Patterns of Descent & Inheritance
Descent is the hereditary derivation or lineage of an individual. Descent comprises socially recognized links between individuals in different generations within a family through several generations. There are a number of general patterns of descent around the world. Unilineal descent is traced through a single line (i.e., male or female). Cognatic descent is a class of nonunilineal descent rules in which both male and female lines are used to determine the kinship relationships between individuals. Cognatic descent patterns typically result in more complex and varied familial relationships than those resulting from unilineal descent rules. Matters of descent and inheritance are still important in many areas of the world today from a personal, familial, and societal perspective.
Keywords Ambilineal Descent; Bilateral Descent; Cognatic Descent; Culture; Descent; Kinship; Modernization Theory; Nuclear Family; Parallel Descent; Preindustrial; Society; Unilineal Descent; Uxorilocal Marriage
Defining who is in one's family can be a complicated process. Although it would seem relatively clear that members of one's nuclear family are all kin, there are individuals who would disagree with this definition, finding it too broad in its inclusion of half-siblings, step-siblings, foster siblings, and adopted siblings. With the number of adoptions and remarriages today, it can even be difficult to say who one's parents are: in addition to a biological mother and biological father, one might also have a step-parent, adopted parent, or foster parent. If there are multiple divorces and remarriages, one might even consider multiple people to be one's step-parents even though the bonds of marriage have been dissolved. Untangling relationships becomes even more complicated when aunts and uncles (some of whom are related by blood and some of whom are only good friends of one's parents), cousins, second cousins, and a whole array of other kinship relationships are thrown into the mix.
In general, kinship is defined as a set of culturally accepted relationships that define patterns by which individuals can claim to have family ties. Kinship can include those related by birth or common ancestry, marriage, or adoption. However, definitions of kinship can vary widely between cultures: what is considered kin in one culture or society may not be considered kin in another culture or society. In some ways, of course, it may seem like it does not matter who is related to whom by blood. People with an emotional bond may feel and behave like family even if they are not related by kinship ties, and people who are related by blood may fight with or not even speak to each other. Further, in most modern and postmodern societies today, one can write a will leaving property or other bequests to whomever one wishes and exclude whomever one wishes.
However, this is not true in all cultures, and things like hereditary titles and lands typically need to be passed on based on lineage or descent. Even today, in some cultures, descent rules may define who may or may not inherit within a family or who is in the line of succession for a hereditary title (i.e., the order in which individuals succeed one another for an official position). In the final analysis, however, kinship is considered to be important in most cultures and is one of the most important principles by which societies are organized. Kinship connections can be based on one of three types of social bonds:
- Affinity, or
- Fictive kinship.
Consanguinity bonds (from the Latin meaning "with the blood") are more commonly known as blood ties. One's consanguines or consanguinal relatives are those individuals with whom one has a recognized biological relationship, such as one's parents, grandparents, and siblings. Affinity bonds are those bonds that relate to one's relatives by marriage: spouse, mother-in-law, father-in-law, and so forth. These individuals are also sometimes referred to as ones affines. The third category of bond is that of fictive kinship. This category of bond refers to the relationship of individuals who would not otherwise be thought of as being related (i.e., are not consanguines or affines). This category of bond is used to create links in irregular circumstances. For example, godparents and adopted children are both examples of fictive relationships in European and American cultures.
As opposed to kinship, descent is the hereditary derivation or lineage of an individual. Descent comprises socially recognized links between individuals in different generations within a family through several generations. Descent patterns or principles are used by cultures to limit the range of individuals through whom descent can be traced. There are a few general patterns of descent, including:
- Cognatic, and
Unilineal descent comprises a class of descent rules in which descent is traced through a single line (i.e., male or female). Although males and females are members of a unilineal family and are considered to be kin, descent links are only recognized through relatives of the same gender. Both matrilineal descent (in which descent is traced through the line of one's mother and female ancestors) and patrilineal descent (in which descent is traced through the line of one's father and male ancestors) are types of unilineal descent. However, approximately 40 percent of societies in the world today trace descent through both the ancestors of one's father and mother to some degree. This is done through nonunilineal or cognatic descent principles—rules in which both male and female lines are used to determine the kinship relationships between individuals.
Cognatic descent patterns typically result in more complex and varied familial relationships than those resulting from unilineal descent rules. There are four variations in cognatic descent rules:
- Bilateral, and
In this pattern, descent is traced and kinship established through both the female and male lines. In bilineal descent, every individual is a member of both his/her mother's and father's lineage. In bilateral descent, another type of cognatic descent, descent is traced from all biological ancestors no matter the gender or whether they are in the mother's or father's lineage. In bilateral descent, all children regardless of gender are members of both their mother's and father's families. Bilateral descent is the most common pattern of descent in Europe and the Americas. A third type of cognatic descent is ambilineal descent. This is a pattern of descent in which descent is traced and kinship established through either the female or male line. In ambilineal descent, individuals may select one line (i.e., female or male) to trace descent. However, each generation can also choose the parent through which he or she will trace lineage. Therefore, a family line may be matrilineal in one generation and patrilineal in another generation. Ambilineal descent is not a common pattern of descent.
Finally, parallel descent is a form of unilineal descent patterns in which males trace their ancestry through the male line and females trace their ancestry through the female line of the family. Each individual is a member of only one descent group (i.e., male or female).
Industrialization and modernization bring with them a certain lessening of the importance of lineage for inheritance. In modern societies, individuals tend to be more mobile, making kinship bonds less important as they move around and form new groups for support. In addition, the greater degree of industrialization led many individuals to leave the traditional homes of preindustrial societies with their emphasis on extended families, to start new homes of their own with a greater probability of a nuclear rather than an extended family. Because of these and other factors, modern Western societies offer individuals a greater degree of independence than was previously possible during preindustrial societies with a concomitant guarantee of the rights and duties that are transferred and established by marriage in less developed societies to societal institutions (e.g., church and state).
In preindustrial societies, however, matters of descent are still of utmost...
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