Cultural Anthropology Marriage and Incest Taboos Essay

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Marriage Incest Taboos

Marriage and incest taboos

Defining Marriage

Marriage is a sanctioned union between people that establishes certain rights and obligations between those people, their children, and their relatives (Ember & Ember, 2010). These rights and obligations may include many things, including the right to property, labor, childrearing and bearing, status, and home (Ember & Ember, 2010). These privileges and rights vary greatly from culture to culture. For example, in some cultures, women found guilty of certain crimes, like adultery, may be stoned to death; this was the case of a woman in northern Nigeria for example; (Haviland, et al., 2010). Marriage for many cultures is a social institution; thus many spend much time and energy maintaining this institution. However, in many parts of the world, marriage is marginal, and not central to establishing or maintaining the life of the family or society (Haviland et al., 2010). Marriage for many cultures has lost its traditional significance resulting largely from the "political economy, more balanced gender relations, and shared public benefits of the capitalist welfare states" (Haviland et al., 2010). So what significance does marriage have?

Universality of Marriage

Marriage as an institution has been a universal theory for centuries. However, the "unimportance of marriage as the major defining institution for establishing a family" has been a historical fact for centuries, and not unique to Europe alone (Haviland, et al., 2010; Ember & Ember, 2010). In fact, in the life of Nayar people of Kerala, who live in southwestern India, marriage has been something that carries marginal significance, and has for some time (Ember & Ember, 2010; Haviland et al., 2010). Among the Nayar in Kerala, a landowning warrior caste of people, kinsmen related to the family line own estates with blood relatives living together in large households where the males serve as managers. This culture is one where sexual liberties are demonstrated; although this has changed somewhat over time during the 20th century. Traditionally however, just before a girl experiences her first menstrual cycle, she endures a ceremony joining her to a ritual husband, which is a temporary union not necessarily involving sexual relations, and lasting only a few days (Haviland, et al. 2010).

According to Haviland et al., (2010), when a girl then becomes a woman, she then prepares for motherhood and becomes eligible for sexual activity; thus a woman enters into sexual relationships with a man that her family approves. This is typically a man that presents himself as fit for duty and interested in having relations with the girl. If this individual is approved, then this relationship becomes a formal relationship where a man must present her with gifts three times a year until that relationship terminates. The man is allowed in exchange for gifts to spend evenings with the woman. This is only a visiting husband however, and is not obligated to support the partner and is not obligated to live in the home; in fact the woman may have multiple "visiting partners" (Haviland et al., 2010). Each must present himself for approval, and must provide certain gifts to engender favors for the woman. It sounds a bit peculiar to those familiar with Western culture, but to the people living in Nayar, such practices are certainly welcome and considered normal, capable of maintaining the peace and harmony of village life.

This is a "version of marriage" that helps reduce any conflicts men in the village may have. Thus, looking at this culture, one cannot say a "universal theme" of marriage exists, looking at the theme of marriage evident among the Nayars. But, if one considers how common it is for people to live with their sexual partners in other cultures, the Nayar people are really no different from any other couple living with each other, enjoying sexual favors, and exchanging gifts. Partners often breakup, and then find new partners with which to live.

There are instances in which Nayar women become pregnant, as often happens to women in other cultures, including European and Western cultures. If the Nayar woman becomes pregnant, then one of the men must acknowledge paternity and the man must then provide gifts to the woman and her midwife, which will establish the child's birth rights. This is akin to registration, establishing motherhood and fatherhood (Haviland, et al., 2010). There is no proof required that the man is actually the paternal father. In many cases in Western culture, a new "partner" will "adopt" or consider a single mother's child as his own, offering gifts. Still, a man will have no further obligation; the mother and her brothers have the obligation to support the child; the Nayar household is composed of the mother, children and blood relatives only, which is referred to as a "consanguine kin" and not any of the husbands with whom she takes up with (Haviland, et al., p. 213). This provides for a household where war is common and security for women and children is necessary (Haviland, et al., 2010). Consanguine relatives do not engage in sexual relationships, something which is akin to the incest taboo.

All of this is very common to European and Western practice, where single mothers care for their children, often relying on family for support, sometimes enjoying multiple partners, and the laws of "common law" marriage. Thus, the Nayar people simply enjoy the luxury of what many consider a "formalized" system of universal marriage many simply haven't acknowledged as such.

Incest Taboo

The incest taboo refers to the "prohibition of sexual contact between close relatives" (Haviland, et al., 2010). Some cultures have different definitions of what is close however; and these definitions may change with time. Most societies forbid relations between parents and children and/or siblings. This taboo typically extends to cousins and relatives that link through marriage as well (Haviland, 2010). Anthropologists have long explored the incest taboo. Incest may be considered a "universal" taboo just as "marriage" is a universal concept even though there may be cross-cultural variations of what the taboo encompasses and who is or who is not excluded. This may be explained most simply on the idea of "human nature" (Haviland, 2010, p. 210). There is among the human being what many anthropologists refer to as an "instinctive repulsion" for certain behaviors including incest (Haviland, p. 210). However, this does not account in some cultures for the frequency with which incest occurs, as in the U.S. where an estimated "10 to 14% of children under age 18 have been involved in incestuous relationships" (Whelehan, p. 678; U.S. Dept. Of Health, 2005).

This theory of "instinctive repulsion" also does not explain certain cases of what is called "institutionalized incest" where for example, in certain cultures as in the Inca empire in ancient Peru the divine ruler had to marry his own half-sister; to assure certain sacred rights and royal lineage, something that has happened recurrently in many cultures over time (Haviland, et al., 2010). Traditionally early studies suggest the taboo was based on the potential of genetic harm associated with incest; in some cases however, as in farming villages there is evidence that certain benefits have been associated with inbreeding, and maintaining the integrity of family relations (Haviland, et al., 2010). Thus at best one can conclude there is no solid evidence as to the reasons for the universality of the incest taboo. Cultural rules associated with the rule of "endogamy" and promotion of "exogamy" or marriage outside the group are associated with such taboos, as such intermarriage terms create benefits associated with social exchange and building of harmonious relationships (Ember & Ember, 2010).


Is there a universal core to marriage? Is there a universal impression of the taboo of incest? Will these ideals and values continue to change with time? The universality of marriage continues, only the universal…

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