Saturday, 31 August 2013

Marriage Alliances and Cross Cousins

In a previous post on eastern Indonesia, I noted that cross cousin marriage is common throughout the area, pointing to some kind of prehistoric relationship among the cross-cousin-marrying people of the region.  Which is all well and good, but I expect a number of you are wondering just what on earth cross cousin marriage is.  So, here I'm going to outline a little of how it works and the reasons for it so that I can post something about marriage alliance in eastern Indonesia specifically.

Basically, it's a rule permitting marriage only between cross cousins, i.e., those cousins related to you (in kinship studies, you'd never say, 'you'; the conventional term is ego) through a different sex connection.  Ego might have lots of cousins, but only those related to ego through a different-gender connection are ego's cross cousins.

Ego's cross cousins are ego's mother's brother children and father's sister's children.  Ego's mother's sister's children and father's brother's children are ego's parallel cousins.  Your mother's brother is a different gender to your mother, and your father's sister is a different gender to your father, so their offspring are your cross cousins.  It's easiest to represent this with diagrams (there are plenty out there) and with letters, or both:

F = father
M = mother
S = son
D = daughter
Z = sister
B = brother
C = child

Under this scheme, MBCs (mother's brother's children) and FZCs (father's sister's children) are cross cousins.  MZCs and FBCs are parallel cousins.

Iroquois kinship, one of the key types of kinship terminology, distinguishes between cross and parallel cousins.  h/t: Wikipedia, User: Fred the Oyster.

In modern Britain, this isn't an important classification (we don't even have a colloquial term for cross cousins), but in plenty of societies around the world it is or has been very important indeed, and is reflected in kinship terminology (the conventional terms humans use to refer to kin), other social structural principles, and even domestic architecture.  The distinction tends to be important in determining marriage rules as well, and that's really the importance of the cross/parallel distinction in understanding eastern Indonesian societies.

The marriage rules are important in turn because they determine - or at least they tell us a lot about - the relationships between groups.  Marriage alliance is common in human societies.  It isn't fundamentally concerned with reproduction, although of course reproduction is a vital element of it (and it is the reproductive capacity of women that makes them so important in solidifying good relations between groups).  It is more important in affecting the relationship between the inter-marrying groups, and if you're wondering why a group of people would bother distinguishing between cross and parallel cousins, let alone deciding that only some of them can marry one another, you should think about what these types of marriage tell you about the relationships between the groups involved.  Does this type of marriage make one superior to the other?  Could it be useful in establishing peaceful relations between potential enemies?  These are the key principles behind marriage alliance in general, and the archetypal variants of marriage alliance are cross cousin marriage alliances, so those are the motives you should bear in mind.

In some circumstances - as in much but not all of Nusa Tenggara Timur and Maluku, Indonesia - cross cousin marriage alliance is unilateral, meaning that ego can only marry a cross cousin from one side: a man, for instance, might be permitted to marry only his MBD and a woman might be permitted to marry only her FZS.  The alternative, bilateral cross cousin marriage, isn't common in Indonesia, although if I remember correctly a form of it is found on the little island of Sawu, in the Sawu Sea between Timor, Sumba, and Flores.  Bilateral systems can only involve two groups exchanging brides and grooms, and they only exchange brides and grooms with one another.  It involves two groups and no others, and can include no others.  Exchange is only with one group, and that means that it doesn't have to matter which cousin ego goes for.

By contrast, unilateral systems can include any number of groups with a minimum of three: if a female ego can only marry her FZS, then her brother will have to find his wife from a different group to ego.  He can't marry a woman from his own lineage (that would be incest) and he can't marry a woman from the lineage of ego's husband, because the rule is unilateral - if ego marries her FZS and ego's brother marries his FZD, then that's breaking the rule and is just as bad as incest (if not wholly equivalent to it in the minds of the people concerned).  We need a minimum of three inter-marrying groups for the system to work.  (You may be wondering why they have the rule in the first place, so think about why it might be a good idea to have marriage links with multiple groups in a non-state society.)
The first generation of a so-called 'patrilateral' cross cousin marriage system, or any generation of a so-called 'matrilateral' cross cousin marriage system, showing the need for multiple groups.  Triangles are blokes and circles are ladies.  An equals sign means 'marriage'.  h/t University of Manitoba.

Unilateral cross cousin marriage is often called asymmetric marriage alliance and the bilateral version is commonly known as symmetric marriage alliance because the relationship between the inter-marrying groups is equal (symmetric) in the bilateral system but unequal (asymmetric) in the unilateral one.  When we talk about marriages between cousins in this way, what we're saying is that there is a rule dictating marriage between groups.  The rule might privilege one group over another, in the case of asymmetric/unilateral systems, or it might attempt to preserve parity between groups, in the case of symmetric/bilateral systems.

In a bilateral system, the rule privileges no group in particular; only two groups can participate, and they are equal in the context of the marriage system because there is no rule barring men from one group from marrying women from another or vice versa.  But in asymmetric marriage alliance systems, including the ones commonly found in eastern Indonesia, wives are valuable as gifts (it should be pointed out that women nonetheless retain a high status throughout the area).  'Giving' a woman to another group puts that group in a debt relationship and obliges them to provide bridewealth - conventional gifts exchanged for the bride (it's not usually acknowledged as payment for the bride, but that is part of what it is - the other part of it is paying for the offspring of the bride, which I'll discuss in a later post).  In terms of their relationship to one another, wife-givers are superior to wife-takers.  This is actually a general principle, not unique to eastern Indonesia.  Women are valuable, and so are children.  Women can provide more children for the lineage/descent group/'house' and therefore a high price - a debt, really, as it is seldom paid off in its entirety - is placed on their removal to another group.

The terminology anthropologists use here is gender-biased, by the way; a man being obliged to marry his MBD and a woman her FZS is typically called 'matrilateral' cross cousin marriage, and the alternative, where a man must marry his FZD and a woman her MBS, is 'patrilateral'.  They're only 'matrilateral' (on the mother's side) or 'patrilateral' (on the father's side) from the perspective of the man.  From the perspective of the bride, 'patrilateral' cross cousin marriage is 'matrilateral'.  So I'm not going to continue using this terminology here, and instead I'll opt for the following: matrilateral = MBD-FZS marriage, and patrilateral = MBS-FZD marriage.

In an MBS-FZD ('patrilateral') system, the relationship switches back and forth between the groups each generation.  One group will be the wife-givers and the other will be the wife-takers in one generation, but the next generation, or even in the next marriage, the wife-giving group from the previous generation will be the wife-takers and the wife-takers will become the wife-givers.  This can only be easily understood through looking at a diagram, but suffice it to say that the nature of the practice entails that the relationship between the two inter-marrying groups is not stable.
'Patrilateral' cross cousin marriage, aka MBS-FZD marriage.  Look at the direction of the arrows and try to work out who is marrying who, and why.  h/t University of Manitoba

In one generation, a woman from group X marries her MBS from group Y.  In the next generation, there's a reversal: a woman from Y will seek to marry her MBS from group X.  This means that the exchange relationship is not permanently of one kind.  It switches back and forth every generation.  The groups are linked together in perpetuity, but their relationship isn't consistent and the superior relationship of the wife-giver isn't maintained.  Parity is also, therefore, important in the relationships between MBS-FZD exchanging groups, but it is 'better' at integrating multiple groups than bilateral cross cousin marriage, which can only integrate two groups.

In MBD-FZS ('matrilateral') systems, however, the asymmetrical relationship is maintained and there is no switching back and forth.  Theoretically, a male ego and his sons could take wives from the same group forever until the end of time.  There is no switching.  In the context of the relationship between two lineages (and remember that there are always more than three in the whole system), one is always the wife-giver and the other the wife-taker, unless they make a decision to reverse the whole thing.  This means that MBD-FZS systems are truly asymmetric and maintain the asymmetry consistently through the generations.  X gives wives to Y, and X is (in most spheres of life) superior to Y.

The relationship isn't transitive, however.  We've got a bunch of inter-marrying groups here - say, X, Y, and Z (the simplest possible arrangement).  X gives wives to Y, and is therefore superior to Y, and Y gives wives to Z, and is therefore superior to Z.  But X has to source wives from somewhere, and it can't get them from Y, so it has to get them from Z.  Z is therefore superior to X, but X is superior to Y and Y is superior to Z.  The status, you see, doesn't continue beyond the relationship between the two parties.  It's not a transitive relationship.

You'll almost never find a simple three way system in real life; it is in the interest of every lineage to find as many lineages as possible to give wives too, and it is also in their interest to take wives from as few lineages as possible.  So in reality, we see a lot of strategic manoeuvring and messy sets of alliances that nevertheless seldom, if ever, violate the principles that wives have to be sought from groups other than those from which husbands are sought, and that wife-givers are superior to wife-takers.  We also see some independence of thought on the part of the spouses and mutual attraction clearly plays a role, despite the fact that it is commonly the elder males of the lineages who play a deciding part in the affair.

In addition, MBD-FZS marriage, or even MBS-FZD marriage or bilateral cross cousin marriage, do not imply that a male ego will definitely marry his actual first cousin.  He may only marry his classificatory MBD/FZD; it might be his MMBDD, mother's mother's brother's daughter's daughter, or some similar combination.  What matters is the relationship between the groups.  And, therefore, what matters is that the spouse comes from the preferred group - in the case of MBD-FZS marriage, that would be a man's mother's brother's group or a woman's father's sister's group.

To summarise this whistle-stop tour of (only a few of the varieties of) cross cousin marriage practices:

  • There are two kinds of cousins: cross cousins, related to ego through a different sex connection (i.e., mother's brother's children or father's sister's children), and parallel cousins, related to ego through a same sex connection (mother's sister's children or father's brother's children).
  • These two kinds of cousins are sometimes differentiated for the purposes of marriage, such that ego can only marry one type of cousin.
  • If ego has to marry a cross cousin, there are several different rules that might apply.
  • One of these rules is bilateral cross cousin marriage, where only two groups exchange partners in a closed loop with (ideally but often not actually) parity between the groups.
  • An alternative is unilateral cross cousin marriage, whereby ego can only marry one of his cross cousins.
  • Unilateral cross cousin marriage can be between MBD and FZS, or between MBS and FZD, but not both.
  • Unilateral systems require three or more exchanging groups.
  • Wife-givers are generally superior to wife-takers (in most but not all aspects of life).  In fact, they are often recognised as complementary to one another, and this has an effect on religion, cosmology, and symbolism in the areas in which these forms of marriage are practiced.
  • If MBSs and FZDs marry one another, then the relationship between the groups they come from switches each generation, meaning that while the relationship between the groups is permanent and asymmetric, it isn't permanently asymmetric (so to speak).
  • If MBDs and FZSs marry one another, then the relationship is permanently asymmetric, because there's no switching back and forth.
  • The relationship between wife-givers and wife-takers is not transitive; a group is superior only to its wife-taking neighbours, but not to the wife-takers of the wife-takers.
  • It's never as simple as you'll find it in a diagram, and there are several variables that go into determining the choice of spouse in any human group.

Next time, I'll be looking at how these principles apply in the real world to social structure in different parts of eastern Indonesia.

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