the amateur anthropologist

20 years ago I had an Idea. Maybe someone who knows something about the field can tell me what is wrong with it in 20 seconds (including maybe someone else had the idea 40 years ago).

This thought was stimulated by reading Structural Anthropology a collection of essays by Claude Levi-Strauss. There are two questions. One is why are some cultures monogynous and others polygynous ? The other is why do the Bororo divide their tiny villages into 3 endogamous clans ?

OK first question. Why in some cultures men can marry more than one woman and in others only one ? One possbile explanation is polygyny occurs when the gender ratio is many women for each man. This can happen if lots of men get killed by other men. So women share husbands or go single wasting their uteruses (the Moll Flanders problem described by Daniel Defoe some time ago).

Could be the explanation, but I would like to talk about another. Levi Strauss was very interested in a very simple mathematical model which pointed out that hunter gatherers typically live in tiny groups (have too to avoid killing off all the game within walking distance). Someone else (really some two else) calculated that these groups were about as small as could be sustained given risk that a generation would be all male or all female and thus the last (he didn’t explain this model very clearly and I didn’t look it up). OK see how much worse this problem is if monogynous. If people live in small groups and are mostly endogamous (must have some flow with other villages/bands to avoide inbreeding but I assume this is pretty low). If each man is allowed to get only one woman pregnant, the number of woman who reproduce each generation is the lesser of the number of woman and the number of men. If each man is allowed to get as many women pregnant as are available then the number of women who reproduce each generation is the number of women. Polygyny might be required in people who live in small mostly endogamous villages to deal with random fluctuations in the sex ratio.

Now What’s the problem ? Well in farming, herding or industrialised societies there is the problem that women who share a husband are poor (leave out issue of single moms in cultures which are trying to be monogynous but don’t do a very good job of it). This is not the problem in hunter-gatherer cultures where food is shared within the village. The economic unit is not the family but the village (has to be that way given risky returns to hunting not to mention hunting often works best with village size group cooperating).

So is there a disadvantage of polygyny ? I think there is (not that I have any personal experience (REALLY I swear dear my interest is purely theoretical really — no field trials)). I think it makes the rival suitors problem worse. Think of this little village with two guys chasing after the same gal. That’s tension. Monogyny puts a limit on the allowed licit romantic ambitions of each man which reduces the conflict over the babes. We can see in other primates this conflict is very very intense. OK for them as they aren’t armed. I think humans have this problem that we have developed weapons which can make quarrels lethal so we men have to stop fighting over the women. Clearly this problem is not easy not solved etc. Now polygyny might (or might not) reduce conflict between women over the men (I also have no experience with polygyny from the wive’s point of view). However, women are much less violent than men (a cultural universal I think except where violence levels are so low that it is hard to tell).

Finally I am getting to Levi-Strauss’ main interest — Kinship rules. The observation is that in hunter gatherer populations there are often very strict narrow restrictive rules on who can marry who. There are many theories of why. Levi-Strauss has an attractive theory that the idea is to make sure that everyone is related to everyone else in the village so kinship bonds hold the village together.

Very nice theory but what about the Bororo ? They have rules restricting people to marry withing their “clan” of which there are 3 in each village. This sure doesn’t fit L-S’ theory since it divides each village into 3 kinship groups instead of uniting it.

What does he write about them ? He writes that the Bororo made a mistake. That they don’t understand how kinship rules should work (and stubbornly refused to listen to his explanation I suppose). That, as a result, their culture is doomed (don’t believe me look it up). Hmmm so this is the methodology of structural anthropology according the L-S ? The argument is we find patterns of culture because of cultural selection — some combinations lead to stability and are selected others to instability and are not selected. Now here is a culture which should not exist according to the theory. Conclusion — it won’t exist for long.

Notice how a theory of selection in which observed cultures might be un fit (no problem) is a theory without any predictive content.

OK how about my story. According to my story the point of these complicated rules of who can marry who is to avoid conflict between two men who each want to marry the same woman. Thus the point of the rules is that they are rules. It doesn’t matter much if they tell this poor woman miss Smith that she is going to have to be mrs Jones or mrs Miller. The point is they leave her no choice so she can’t break any hearts.

Personally I would prefer a doomed unstable culture, but I think the argument makes cultural evolutionary sense. If it’s all decided in advance as soon as people are born there is no point in fighting over it.

Now back to the Bororo. The 3 clans make no trouble for my story at all. The point is to have rules. The exact rules don’t matter so much. A culture which divides villages into arbitrary groups and forces them to be endogamous is like a culture which divides them into arbitrary groups and forces them to be exogamous. In either case men can’t fight each other for wives unless one sets himself against culture and tradition.

One final point. I assume that the rules are not binding to the point that women can’t marry if they have no allowed husband. That is, I assume they are really rules for deciding which of more than one candidate husband is chosen. If women are forced to be single because of the kinship rules, my theory is dead wrong. That’s a very weak testable prediction.

I also predict stricter rules of kinship if polygynous than if monogamous. A vague prediction.

32 thoughts on “the amateur anthropologist

  1. Actually, I think you can make a better case for complex kinship structures and moeity rules with a Coasian analysis. Consider the transaction costs in finding and wooing a suitable mate. The more constrained the choice, and the more deeply ingrained the social taboos on breaking moeity rules are, the lower the cost of finding the best mate among the limited selection that remains. Considering that western society, which offers theoretically unlimited mate choices still produces broken marriages half of the time, it seems likely that most people, most of the time, will be about as happy with the best choice of mate from a limited set as they would be if they had had freer choice. But, when strict taboos limit your choice of mate, you don’t have to go to a lot of trouble hanging around in bars, working on pick-up lines, buying dinners, going to sappy chick movies, etc.

    (Besides – I could swear I thought the Bororo had exogamous moeities.)

  2. Dear Scott
    You sure know your Bororo kinship rules. IIRC They have both exogamous moeities and endogamous clans. Thus the Boror dating game must be very simple (once one figures out the rules).

    Thanks for the comment

  3. I just googled them and it seems that is, in fact, the case. Each clan is divided into strictly exogamous moeities, but the tribe is divided into clans. Given their overall size – and I suspect some covert gene transfer – it doesn’t seem that the clans are small enough to produce serious risks of genetic drift. I’ve long wondered if there wasn’t some research out there linking the degree of viability of strict endogamous divisions to the degree that participants cheat on their spouses.

  4. One possbile explanation is polygyny occurs when the gender ratio is many women for each man. This can happen if lots of men get killed by other men.

    I’ve seen this theory posited for explaining, in part, ancient chinese polygamy. There could be more than one type of situation which triggers and/or perpetuates polygamy.

    In that perspective, I’m somewhat sympathetic to the L-S take on the Bororo: once a social system takes hold, it might well be able to perpetuate itself even if it is not efficient for the parties involved.

    Lastly, most men in polygamous societies do not have multiple wives, only the upper quarter, If I recall correctly. If you looked at an equivalent cut of supposedly monogamous societies, It’s not clear to me that you would find unblemished monogamy.

  5. “Lastly, most men in polygamous societies do not have multiple wives, only the upper quarter, If I recall correctly.”

    Duh. Polygamy reflects and accentuates significant inequality in a society, both among men and among women but more profoundly among women. Though I appreciate the post and comments, there is a maleness here that could be toned down a bit to fine effect in considering the sad institution of polygamy.

    What you might well do is consider how terribly debilitating polygamy is in Southern Africa, and think really think really think what such an institution means for women. Duh.

  6. Though I am a bit annoyed, I appreciate you all. Robert Waldmann boldly chose the topic and I appeciate even the topic, but I am nonetheless annoyed. Consider and understand how debilitating polygamy is for women in fine circumstances, consider polygamy in Southern Africa in a dire time of AIDS with HIV infection rates among 15 to 50 year old women and men ranging to 30%.

  7. Anne, go over to pedantry.fistfulofeuros.net and read the top entry, the one marked “Africa Correspondence”. Scroll down to the part that starts with “Whites are not allowed to touch blacks.”

    We do all get the empowerment issues involved, and I don’t think anything here constitutes advocacy of polygamy. Institutions need to be understood, and the reasons they exist and persist has to be understood apart from any moral judgement of them. This is especially true when the institution is one you want to abolish.

  8. Anne, I stand corrected. Of course, I’m guessing that David’s never had to live with more than one woman who wans’t a blood relative in a single bathroom apartment. I have. There is no sex good enough to compensate for what happens when they start to sync up. :^)

  9. People choose to live in polyamorous relationships, as well as traditional polygamous marriages, so I’m tentativily in favor of giving them legal recognition.

  10. David, I might be willing to agree with you, but only under certain conditions which simply do not hold in most parts of the world. The consensual sexual and household arrangements of people who are in charge of their own lives should not be a matter for legislation. The thing is, I’m not aware of any widespread polygamy, or real interest in legitimising polygamy, among the people for whom those conditions hold true. On the contrary: in those places where polygamy is actually present in significant quantities, we find that women are generally not in charge of their own lives, and are usually prevented by social and legal constraints from taking charge of themselves.

    If it were up to me, I’d have resolved the gay marriage issue by abolishing heterosexual marriage. If you think that marriage is a holy institution, which must be solemnised by a religious tradition and endure for the life of its members, feel free to marry in a church and never separate from your partner. That need not have anything to do with the legal code. The economic benefits that marriage offers to the dependent spouses of employed people – which is usually the real issue in the definition of marriage – ought to be offered unconditionally by the state anyway, along with the kinds of guarantees of security in the event of a breadwinner’s death that only civil marriage presently offers. Then, it would be possible to eliminate all this pedantry about who sleeps with whom and who lives under what roofs and deal with the real issues of equality and empowerment.

    But, barring that solution, civil marriages between people lacking genuine equality of social status really should serve ends that most protect the less empowered. Where traditionally entrenched polygamy serves to oppress women, and there is no effort or ability to resolve the problem by empowering women, it’s abolition is a legitimate second best solution.

  11. The thing about recognition of same-sex marriage is that we don’t need to do anything but remove the gender distinctions from the laws already in place.

    However that doesn’t apply with polyamorous/polygamous/polyandrous relationships — they can be in such different varieties, than any single type of “legal recognition” would leave out the majority of them, while existing benefits to (monogamous, different-sex) marriage would NOT be easily applied to the situation at hand, whether they be child-rearing or inheritance or visitation rights, etc, etc..

  12. I was wondering how this post got so many comments.
    I was struck by one particularly grim aspect of polygyny and AIDs. An unusually enlightened mining firm in Botswanna decided to pay for HIV meds for their employees. They also agree to pay for medication for *one* spouse. Polygamy is traditional in Botswana. Now I see the firm’s concern that one of their employees might set up a business marrying HIV + women for a small under the table fee. However imagine the discussion around the dinner table as to which wife gets the medication ?

  13. Duh. Polygamy reflects and accentuates significant inequality in a society, both among men and among women but more profoundly among women.

    If I recall what I read in Reay Tannahill’s Sex in History, and in Laumann et al’s Sexual Organization of the City:

    Polygamy allows a woman a greater choice of more affluent husbands, which on average gives women a higher living standard than women in a comparable monogamous society.

    To use a simplified (economic) model: Imagine a 6 person society: a male billionaire, a male millionaire, and a male at poverty level, and three women (with equal economic resources if you wish). In a monogamous society; the three women would compete for the billionaire, but only one would win, the losers would compete for the millionaire, and the loser would be stuck in poverty. In a polygamous society, the women could choose to be second/third wives to the billionaire and still have a better standard of living than if they married the next best choise: the millionaire.

    Though I appreciate the post and comments, there is a maleness here that could be toned down a bit to fine effect in considering the sad institution of polygamy.

    Boy does that sound like a broken record: substitute ‘Prostitution’ for ‘Polygamy’ and you could have said the same thing a century ago, when middle-class women were gunning for their sisters in the flesh trade.

    What you might well do is consider how terribly debilitating polygamy is in Southern Africa, and think really think really think what such an institution means for women. Duh.

    Neither polygamy nor monogamy have anything to do with sexual infidelity. When I think of what is debilitating in South Africa, I usually think of the lasting effects of Apartheid and the concentration of wealth in the hands of Afrikaaners to the detriment of the rest of the population. To use your childish expression: Duh.

    You also missed my actual point: scratch a modern monogamous western society and you will find that it is not as monogamous as you suppose it to be.

  14. Polygamy reflects and accentuates significant inequality in a society, both among men and among women but more profoundly among women.

    I know what you are saying, and would hardly gainsay it. In one not unimportant way, though, polygamy creates an inequality far more profound among men than among women. This inequality may be, to the individual, of only emotional importance; but to a population (not to mention to the individual’s genes) it is critical.

    I am not aware of any human groups in which the polygamous dynamic reaches the extreme of a sea-elephant herd; but any tendency towards polygamy tends to increase the number of males who remain reproductive ciphers.

  15. Simply take a look at the legal codes affecting women in polygamous countries and you will understand how adversely women are effected by such an institution. Anne’s criticism was entirely proper but little regarded, and the criticsm was not directed at Patrick rather it supported Patrick. Southern Africa is not South Africa, in which polygamy is not legal and women have the broadest constitutional rights in Africa. Anne’s criticisms were too important to be so ignored.

  16. Thank you for the responses. I must be more temperate, and I expressed my respect for all and used Patrick’s remark to show approval of the direction. I think discussion of polygamy in Sub-Saharan Africa must be discussed in terms of the sociological effects on women and these effects are quite harsh. There is an inherent ineqauality built in to the institution for women, and I think that should be addressed. I appreciate all you comments and the post, but there was need to turn the discussion to a women’s perspective. I thank you all, especially Patrick whose remarks I surely wished only to extend.

  17. Robert Waldmann, I expressly thanked you for the post and will do so again. I think the issue I raised should have been addressed. I do enjoy your writings, and hope you feel properly respected even though I was tough.

  18. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/18/international/africa/18property.html?ei=5094&en=61483272e1048466&hp=&ex=1108789200&partner=homepage&pagewanted=all&position=

    AIDS and Custom Leave African Families Nothing
    By SHARON LaFRANIERE

    BLANTYRE, Malawi – There are two reasons 11-year-old Chikumbutso Zuze never sees his three sisters, why he seldom has a full belly, why he sleeps packed sardinelike with six cousins on the dirt floor of his aunt’s thatched mud hut.

    [Snip. — David]

  19. Patrick compares criticism of polygamy to:

    a century ago, when middle-class women were gunning for their sisters in the flesh trade.

    No, a century ago, women were campaigning against the sexual exploitation of prostitutes, who were brutalised by the legal system and by economic hardship. Feminists weren’t ‘gunning for’ other women.

    Women who seek to restrict sexual exploitation – either in marriage or in prostitution – are not attacking other women, they are attacking exploitative social arrangements.

    Criticism of sexual institutions is sometimes cast – and I get this vibe a bit from Patrick – as if it were a criticism of sex. Instead it’s about concepts such as economic autonomy, ownership of resources, and sexual choice for women.

  20. Alison

    Thank you, for I was not sure how to respond but your response is perfect and teches me much.

  21. Alison

    Reading through several times, I am much moved by your response. Please do follow and add much to this comment as you wish. As difficult as AIDS has been for so many through Southern Africa, I have long been struck by the special ways in which women have been effected. Ways that point up social imbalances that must be changed however difficult the changes. As though AIDS were a double cruelty for women.

  22. Anne and Alison are entirely right in the gentle criticisms they made of the posts and comments. They were polite but they were justly critical. The subject of polygamy was discussed with no regard for the meaning to women. As Anne and Alison argue polygamy is socially destructive and especially debilitating to women. A democratic society is not thinkable with polygamy; a society in which women are not placed in abusive relationships is even less thinkable. The post was no doubt well intended, but never thought of the destructiveness of the institution for women and Anne and Alison were much in the right to be critical. I am sad that Anne and Alison were not taken more seriously.

  23. The articles from the New York Times are devastating, just devastating. AriLev mentioned the power imbalances between men and women that can typify a society or social group. We should be speaking to this issue. I hope that Robert Waldmann will think to extend the initial comments and examine what a traditional institution in which women are set at a terrible disadvantage can mean. Anne and Alison and AriLev need further support.

  24. How do I extend the initial comments ? You mean the post ? I think Polygamy should not be allowed. I for one don’t believe in cultural relativism at all (will post on that above I guess).

    Now if 3 men and 2 women want to sleep together taht is totally fine by my, but I think the legal relationship in a polygamous legal marriage can not possibly be fair and equal and so should be ruled out. This is a little bit like not accepting labor contracts in which people agree to accept less than the minimum wage or say endentured servitude etc.

    Freedom to do this and that and freedom to enter into this and that contract are not the same exactly. The state is involved in recognising and enforcing contracts and an asymmetric marriage shouldn’t be enforced.

    Also for the strawman libertarian who gets to decide if a woman is allowed to take a second husband ? I think in polygamous societies the first wife does not have a veto. In what sense is the resulting arrangement freely accepted by all concerned ?

    I bet the issue will be raised often by opponents of gay marriage. That is, they will ask if supporters of gay marriage also support polygamy. My honest reaction is just to say of course not there is no analogy, but I think it would be useful to start working on longer responses.

  25. “My honest reaction is just to say of course not there is no analogy, but I think it would be useful to start working on longer responses.”

    I admit it might also be useful to attempt to learn the basics of English punctuation at this late date.

    I meant

    “My honest reaction is just to say “of course not there is no analogy,” but I think it would be useful to start working on longer responses.”

  26. I enjoyed reading this thread. I will just post some links where you folks can find some research that addresses many of the questions I read.

    The first is a great article by the female anthropologist Evelyn Reed who discusses the present state of anthropology.

    http://www.angelfire.com/pr/red/feminism/challenge_of_the_matriarchy.htm

    The next link is about sex and Bonobo society, which discusses their matriarchal social system which is probably very similar to what our ancestors experienced.
    http://www.mc.maricopa.edu/~reffland/anthropology/anthro2003/origins/bonobos.html

    This last link is the latest theory of human evolution based on a multidisciplinary study, that contains some startling conclusions and a vast amount of evidence to support them.

    http://www.serpentfd.org/index.html

    If you enjoy this literature, please stop my blog site for other important research links and a discussion.

  27. Institutions need to be understood, and the reasons they exist and persist has to be understood apart from any moral judgement of them. This is especially true when the institution is one you want to abolish.
    =============================
    There is no understanding that does not involve moralities and judgements regarding social institutions.

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