented,[clarification needed] keeping current assets in the family offered no advantage, compared with acquiring it by intermarriage. Jack Goody claimed that early Christian marriage rules forced a marked change from earlier norms to deny heirs to the wealthy and thus to increase the chance that those with wealth would will their property to the Church. Shaw and Saller, however, believe that the estates of aristocrats without heirs had previously been claimed by the emperor, and that the Church merely replaced the emperor. Their view is that the Christian injunctions against cousin marriage were due more to ideology than to any conscious desire to acquire wealth.[44]

For some prominent examples of cousin marriages in ancient Rome, such as the marriage of Octavian's daughter to his sister's son, see the Julio-Claudian family tree. Marcus Aurelius also married his maternal first cousin Faustina the Younger, and they had 13 children. Cousin marriage was more frequent in Ancient Greece, and marriages between uncle and niece were also permitted there.[8] One example is King Leonidas I of Sparta, who married his half-niece. A Greek woman who became epikleros, or heiress with no brothers, was obliged to marry her father's nearest male kin if she had not yet married and given birth to a male heir. First in line would be either her father's brothers or their sons, followed by her father's sisters' sons.[45] According to Goody, cousin marriage was allowed in the newly Christian and presumably also pre-Christian Ireland, where an heiress was also obligated to marry a paternal cousin. From the seventh century, the Irish Church only recognized four degrees of prohibited kinship, and civil law fewer. This persisted until after the Norman conquests in the 11th century and the synod at Cashel in 1101.[46] In contrast, contemporary English law was based on official Catholic policy, and Anglo-Norman clergy often became disgusted with the Irish "law of fornication".[47] Finally, Edward Westermarck states that marriage among the ancient Teutons was apparently prohibited only in the ascending and descending lines and among siblings.[48]



Further information: Chinese marriage

Confucius described marriage as "the union of two surnames, in friendship and in love".[49] In ancient China, some evidence indicates in some cases, two clans had a longstanding arrangement wherein they would only marry members of the other clan. Some men also practiced sororate marriage, that is, a marriage to a former wife's sister or a polygynous marriage to both sisters. This would have the effect of eliminating parallel-cousin marriage as an option, but would leave cross-cousin marriage acceptable.[50] In the ancient system of the Erya dating from around the third century BC, the words for the two types of cross cousins were identical, with father's brother's children and mother's sister's children both being distinct.[51] However, whereas it may not have been permissible at that time, marriage with the mother's sister's children also became possible by the third century AD.[52] Eventually, the mother's sister's children and cross cousins shared one set of terms, with only the father's brother's children retaining a separate set.[53] This usage remains today, with biao (表) cousins considered "outside" and paternal tang (堂) cousins being of the same house.[54] In some periods in Chinese history, all cousin marriage was legally prohibited, as law codes dating from the Ming Dynasty attest. However, enforcement proved difficult and by the subsequent Qing Dynasty, the former laws had been restored.[55]

The following is a Chinese poem by Po Chu-yi (A.D. 772–846).[56]

In Ku-feng hsien, in the district of Ch'u chou [Kiangsu]
Is a village called Chu Ch'en [the names of the two clans].
There are only two clans there
Which have intermarried for many generations.

Anthropologist Francis Hsu described mother's brother's daughter (MBD) as being the most preferred type of Chinese cousin marriage, mother's sister's daughter (MSD) as being tolerated, and father's brother's daughter (FBD) as being disfavored.[57] Some writers report this last form as being nearly incestuous.[58] One proposed explanation is that in FBD marriage, the daughter does not change her surname throughout her life, so the marriage does not result in an extension of the father's kinship ties. In Chinese culture, these patrilineal ties are most important in determining the closeness of a relation.[59] In the case of the MSD marriage, no such ties exist, so consequently this may not even be viewed as cousin marriage. Finally, one reason that MBD marriage is often most common may be the typically greater emotional warmth between a man and his mother's side of the family.[60] Later analyses have found regional variation in these patterns; in some rural areas where cousin marriage is still common, MBD is not preferred but merely acceptable, similar to MSD.[58] By the early to mid-20th century, anthropologists described cross-cousin marriage in China as "still permissible ... but ... generally obsolete" or as "permitted but not encouraged".[55][56]

Middle East[edit]

Main article: Cousin marriage in the Middle East

Cousin marriage has been allowed throughout the Middle East for all recorded history.[61] Anthropologists have debated the significance of the practice; some view it as the defining feature of the Middle Eastern kinship system[62] while others note that overall rates of cousin marriage have varied sharply between different Middle Eastern communities.[63] Very little numerical evidence exists of rates of cousin marriage in the past.[64]

Raphael Patai reports that in central Arabia, no relaxation of a man's right to the father's brother's daughter, seems to have taken place in the past hundred years before his 1962 work. Here the girl is not forced to marry her ibn 'amm, but she cannot marry another unless he gives consent.[65] The force of the custom is seen in one case from Jordan when the father arranged for the marriage of his daughter to an outsider without obtaining the consent of her ibn 'amm. When the marriage procession progressed with the bride toward the house of the bridegroom, the ibn 'amm rushed forward, snatched away the girl, and forced her into his own house. This was regarded by all as a lawful marriage.[66] In Iraq, the right of the cousin has also traditionally been followed and a girl breaking the rule without the consent of the ibn 'amm could have ended up murdered by him.[67] The Syrian city of Aleppo during the 19th century featured a rate of cousin marriage among the elite of 24% according to one estimate, a figure that masked widespread variation: some leading families had none or only one cousin marriage, while others had rates approaching 70%. Cousin marriage rates were highest among women,[clarification needed] merchant families, and older well-established families.[68]

In-marriage was less frequent in the late pre-Islamic Hijaz than in ancient Egypt. It existed in Medina during Muhammad's time, but at less than today's rates.[69] In Egypt, estimates from the late 19th and early 20th centuries state variously that either 80% of fellahin married first cousins or two-thirds married them if they existed. One source from the 1830s states that cousin marriage was less common in Cairo than in other areas. In traditional Syria-Palestina, if a girl had no ibn 'amm (father's brother's son) or he renounced his right to her, the next in line was traditionally the ibn khal (mother's brother's son) and then other relatives. Raphael Patai, however, reported that this custom loosened in the years preceding his 1947 study.[66] In ancient Persia, the Achaemenid kings habitually married their cousins and nieces,[70] while between the 1940s and 1970s, the percentage of Iranian cousin marriages increased from 34 to 44%.[71] Cousin marriage among native Middle Eastern Jews is generally far higher than among the European Ashkenazim, who assimilated European marital practices after the diaspora.[72]

According to anthropologist Ladislav Holý, cousin marriage is not an independent phenomenon, but rather one expression of a wider Middle Eastern preference for agnatic solidarity, or solidarity with one's father's lineage. According to Holý, the oft-quoted reason for cousin marriage of keeping property in the family is, in the Middle Eastern case, just one specific manifestation of keeping intact a family's whole "symbolic capital".[73] Close agnatic marriage has also been seen as a result of the conceptualization of men as responsible for the control of the conduct of women.[74]Honor is another reason for cousin marriage: while the natal family may lose influence over the daughter through marriage to an outsider, marrying her in their kin group allows them to help prevent dishonorable outcomes like either attacks on her or her own unchaste behavior.[75] Pragmatic reasons for the husband, such as warmer relations with his father-in-law, and those for parents of both spouses, like reduced bride price and access to the labor of the daughter's children, also contribute.[76][77] Throughout Middle Eastern history, cousin marriage has been both praised and discouraged by various writers and authorities.[78]

A 2009 study found that many Arab countries display some of the highest rates of consanguineous marriages in the world, and that first cousin marriages which may reach 25–30% of all marriages.[79] In Qatar, Yemen, and UAE, consanguinity rates are increasing in the current generation. Research among Arabs and worldwide has indicated that consanguinity could have an effect on some reproductive health parameters such as postnatal mortality and rates of congenital malformations.[80]

Middle Eastern parallel-cousin marriage[edit]

Andrey Korotayev claimed that Islamization was a strong and significant predictor of parallel cousin (father's brother's daughter – FBD) marriage. He has shown that while a clear functional connection exists between Islam and FBD marriage, the prescription to marry a FBD does not appear to be sufficient to persuade people to actually marry thus, even if the marriage brings with it economic advantages. According to Korotayev, a systematic acceptance of parallel-cousin marriage took place when Islamization occurred together with Arabization.[81]


Cousin marriage rates from most African nations outside the Middle East are unknown. An estimated 35–50% of all sub-Saharan African populations either prefer or accept cousin marriages.[82] In Nigeria, the most populous country of Africa, the three largest tribes in order of size are the Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo.[83] The Hausa are overwhelmingly Muslim, though followers of traditional religions do exist. Muslim Hausa practice cousin marriage preferentially, and polygyny is allowed if the husband can support multiple wives.[84] The book Baba of Karo presents one prominent portrayal of Hausa life: according to its English coauthor, it is unknown for Hausa women to be unmarried for any great length of time after around the age of 14.[85] Divorce can be accomplished easily by either the male or the female, but females must then remarry.[86] Even for a man, lacking a spouse is looked down upon.[87] Baba of Karo's first of four marriages was to her second cousin. She recounts in the book that her good friend married the friend's first cross cousin.[88]

The Yoruba people are 50% Muslim, 40% Christian, and 10% adherent of their own indigenous religious traditions.[89] A 1974 study analyzed Yoruba marriages in the town Oka Akoko, finding that among a sample of highly polygynous marriages having an average of about three wives, 51% of all pairings were consanguineous. These included not only cousin marriages, but also uncle-niece unions. Reportedly, it is a custom that in such marriages at least one spouse must be a relative, and generally such spouses were the preferred or favorite wives in the marriage and gave birth to more children. However, this was not a general study of Yoruba, but only of highly polygynous Yoruba residing in Oka Akoko.[90] Finally, the Igbo people of southern Nigeria specifically prohibit both parallel- and cross-cousin marriage, though polygyny is common. Men are forbidden to marry within their own patrilineage or those of their mother or father's mother and must marry outside their own village. Igbo are almost entirely Christian, having converted heavily under colonialism.[91]

In Ethiopia, most of the population was historically rigidly opposed to cousin marriage, and could consider up to third cousins the equivalent of brother and sister, with marriage at least ostensibly prohibited out to sixth cousins.[92] They also took affinal prohibitions very seriously. The prospect of a man marrying a former wife's "sister" was seen as incest, and conversely for a woman and her former husband's "brother".[93] Though Muslims make up over a third of the Ethiopian population, and Islam has been present in the country since the time of Muhammad, cross-cousin marriage is very rare among most Ethiopian Muslims.[94] In contrast to the Nigerian situation, in Ethiopia, Islam cannot be identified with particular tribal groups and is found across most of them, and conversions between religions are comparatively common.[95] Exceptions to these rules include the overwhelmingly Muslim Somali and Afar peoples, who respectively make up 6.2% and 1.73% of the population.[96] The Afar practice a form of cousin marriage called absuma that is arranged at birth and can be forced.[97]

Legal status and prevalence[edit]

This section needs expansion with: more countries and regions. You can help by adding to it.(March 2010)


Recent 2001 data for Brazil indicate a rate of cousin marriage of 1.1%, down from 4.8% in 1957.[98] The geographic distribution is heterogeneous: in certain regions, the rate is at typical European levels, but in other areas is much higher. Newton Freire-Maia (pt) found paternal parallel cousin marriage to be the most common type.[99] In his 1957 study, the rate varied from 1.8% in the south to 8.4% in the northeast, where it increased moving inward from the coast,[100] and was higher in rural regions than in urban. Consanguinity has decreased over time and particularly since the 19th century. For example, in São Paulo in the mid-19th century, the rate of cousin marriage apparently was 16%,[101] but a century later, it was merely 1.9%.[98]

East Asia[edit]

In the Far East, South Korea is especially restrictive with bans on marriage out to third cousins, with all couples having the same surname and region of origin having been prohibited from marrying until 1997.[102]

Taiwan, North Korea, and the Philippines also prohibit first-cousin marriage.[3][103]

It is allowed in Japan, though the incidence has declined in recent years.[17]

China has banned it since passing its 1981 Marriage Law although cross-cousin marriage was commonly practiced in China in the past in rural areas.[17][104] An article in China Daily from the 1990s reported on the ban's implementation in the northeastern province of Liaoning, along with a ban on marriage of the physically and mentally handicapped, all justified on "eugenic" grounds.[104] Limited existing data indicate some remaining cousin marriage of types besides father's brother's daughter in many villages, with percentages usually in the lower single digits.[98] A 2002 Time article claims that an increasing imbalance in the number of males and females is causing more cousin marriages, as "desperate" males struggle to find brides.[105] Currently according to the Marriage Law of the People's Republic of China, "Article 7 No marriage may be contracted under any of the following circumstances: (1) if the man and the woman are lineal relatives by blood, or collateral relatives by blood up to the third degree of kinship."[106]

Similarly, in Vietnam, Clause 3, Article 10 of the 2000 Vietnamese Law on Marriage and Family forbids marriages on people related by blood up to the third degree of kinship.[107][108]


Attitudes in India on cousin marriage vary sharply by region and culture. The family law in India takes into account the religious and cultural practices and they are all equally recognized. For Muslims, governed by uncodified personal law, it is acceptable and legal to marry a first cousin, but for Hindus, it may be illegal under the 1955 Hindu Marriage Act, though the specific situation is more complex. The Hindu Marriage Act makes cousin marriage illegal for Hindus with the exception of marriages permitted by regional custom.[111] Practices of the small Christian minority are also location-dependent: their cousin marriage rates are higher in southern states such as Karnataka with high overall rates.[112]

Apart from the religion-based personal laws governing marriages, the civil marriage law named Special Marriage Act, 1954 governs. Those who do not wish to marry based on the personal laws governed by religious and cultural practices may opt for a marriage under this law. It defines the first-cousin relationship, both parallel and cross, as prohibited. Conflict may arise between the prohibited degrees based on this law and personal law, but in absence of any other laws, it is still unresolved.[113]

Cousin marriage is proscribed and seen as incest for Hindus in North India. In fact, it may even be unacceptable to marry within one's village or for two siblings to marry partners from the same village.[114] The northern kinship model prevails in the states of Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan, Sikkim, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and West Bengal. However, for some communities in South India, it is common for Hindu cross cousins to marry, with matrilateralcross-cousin (mother's brother's daughter) marriages being especially favored.[115] In the region, "uncle-niece and first-cousin unions are preferential and jointly account for some 30% of marriages".[116]

In many North Indian communities such as Brahmins, Rajputs, Vaishyas, Jats, Yadavs, etc., everyone who is immediately associated with four surnames; own surname (that is father's surname), mother's maiden surname, paternal grandmother's maiden surname, maternal grandmother's maiden surname. These surnames are known as the candidate's gotra (lit. branch). Any two candidates who want to marry cannot have the common gotra. The marriage is allowed only when all these shakha are different for both the candidates. This automatically rules out closer cousin marriages. Cousin marriage is discouraged in the Telugu Brahmins in Andhra Pradesh, such as Gauda and Dravida Brahmins.

Practices in West India overall are closer to the northern than the southern,[117] but differences exist here again. For instance, in Mumbai, studies done in 1956 showed 7.7% of Hindus married to a second cousin or closer. By contrast, in the northern city of New Delhi, only 0.1% of Hindus were married to a first cousin during the 1980s. At the other extreme, studies done in the South Indian state of Karnataka, which contains Bangalore, during that period show fully one-third of Hindus married to a second cousin or closer.[118] Pre-2000 Madhya Pradesh, from which Chhattisgarh has now split, and Maharashtra, which contains Mumbai, are states that are intermediate in their kinship practices.

India's Muslim minority represents about 14% of its population and has an overall rate of cousin marriage of 22% according to a 2000 report. This dichotomy may be a legacy of the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, when substantial Muslim migration to Pakistan occurred from the eastern parts of the former unified state of Punjab. In south India, by contrast, the rates are fairly constant, except for the South Indian Malabar Muslims of Kerala (9%) who claim descent from Arab traders who settled permanently in India in the eighth century. Most Indian Muslims, by contrast, are the result of Hindus' conversions to Islam in the 16th century or later. The lowest rate for a whole Indian region was in East India (15%). Consanguinity rates were generally stable across the four decades for which data exist, though second-cousin marriage appears to have been decreasing in favor of first-cousin marriage.[16]

Middle East[edit]

Main article: Cousin marriage in the Middle East

The Middle East has uniquely high rates of cousin marriage among the world's regions. Certain Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, have rates of marriage to first or second cousins that may exceed 70%.[1] Iraq was estimated in one study to have a rate of 33%,[119] and figures for Afghanistan have been estimated in the range of 30–40%.[1]

All Arab countries in the Persian Gulf currently require advance genetic screening for all prospective married couples. Qatar was the last Persian Gulf nation to institute mandatory screening in 2009, mainly to warn related couples who are planning marriage about any genetic risks they may face. The current rate of cousin marriage there is 54%, an increase of 12–18% over the previous generation.[120] A report by the Dubai-based Centre for Arab Genomic Studies (CAGS) in September 2009 found that Arabs have one of the world's highest rates of genetic disorders, nearly two-thirds of which are linked to consanguinity. Research from Ahmad Teebi suggests consanguinity is declining in Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco and among Palestinians in Israel, but is increasing in the United Arab Emirates.[121]

Ahmad Teebi links the increase in cousin marriage in Qatar and other Arab states of the Persian Gulf to tribal tradition and the region's expanding economies. "Rich families tend to marry rich families, and from their own – and the rich like to protect their wealth," he said. "So it's partly economic, and it's also partly cultural." In regard to the higher rates of genetic disease in these societies, he says: "It's certainly a problem," but also that "The issue here is not the cousin marriage, the issue here is to avoid the disease."[15]

In many Middle Eastern nations, a marriage to the father's brother's daughter (FBD) is considered ideal, though this type may not always actually outnumber other types.[122] One anthropologist, Ladislav Holý, argues that it is important to distinguish between the ideal of FBD marriage and marriage as it is actually practiced, which always also includes other types of cousins and unrelated spouses. Holý cites the Berti people of the Sudan, who consider the FBD to be the closest kinswoman to a man outside of the prohibited range. If more than one relationship exists between spouses, as often results from successive generations of cousin marriage, only the patrilineal one is counted. Marriage within the lineage is preferred to marriage outside the lineage even when no exact genealogical relationship is known. Of 277 first marriages, only 84 were between couples unable to trace any genealogical relationship between them. Of those, in 64, the spouses were of the same lineage. However, of 85 marriages to a second or third wife, in 60, the spouses were of different lineages.[123][124] The Marri have a very limited set of incest prohibitions that includes only lineal relatives, the sister, and aunts except the mother's brother's wife. Female members of the mother's lineage are seen as only loosely related. Finally, the Baggara Arabs favor MBD marriage first, followed by cross-cousin marriage if the cross cousin is a member of the same surra, a group of agnates of five or six generations depth. Next is marriage within the surra. No preference is shown for marriages between matrilateral parallel cousins.

The Netherlands[edit]

The Netherlands has also had a recent debate that has reached the level of the Prime Minister proposing a cousin marriage ban. The proposed policy is explicitly aimed at preventing "import marriages" from certain nations like Morocco with a high rate of cousin marriage. Critics argue that such a ban would contradict Section 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, is not based on science, and would affect more than immigrants. While some proponents argue such marriages were banned until 1970, according to Frans van Poppel of the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute, they are confusing cousin marriage with uncle-niece marriage.[125]


In Pakistan, cousin marriage is legal and common. Reasons for consanguinity are for economic and cultural reasons.[126] As Pakistan is a diverse country, consanguineous marriage is therefore favoured by 50–60% of the population in Pakistan. In some areas, higher proportion of first-cousin marriages in Pakistan has been noted to be the cause of an increased rate of blood disorders in the population.

United States[edit]

Further information: Cousin marriage law in the United States by state

Several states of the United States have bans on cousin marriage.[128][129] As of February 2014[update], 24 U.S. states prohibit marriages between first cousins, 19 U.S. states allow marriages between first cousins, and 7 U.S. states allow only some marriages between first cousins.[2] Six states prohibit first-cousin-once-removed marriages.[6] Some states prohibiting cousin marriage recognize cousin marriages performed in other states, but despite occasional claims that this holds true in general,[130]laws also exist that explicitly void all foreign cousin marriages or marriages conducted by state residents out of state.[citation needed]

Data on cousin marriage in the United States are sparse. It was estimated in 1960 that 0.2% of all marriages between Roman Catholics

Laws regarding first-cousin marriage around the world.1

  First-cousin marriage legal

  Allowed with restrictions or exceptions

  Legality dependent on religion or culture2

  Statute bans first-cousin marriage

  Banned with exceptions

  Criminal offence

  No available data

1For information on US states see the map below.
2See sections on India and Hinduism.
Cousin marriages (second-degree cousins or closer) in the world, in percentage (%).[109][110]









Slightly over 10% of all marriages worldwide are estimated to be between second cousins or closer.[7][17] The overall rate appears to be declining.[24]
Laws regarding first-cousin marriage in the United States

  First-cousin marriage is legal

  Allowed with requirements or exceptions

  Banned with exceptions1

  Statute bans first-cousin marriage1

  Criminal offence1

1Some states recognize marriages performed elsewhere, especially when the spouses were not residents of the state when married.clarification needed

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