Syllabus Section: 2.5 Kinship/ Descent And Alliance Theories to Study Kinship


In the context of kinship, anthropologists proposed two theories to study kinship viz; the descent and alliance theories. This was to work out the different structures of kinship through the models based on birth and marriage ties.

Alliance Theory:

  • Alliance theory, also known as a general theory of exchanges is a structuralist method of studying kinship relations.
  • It was given by e French structuralist Claude Levi-Strauss (in Elementary structures of kinship 1949) to understand the basic questions about inter-individual relations.
  • Levi Strauss visualized marriage as a system of exchange. In this system of exchange women are considered the most valuable goods.
  • According to him alliance is a relationship, a durable bond or a series of bonds that come into being between two groups following a marriage.
  • The alliance theory was first discussed in Lévi-Strauss’ monumental book named Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté (1949). Its English version is known as Elementary Structures of Kinship.
  • Alliance theory was quite popular during the 1960s and went on to be discussed and deliberated till the 1980s where the issue of incest taboo was taken up by not only anthropologists but also by psychologists, political philosophers etc.

Descent Theory:

  • Descent theory was given by Mayor Fortis.
  • Study of descent and descent groups to understand not only kinship but also the network of social relations will flow through descent groups.
  • According to descent theory starting point of analysis is the family; family includes parents from two descent groups.
  • Descent theory also known as lineage theory came to the fore in the 1940s with the publication of books like The Nuer (1940), African Political Systems (1940) etc.
  • Families combine to form different descent groups namely lineage, clan, phratry and moiety.
  • According to descent theory six possible avenues are there for transmission of descent membership from parents to children:- (i) Patrilineal (ii) Matrilineal (iii) Double Descent (iv)Cognatic (bilateral) (v) Parallel (vi)Cross or Alternative.
  • This theory was in much demand in the discussion of social structure in British anthropology after the 2nd World War.
A Comparative Account on Descent and Alliance Theories:
Alliance Theory Descent Theory
By Levi Strauss By Mayor Fortis
Considers kinship as a system of marriage
Considers kinship as a system of descent groups.
Talks about alliance links Talks about complimentary filiations
Individual has one parent Individual has two parents
A common ancestor is present as an integrative
mechanism of kinship and social system.
No common ancestor is present as an integrative
mechanism of kinship and social system.
Strauss sees kinship as a mechanism of
distribution of women between groups and
alliances of groups by certain perpetual alliances
Mayor Fortis sees kinship as a mechanism for
formation and recruitment of descent groups,
property, and residential groups and so on.
The minimum unit of study is siblings group. The minimum unit of study is family.
Emphasizes affinity in its own right. Emphasizes consanguinity in its own right.

However these theories though intricate and complex in their description and a matter of much debate while they were animate, lost their significance and worth as they were in reality and in today’s understanding of society, not enough persuasive or credible. These theories are obsolete in the present scenario yet their knowledge is necessary for the student as it did play an important role in the development of kinship studies in anthropology in the past.

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