Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 14

Incest and Identity: A Critique and Theory on the Subject of Exogamy and Incest Prohibition

Author(s): Roy Wagner

Reviewed work(s):
Source: Man, New Series, Vol. 7, No. 4 (Dec., 1972), pp. 601-613
Published by: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2799952 .
Accessed: 16/01/2013 08:32
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .
JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of
content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms
of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.
Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve
and extend access to Man.
This content downloaded on Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:32:53 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
Northwestern University
Traditionally the incest taboo has been among the most widely reported (or
assumed) of all ethnographic 'traits'; it is commonly cited as an example of a
'universal' aspect of human culture, or even as a definitive property of human
culture. Consequently, the prohibition of incest has frequently served as an a
priori postulate for theories relating to human society, its origins, and its con-
stitution, exemplified recently by the writings of Claude Levi-Strauss (I969).
Whereas Levi-Strauss derives his notion of incest prohibition (which is really a
theory of exogamy) from Mauss's rules of reciprocity (the obligations to give, to
receive, and to reciprocate), and thus stresses its association with human symbolic
or cognitive culture, as does Livingstone (I969), others, such as Kortmulder (I968)
and Aberle et al. (I963), have suggested that incest prohibition is a behavioural
tendency, that it is natural in origin, however much man may rationalise its
existence. The issue of whether incest prohibition is essentially natural or cultural is
symptomatic of the dilemma facing modem anthropology, with its deep seated
differences as to which of our own categories, natural law or human reason, is
more appropriate for the representation of cultural phenomena. Fascinating as this
issue may be, the possibility remains that proponents of both alternatives are guilty
of reifying what is merely an artefact of our own didactic constructs, and that the
problem of incest prohibition, as it is commonly conceived, is a pseudo-problem,
whose real centre of gravity lies elsewhere. In this article I should like to explore
this possibility, examining the various facets of the problem, and to state a few
tentative conclusions.
Those who have argued that incest prohibition in human beings is natural in
origin have had to rely upon two rather perilous inferences. The first is that
behavioural regularities, or generalisations, can be inferred from ideal statements
or formulations of human culture, or in other words, that incest is a real 'thing'
rather than a kind of meaning or a way of speaking about things (Wagner I968).
The second is that behavioural regularities observable among other animals are
in some significant sense analogous to prohibitions in human culture. Both these
assumptions tend toward metaphors based on the anthropomorphism of animal
culture or the zoomorphism of human culture, although this by no means precludes
their value as analogies. It is clear, however, that the major impetus for discovering
'incest' avoidance among other animal societies derives from the ethnographers'
assumption that incest-prohibition is a unitary phenomenon in human societies,
or that it is in fact definitive of human society. Thus our focus returns to the
plausibility of this assertion, and to the question of what the incest taboo really is.
This content downloaded on Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:32:53 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
602 MAN, DECEMBER I972, VOL. 7, NO. 4
When I speak of 'incest', I mean acts of a sexual (or morally equivalent) nature
as understood to be committed between persons manifesting kin roles that explicitly
or implicitly exclude them. When I speak of 'exogamy', I mean the moral in-
junction to select recognised sexual partners and/or spouses from social units other
than those of which one is a member (or to which one is otherwise closely related).
In all instances, these injunctions are contingent upon the ideal moral codes of the
cultures concerned.
The notion of incest presupposes a conception of kin role, and where no con-
ception of this sort is found to be present, the term is inapplicable, except perhaps
as a 'projection' on the part of the observer. The notion of exogamy depends in a
similar way on the conceptualisation of social units. It is important here to dis-
tinguish between the descriptive use of these terms to 'gloss' behavioural acts, as
one might do in speaking of 'incest' among dogs, or of 'exogamous' troops of
primates, and the recognition of incestuous or exogamic behaviour as meaningful
to the actors themselves. In the former instance the 'kinship' and 'social units'
involved are constructs of the observer, and 'incest' and 'exogamy' derive their
relevance solely from his use of such social comparisons. In the second case incest
and exogamy can be treated as operative categories, provided of course that we are
precisely clear as to what we mean by them, and what the subjects of our study
mean by them.
Numerous attempts have been made to define the two concepts more precisely,
by generalising upon the content of particular ideologies and codes, but, as in the
case of 'totemism', they are
... like hysteria, in that once we are persuaded to doubt that it is possible arbitrarily to
isolate certain phenomena and to group them together as diagnostic signs of an illness, or of
an objective institution, the symptoms themselves vanish or appear refractory to any unifyinig
interpretation (Levi-Strauss I962: i).
The definitional problem becomes one of trying to find some universal, objective
content characteristic of all conceptions of 'incest' or 'exogamy', so that its
universal existence as a 'fact' (and hence a universal 'cause' for the fact) can be
adduced. In the case of incest, such efforts have generally addressed themselves to
the genealogical specifications of the prohibitions, to the importance and distri-
bution of certain genealogically specific prohibitions ('mother-son', 'father-
daughter', 'sibling'), or to the 'extension' of certain 'basic' prohibitions (i.e. those
of the nuclear family). In the instance of exogamy, the issue has become enmeshed
in the problem of distinguishing ideal social units from localised residential groups.
Exogamy has been made to appear 'factual' and real in many cases by assuming
that the former and the latter coincide-that is, like incest, it has been objectified
by identifying it with an empirical base. Here I propose to treat both incest and
exogamy as issues involving the conscious, moral meanings in human culture
rather than the subliminal implications of affect or social function. I shall begin by
examining our grounds for 'objectifying' the incest taboo, and return presently
to the question of exogamy.
* * * * *
If kinship were a precise, objective rendering of genealogy in all cases and in all
cultures, and if its terms and relations invariably represented genealogical orderings,
This content downloaded on Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:32:53 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
MAN, DECEMBER 1972, VOL. 7, NO. 4 603
then we would be justified in speaking of 'kinship' in all instances of biogenetic
connexion, or in extending other meanings characteristic of kinship usage to
purely observational data. But kinship is not simply descriptive of genealogy; its
reference to genealogical orderings is selective at best, and this selection is the result
of interpretation. A kinship term brings together a set of relatives and a relationship
(Schneider I968), or a normative code of behaviour, which has a real, symbolic
meaning. When componential analysis proceeds to 'define' a kin term with reference
to its genealogical denotata (Lounsbury I964), the character of the kin relationship,
to which the term also refers, is taken for granted or ignored. Problems of this sort
beset all approaches that base themselves on the assumption that classification and
lexical signification are equivalent to meaning (Wagner I970), but the point here is
particularly acute, because the issue of incest regulation involves precisely the
connexion between kin denotation and kin relationship. The possibility, or perhaps
the likelihood, of marriage and sexual relations is an aspect of the relationship
between persons (including, in some cases, kinsmen), and any particular system of
incest prohibition amounts to a statement of what kinds of relationships should
characterise what categories of kinsmen. But of course if relationship is part of the
definition of a kin category, as I suggest it should be, then a statement of incest
prohibitions vis-a-vis categories is the purest and most trivial of tautologies, because
the very same rationale, and the very interpretive scheme that defines the content
of the relationships also determines the genealogical correlates of the corres-
ponding categories.
Perhaps an example would help to clarify the matter. If we chose to describe a
system of incest prohibition in a purely denotative way, treating only the genea-
logical correlates of kin categories as objective 'data', we should have to begin by
making two lists, separating out the terms corresponding to 'prohibited' relatives,
and listing them separately from those with whom sex or marriage is 'permitted'.
(I am assuming, for the sake of simplicity, that all terms can be classed unambig-
uously in one set or the other; this is certainly not always the case). Our two lists
will tell us, in a crude and rather
uncomprehensive fashion, something about the
general outlines of a system of incest prohibition. They will tell us very little about
the relationships involved, for these are abstracted to the simplistic scheme: sex
and/or marriage prohibited versus sex and/or marriage permitted, and they will
tell us very little about the rationale for the constitution of the kin categories
themselves, for these will be stated in the barest genealogical terms. But the
relationships that regulate marriage and sex are often quite complex, and have
many nuances and qualifications, and there are often culturally defined kinds of
behaviour (such as prohibitions on speaking, joking, touching, seeing, etc.), which
have a close bearing on marriage and sexual relations; a description that would
take account of these would have to 'break down' its listings into a commensurate
number of gradations.
This, too, could be done, by composing a separate list of genealogically specified
terms for each particular aspect of prescribed behaviour relevant to marriage and
incest prohibition, and for every qualification of it. Of course each list would have
to be accompanied by a gloss, and the set of lists as a whole would require a
comprehensive statement regarding their interrelationship. It would be found, in
fact, that the complete set of lists, taken together with their glosses and the state-
This content downloaded on Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:32:53 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
604 MAN, DECEMBER I972, VOL. 7, NO. 4
ment of their interrelationship, amount to nothing more or less than a rationale for the
assignment of certain genealogical loci to certain categories on the basis of relation-
ship, or more simply, a replication of the kinship system itself. In other words, the
system of incest prohibitions is subsumed within the kinship 'system', and can-
not be separated from it, for as we have seen, the same rationale both defines the
categories and specifies the relationships among them. There is no difference
between a kinship system and a system of incest prohibition, hence there can be no
relation between them. A false problem is created by separating relationship from
genealogical denotation and then inquiring about the relation between the two;
only if kin category and kin relationship were distinct phenomena could we
properly speak of a relation between them.
If we assume that kin category is a matter of genealogical denotation,
or grouping, alone, then the whole matter of kin relationship, having been
excluded from 'kinship' proper, becomes problematic. Herein, I suspect, lies the
origin of the incest taboo, or at least of the anthropologist's perception of it; it
sums up the relational 'residuum' remaining after kinship has been reduced to
genealogical denotation, and does so in genealogical terms ('it is forbidden to mate
with one's father, mother, siblings, etc.'). Traditionally, social anthropology has
analysed kinship by a process of taking genealogical denotation and relationship
'apart', and then 'putting them back together' by examining the ways in which
members of a given culture treat various genealogically defined relatives. The
locus classicus of this approach is Radcliffe-Brown's paper 'The mother's brother
in South Africa' (I965), although it originated in Rivers's pioneering introduction
and use of the 'genealogical method'. Linguistic anthropology, basing itself upon
Kroeber's allegation that kin terms are primarily linguistic and 'psychological'
(I909), has contented itself merely with taking genealogical denotation alone, and
ignoring relationship. In both cases, the dissociation of genealogical category from
kin relationship is a premiss of didactic procedure, as is the similar dissociation that
Levi-Strauss's discussion of the 'atom of kinship' (I963: 48) requires. In all these
instances, relationship is artificially isolated as a thing in itself, and the so-called
'incest taboo', the archetype of kin relationship in and of itself, becomes plausible
as a distinct and discrete entity.
The relation that traditional anthropology has postulated between kinship
denotation and kin relationship has largely beenfunctional, proposing that the ways
in which certain genealogical relatives are conventionally treated constitute factors
that integrate society and 'hold it together'. This is a key assumption of Radcliffe-
Brown's functionalism, and it continues to give kinship a central place in the societal
theories of Fortes and others. Following the discussion in the preceding paragraph,
it becomes apparent that the incest taboo is a sine qua non, almost a kind of charter,
of this approach. If function is taken as the prime creative and explanatory factor
in the constitution of society, then kin relationship must come before kin denota-
tion ('structure'), hence an incest taboo is taken as the origin of kinship, and of
society. The proponents of a biological explanation for the incest taboo have
performed what could be called a 'Malinowskian transformation' of this society-
centred, or Durkheimian, functionalism. 'Function', in this instance, is simply
reinterpreted as a natural, rather than a cultural, necessity; instead of 'integrating'
society, the incest taboo becomes a necessary force in keeping the stock healthy
This content downloaded on Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:32:53 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
MAN, DECEMBER 1972, VOL. 7, NO. 4 6o5
(Aberle et al. I963, disputed by Livingstone I969) or in holding down disruptive
aggression (Kortmulder I968).
Given this theoretical background, it is scarcely surprising that anthropologists
have typically represented incest regulation as a law or rule, that is as a conventional
stricture governing a relationship. Whether this 'law' is an artefact of culture or
nature is a matter to be contended among the social and biological determinists,
but it is significant in the light of our discussion of kinship that the primary
meanings of 'law' and 'rule' refer to the regulation of human relations. Thus, in
terms of kinship, the incest taboo is a rule that tempers man's 'bestial' or 'natural'
tendencies via the rational order of culture, and therefore a kind of equivalent of
Rousseau's contrat social, an arbitrarily adopted rule existing qua rule to provide a
basis for culture. Levi-Strauss, who is among other things an avowed Rousseauian,
has made much of this aspect in chapter 3 ('The universe of rules') of his Elementary
structures of kinship (I969).
The conventional notion of the incest taboo is therefore the result of two serial,
linked assumptions. The first is that kinship can be defined as a structure, or
classificatory set, of genealogical denotations, to the exclusion of kin relationships.
The second, which follows from this, is that this residuum of kin relationships,
comprehensible as an arbitrarily imposed 'rule' epitomised in the incest taboo,
determines the kinship system in an a priori, functional sense. I have presented
arguments to the effect that the first assumption is a didactic and theoretical subter-
fuge, and that kin relationship and kin category are inseparable by definition. I
should now like to examine the second assumption, with particular attention to the
notion of rule, or law.
* * * * *
The concept of 'law' or 'rule' (as in 'the rules of a society') is doubtless largely
used as a heuristic device in anthropology, referring to a moral or normative 'order'
that governs relationships in a given society. The concept is heuristic, based on
resemblance and analogy rather than literal application, because many societies
recognise neither codified 'laws' or 'rules' nor 'official' means of enforcing them,
and hence their orders of
law' are not directly comparable to our own. The more
general term 'norm' is therefore often employed so as to neutralise the specifically
'authoritarian' connotations of 'law' or 'rule', and generalising constructs like
'social control' or 'conflict management' are used to counteract the 'loaded' and
rather particularistic associations of 'enforcement'. It is true, of course, that all
analogies are subject to the dangers of literal interpretation and must be buttressed
from time to time with qualifications of this sort, if only because analogy is our
sole way of extending meanings, as interpretive constructs, to encompass 'new'
phenomena. If one analogy is rejected, in other words, some other analogy will
have to replace it, so why not refine and work with the ones we have? This
proposition makes excellent sense in many cases, and has lent its stabilising in-
fluence to much of contemporary anthropology. But the danger implicit in all
such analogies is that of extending naive or unspoken assumptions about our own
usages and institutions to those of the subject culture.
The major failing of a theory of social action based on norm as 'law' is that it
exaggerates and emphasises the socially supportive aspects of human relations at the
This content downloaded on Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:32:53 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
6o6 MAN, DECEMBER I972, VOL. 7, NO. 4
expense of their meaningful content, that is, it 'maps' a broad spectrum of quali-
tatively different meanings on to the narrow dimensions of conformity and
deviance. The message of the 'social contract' is that rules exist in and of themselves
so as to provide a basis for the existence of society, and the Durkheimian corollary
to this is that all the meanings and actions in a society can be understood in terms of
social effect. In this view, which underlies functionalism as well as most sociological
theory, the meaningful aspects of thought and action in a culture are only accessible
via their effective social consequences, and meaning is seen as ancillary to social
purpose and effect-ideas become 'beliefs' or 'rationalisations', because social
interests presuppose commitment. An unqualified norm, stated as such, has the
force of an ad hoc or arbitrary ruling, one that is arbitrarily and factitiously assumed
'because there have to be rules'. It is no wonder that when Durkheimian anthro-
pology explained society in these terms some anthropologists began to suspect a
natural origin for the incest taboo, for, as a 'law' or 'norm', it has no necessary
involvement with the meaning system of a culture, and mightjust as well have been
imposed from the 'outside'. It is only when norms and laws can be shown to exist
as a function of the meaning system of a culture, and to derive their force from
meaning rather than arbitrary fiat, that the artificial distinction between meaning
and action, and hence between culture and society, is overcome. Laws are never
imposed without being presupposed, and this holds true for the legislative and
interpretative aspects of our own society as well as for the more informal workings
of tribal societies.
What I would suggest, by way of a modification of our concept of 'norm', is
that the norms or rules of a society derive their moral and social effect from their
meaningful content, that is, from their relationship to other meanings in the cul-
ture. The norms of a given society, I submit, are not all of the same kind; they admit
of varying degrees of importance or seriousness, and are differentially 'obeyed'
or respected, although the edicts of a centralised state may impart a false semblance
of uniformity by being codified as 'laws', whereby the state insists on token
obedience for symbolic reasons. (This is the 'ruler's view' of norms, in which
obedience to even the most arbitrary edict becomes a symbol of submission to the
state, a view that appears to have been internalised in Rousseau's conception of
society). The varying severity and significance among the norms of a particular
society is a direct result of variation in their meaningful content, the way in which
they make normatively 'correct' action meaningful by opposing and relating to
other meanings in the culture. if incest prohibition in fact constitutes some in-
trinsic and meaningful aspect or characteristic of human society, then we should
be able to account for its normative 'force' in terms of meaning; if it is true, as I
have argued, that incest regulation is subsumed within the kinship system, then this
meaning must also involve kinship.
Norms, including the various kin roles that help to define the meaningful acts
of a 'moral person',
can be seen as 'controls' for the expression of individuality and
personal motivation.I An individual is taught, abjured, encouraged, and con-
strained to behave 'as a good child, adult, man, woman, etc. should', and is
expected to try his best. But in the event no one can approximate these models
completely, and each person inadvertently 'does it his own way' and thus mani-
fests his own individuality through the eccentricities of his performance. Thus any
This content downloaded on Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:32:53 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
MAN, DECEMBER I972, VOL. 7, NO. 4 607
particular human being can only 'be' the idealised 'moral person' in a metaphoric
But in the same way, the expression of a person's individuality, that which
distinguishes him from others via special skills, attributes, needs, desires, personality
characteristics, etc., acts as a control on his moral performance. No human being
can specialise or differentiate himself completely; in the attempt to 'become' a
ghost or god in a religious performance the actor invariably anthropomorphises his
role. The conscious expression of meaning thus precipitates its own dialectical
response: trying to be moral creates our individuality, trying to be individual
creates morality.
The difference between intention and performance 'produces' social meaning-
understood as the idealised assumption of a moral image of man-and also the
individual meaning manifested in personal naming, craft specialisation, talent,
genius, etc. The differences and similarities perceived culturally to exist among
human beings are thus interdependent in their definition. Every act of differentia-
tion is meaningful only in so far as it retains the moral and normative 'standard'
for humanity as its context; every expression of moral significance is achieved
over and against individual difference. Cultural similarity and difference are there-
fore relative to one another; society provides the standard, the equation or organisa-
tion, in terms of which a girl is pretty, a poet is clever, and the hunter can obtain
pots from the potter, or the latter acquire meat for his table. Differentiation, in
turn, serves as the context for moral idealisation.
This interplay provides the dynamic through which meaning is embodied in
social action; in societies such as our own where laws are rendered 'automatic'
through codification and enforcement, this dynamic re-asserts itself in the legis-
lative and judicial interpretation to which laws and their enforcement are subject.
Whether or not codification and enforcement are present, however, contrastive
cultural meaning is the ultimate patent of normative force. The Rousseauian model
of society, based on the notion of rule as such, views normative force in an absolute
sense, that is, as a 'discipline' that is necessary, irrespective of its content, for the
maintenance of social order, and the neo-Rousseauians among contemporary social
scientists, by basing their analyses upon 'conformity' and
make the
same assumption. What I would suggest here is that law and normative force
should be approached in relative terms, in so far as they ultimately derive from the
contrastive, mutable relations that generate cultural meaning.
Kin relations can be understood as a particular modality of the norms through
which social meaning is objectified, and individual expression is controlled. We
might think of 'kinship' in this way as a symbolisation of how various categories
of people should act towards one another, couched in terms of the metaphors that
define humanness. Precisely because they generalise the human condition, drawing
upon 'vital' attributes that all
share in common (or are thought to),
content of these metaphors has been limited to a few recurrent themes. Character-
istically, they involve procreation and the activities and substances associated with
it, food and nurture, and animation ('soul' or 'spirit'). Ideologies phrased in terms
of ' blood', 'blood and
bone', 'body and
'male sperm and mother's
or the giving and receiving of food are ubiquitous in world ethnography. The error
of many traditional kinship studies, as discussed previously, has been that of reifying
This content downloaded on Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:32:53 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
6o8 MAN, DECEMBER I972, VOL. 7, NO. 4
these imageries, interpreting 'biological' metaphor as if it were naturalistic fact
(or some form of folk empiricism; see Schneider I972).
Following our discussion of norms, however, we might expect that these
'generalising' societal metaphors, as the objective control on the expression of
personal or group identity, will often be reflected in that expression. Thus if
'blood' is the crucial symbol of humanness, specific bloodlines will be distin-
guished as 'Smith' blood, 'Jones' blood etc. A marriage, or exchange of vital
fluids, between two individuals manifesting 'Smith' blood would in effect distin-
guish the participants as 'Smiths' rather than human beings; it would make use of
the forms through which humanity is constituted to assert individual identity. In
the objective language of ideology, this would amount to a 'mixing' of one sub-
stance with itself, which is indeed one of the ways in which incest is commonly
But by so doing, by failing to be human and converting a general ideological act
into a private 'marriage', the incestuous offender simultaneously violates the
morality of personal motivation. The ways in which a person can differ from others
are all contingent upon his essential humanity; if his skills, talents, desires, actions,
etc., fail to 'anthropomnorphise' him, the reflection is on his volition. He is then
said to be 'bestial' or 'monstrous', to have 'no shame', no tempering of his desires
towards others, to be 'inhuman' by default or inclination.
Thus, because of the interdependence of social meaning and personal morality
resulting from the dialectic of 'controls', failure to achieve the ideal metaphor of
'being' human-however this is culturally defined-has immediate consequences
for the actor's personal identity. The formal expression of cultural meaning can
no more be separated from personal motivation and inclination than kin cate-
gorisation can be separated from kin relationship. A person identifies himself
through his social actions, and acquires (or loses) his 'humanity' through his
personal acts and inclinations. Because the controls are interlinked, every act, and
every situation, is simultaneously 'social' and 'individual'; people belong to
cultures, and cultures are made up of people.
But identity, as a form of cultural meaning, does not necessarily pertain to
individuals alone. Social units, large or small, including territorial complexes,
bloodlines, families, nations and lineages are all differentiated in the process of
identifying them, and this differentiation is as intimately bound up in a dialectic
with the cultural image of humanness as is that of kinship. Just as the incest taboo
emerges as an artefact of the belief in 'natural' kinship, so the arguments deriving
exogamy from social needs have proceeded from the reification of idealised social
units as groups 'on the ground'. This is the sense of Tylor's famous dictum that:
Again and again in the world's history, savage
tribes must have had plainly before their
minds the simple practical alternative between marrying-out and being killed out (I889).
It is understandable that Tylor, as the author of a doctrine of 'survivals', might
have considered a one-to-one correspondence between social unit and local group
to be part of a prior evolutionary state of
man, but later authors who have used
this argument, such as White (I948), have had no such excuse. In point of fact,
world ethnography
as the
of the northern
Northwest Coast in America,
or the Dani of the Baliem Valley in West Irian) where
This content downloaded on Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:32:53 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
members of two or more exogamous units will inhabit the same community and
intermarry within it. In such cases unit exogamy becomes village endogamy, and
the problem of 'marrying out' versus 'marrying in' is a matter of definition. But
so, I would argue, is the issue of exogamy itself: it turns upon the identification of
specific, named units as against the social collectivity.
An example may help to illustrate the point. Consider a society composed of
exogamous 'totemic' units, with names such as 'eagle', 'badger', etc. The social
identity of each unit is created through the metaphor of 'being' eagles or badgers
in relation to the other units in the society (as human beings, as a kind of human
being, they are badgers). The metaphor may be highly elaborated, with all sorts of
mythic and ceremonial embellishments, including legends of descent from eagles
or badgers, or it may be barely stated, but in either instance the effect is to differ-
entiate the unit from others and implicitly deny its similarity to them (they are
'alike' as eagles are to badgers, rather than as men to men). The meaning of the
societal whole, on the other hand, must be asserted through this very differentiation,
lest the metaphor of 'separateness' becomes a conceptual reality. The 'eagles' and
'badgers' must anthropomorphise themselves by intermarrying, something that
'real' eagles and badgers never do, and thus affirm their humanity (as badgers they
are human beings).
Of course the foregoing is an extreme instance, valuable largely for its illustrative
effect, but the interdependence of social meaning (the ideal of humanness) and
unit identity that it depicts is crucial to the understanding of exogamy. The
identity of a social unit may be constituted through 'totemic' metaphors, as in our
example, or through territorial, historical, or religious symbolisations, and the
units themselves may appear as moieties, households, part-societies, or lineages,
but in any case it is the tension between this identity and the ideal of a common
humanity that exogamy maintains. (The phenomenon of Indian caste endogamy,
as analysed by Levi-Strauss (I966: ch. 4) presents an interesting inversion of this
relationship, in which the cultural definition of man differentiates, whereas the
moral collectivity is asserted through the exchange of services. In this system there
are different kinds of men, all of whom are alike in their needs.) An individual who
marries within his own exogamous unit compromises a cultural image of man by
default; he particularises his own humanity by asserting himself as one kind of man.
As an infraction of cultural norm, such an act may or may not be considered
serious; frequently it is dismissed as a trivial matter. The ideological importance
of the social unit-and therefore of the re-affirmation of one's humanity through
its particular symbols-is likewise highly variable over the range of human
societies. The wide variety of attitudes and punishments involving the breach of
exogamy-ranging from a strongly professed concern to almost complete in-
difference-would seem to reflect this variation.
Although they are generally different in intent and effect, incest prohibition
and exogamy are nevertheless both aspects or consequences of a more general
phenomenon: the interdependence of social meaning and individual (personal or
unit) identity. Society exists, and achieves meaning, through the anthropomor-
phism of personal and group individuality; the significance of personal or group
identity is attained through the various ways of 'being human'. Incestuous acts
and breaches of exogamy violate this interdependence by inverting it, causing the
This content downloaded on Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:32:53 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
6Io MAN, DECEMBER I972, VOL. 7, NO. 4
actor to 'dehumanise' himself through the forms by which humanity is character-
istically asserted.
The variations in the prohibition of marriage or sexual relations encompassed
by the various cultures known to ethnography do indeed constitute a fascinating
subject for anthropological speculation and investigation, but I have tried to show
that this subject is virtually identical with that of the respective kinship systems.
The 'universality' of the incest taboo ultimately reduces to the universal tendency
among social anthropologists to separate kin category from kin relationship as
part of their analysis, and to assume that genealogy, because it is useful in under-
standing them, constitutes a 'common denominator' of all kinship systems. The
'remarkable' fact that kinship systems all over the world prohibit mating among
close relatives becomes less remarkable when we realise that those very kinship
systems (and hence the 'incest taboo' itself) determine who is a 'close' relative,
and that the determination and the prohibition are one and the same thing. The
illusion of an incest taboo can only be sustained by a belief in 'real' or 'objective'
kinship, for if 'siblings' are different things in different cultures, how can 'sibling
incest' be the same thing in all of them? The regularities of human reproduction
provide only the barest outline of kin differentiation, and are often disregarded or
blurred over in the act of interpretation, but it is this act, and only secondarily the
fact of procreation itself, that furnishes the meaning of kinship.
* * * * *
I shall now attempt to summarise the points deduced or postulated here as a set
of conclusions, and add to these some observations relating the discussion to other
areas of anthropology.
i. The notion of an incest taboo is a consequence of the way in which anthro-
pologists have traditionally approached kinship, subdividing a set of genealogically
specified kinship terms from the corresponding kin relationships. This division
corresponds to the classical dichotomy of 'structure' and 'function', in which
the latter, as the dynamic, integrative aspect, provides the creative (and hence the
explanatory) impetus for the constitution of society. The static, terminological
aspect is codified in genealogical terms as a set of categories, which may then be
assigned to a typological niche (i.e. 'Eskimo', 'Iroquois', 'Crow', etc.). Kin
relationships are likewise typed and reified as those of 'joking', 'avoidance', or
as well as being abstracted and simplified into what is known as the
incest taboo. It is suggested here that kinship cannot be simply equated with
genealogy, and that kin relationships cannot be meaningfully separated from kin
2. Explanations of the incest taboo must perforce be conceived in functional
terms, if only because a 'taboo' operates to regulate human action, and is thus
functional in effect. 'Culturally' based explanations have stressed the a priori
necessity of the regulation of mating for the existence of human society: 'naturally'
based attempts have substituted genetic or behaviouristic necessity for social need,
but otherwise the two arguments are very much alike.
3. In either case, the separation of cultural meaning (in the form of 'structure'
or 'kin category') from cultural action ('function')
forces the explanation
of the
incest taboo as an arbitrarily imposed 'rule', with no necessary connexion to the
This content downloaded on Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:32:53 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
MAN, DECEMBER 1972, VOL. 7, NO. 4 6ii
meanings of the societies in which it occurs. This conception coincides with the
Rousseauian ideal of a social contract, based on the alleged a priori necessity of
discipline as such for the existence of society, and with the conventional socio-
logical analysis of society through 'conformity' and 'deviance'. Our reluctance
to separate meaning from action, or kin category from kin relationship, however,
suggests a different approach, and a different perspective on the issue of incest
4. The severity with which breaches of incest norms have been interpreted by
social scientists has been accentuated by the enlightenment view of norm as law,
and by the notion of 'natural' kinship. If kinship is seen as a 'real thing', based
on the biological facts of reproduction as manifested in genealogy, then incest
('inbreeding') becomes a real thing also. In the act of reification, cultural norm is
apprehended as if it were a cultural recognition and adaptation of natural 'law'
(as our own 'laws' of science represent and formulate 'natural law'), and thus it
attains the inevitability of natural law. 'Incest' becomes an absolute standard
against which personal conduct (kin relationship) is measured and judged. I have
argued, however, that personal action and inclination, and the cultural categorisa-
tion upon which social ideology is based, are interdependent and relative to one
another. Members of a society are alike in their differentiation, and different in their
alikeness. When an individual fails, under the appropriate circumstances, to create
the metaphor of common humanity that corresponds to social norm, this must
invariably reflect upon his own motivation, and ultimately his identity.
The usages that anthropologists have heretofore objectified as the 'incest
taboo', 'kinship' (see Schneider I972), and 'exogamy' are related (and in some
cases identical) manifestations of the way in which moral meaning is constituted
in human cultures. Although their reification is often excused on heuristic or
didactic grounds ('breaking down' a culture in order to study it more effectively),
this inevitably leads to their identification as 'traits', and to the posing of artificial
'problems' as to how the traits are related, how they came into being, etc. Hence
a general (perhaps the general) characteristic of human culture comes to be explained
and accounted for in varying and over-specific ways, according to its particular
manifestations. The practice of exogamy is traced to the need to forge social
bonds, the 'incest taboo' is seen as a mechanism to prevent genetic damage, etc.
The acts identifiable as 'incestuous' in various cultures vary as widely as the
respective kinship systems, just as exogamy varies with the constellation of social
ideology. A 'universal' statement of an 'incest taboo' is possible only to the
degree that genealogical glosses, such as 'father', 'mother', 'sibling', etc., are
considered acceptable as substitutes for the kin relationships of all societies. Many
anthropologists, especially those committed to traditional usages, will perhaps
protest that this is a necessary simplification, and that the universal genealogical
model is essential for purposes of comparison. Following Hocart (I937), I would
argue that however useful the genealogical criterion may be, it projects a false
uniformity and concreteness upon the data, and conceals the fact that the essence
of kinship is interpretation of genealogy, rather than genealogy itself The genea-
logical model is an assumption made for comparative purposes; the notion of an
incest taboo is an artefact of that assumption and its implications, and its 'deriva-
tion' from the data amounts to an inference built upon an inference.
This content downloaded on Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:32:53 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
6I2 MAN, DECEMBER I972, VOL. 7, NO. 4
6. Because of the priority assigned to it in the functionalist view of society, the
incest taboo has come to be a symbol of man's emergence from a 'savage' state,
a mediating term in the progression from 'beast' to man, like the discovery of fire
or the fabulous 'missing link'. Perhaps this is why the folklore and popular
literature of anthropology has always maintained that tribal peoples ('primitives')
are obsessed with incest prohibition, and why colonial administrators have often
elected to punish cases of incest with extreme severity in an attempt to 'gain the
respect of the natives' (see Wagner I967: I30). Nevertheless, it seems as if few
social systems are as deeply committed to the symbol of sexual intercourse and the
proprieties of sexual conduct as our own is (Schneider I968; Hsu I97I: Introduc-
and that our idea of the incest-obsessed native may be simply another instance
of idealisation of the 'primitive'.
7. The study of non-human animal societies can provide unique insights into
the nature of society as a pan-biotic phenomenon (Count I958), if only because it
affords greater variational perspectives than the study of human societies alone
could furnish. The points of resemblance or analogy between these societies and
their human counterparts offer some tantalising opportunities for generalisation
on this level. The discussion of this article would argue for a considerable restraint
in the application of terms like 'incest' and 'exogamy' (as well as human kin
terms) to non-human societies. Nevertheless, findings such as Sade's demonstration
of mating avoidance with female biological parents among rhesus monkeys (I968)
suggest the possibility that analogues of our societal constitution may be found in
some non-human situations. The likelihood is that these are epiphenomena of the
broader social implications of sexual gestures and postures (such as mounting) in
those situations.
The critical argument of this article owes much to the work of David M. Schneider, whose
penetrating essay 'What is kinship all about?' (I972) carries the inquiry to its ultimate roots.
I am grateful to Professor Schneider, as well as to Philip K. Bock and Stephen Tobias for their
helpful comments on the earlier version of this article.
The only parallel to this concern with motivation that I could find in the literature on the
incest taboo is Talcott Parsons's (I954) comment on the necessity both to frustrate and to
encourage a child's erotic impulses in socialisation (quoted in Schneider n.d.).
Aberle, D., U. Bronfenbrenner, E. H. Hess, D. R. Miller, D. M. Schneider & J. N. Spuhler
I963. The incest taboo and the mating patterns of animals. Am. Anthrop. 65, 253-65.
Count, E. W. I958. The biological basis of human sociality. Am. Anthrop. 60, I049-85.
Hocart, A. M. I937. Kinship systems. Anthropos 32, 545-5I.
Hsu, F. L. K.
I97I. Kinship and culture. Chicago: Aldine.
Kortmulder, K. I968. An ethological theory of the incest taboo and exogamy. Curr. Anthrop.
9, 437-49.
Kroeber, A. L. I909. Classificatory systems of relationship.J. R. anthrop. Inst. 39, 77-84.
Levi-Strauss, C. I962. Totemism (trans.) R. Needham. Boston: Beacon Press.
I963. Structural anthropology. New York, London: Basic Books.
I966. The savage mind. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
I969. The elementary structures of kinship (trans.) J. H. Bell, J. R. von Sturmer & R.
Needham (ed.). Boston: Beacon Press.
Livingstone, F. B. I969. Genetics, ecology and the origins of incest and exogamy. Curr. Anthrop.
10, 45-6I.
Lounsbury, F. G. I964. The structural analysis of kinship semantics. In Proceedings of the Ninth
International Congress of Linguists (ed.) H. G. Lunt. The Hague: Mouton.
This content downloaded on Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:32:53 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
MAN, DECEMBER 1972, VOL. 7, NO. 4 613
Parsons, T. I954. The incest taboo in relation to social structure and the socialisation of the
child. Brit. J. Sociol. 5, IOI-I7.
Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. i965. Structure andfunction in primitive society. New York: The Free
Sade, D. S. I968. Inhibition of son-mother mating among free-ranging rhesus monkeys.
Sci. Psychoanal. I2, i8-3 8.
Schneider, D. M. i968. American kinship: a cultural account. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice
I972. What is kinship all about? In Kinship studies in the Morgan Centennial Year (ed.)
P. Reining. Washington D.C.: Washington Anthropological Society.
n.d. Attempts to account for the incest taboo (unpublished manuscript).
Tylor, E. B. i889. On a method of investigating the development of institutions applied to
laws of marriage and descent. J. R. anthrop. Inst. i8, 245-72.
Wagner, R. i967. The curse of Souw: principles of Daribi clan definition and alliance. Chicago,
London: Univ. of Chicago Press.
i968. Comment on Kortmulder: An ethological theory of the incest taboo and
exogamy. Curr. Anthrop. 9, 446.
1970. On measuring and understanding. Paper presented at the
69th Annual Meeting
of the American Anthropological Association.
White, L. A. I948. The definition and prohibition of incest. Am. Anthrop. 50, 4i6-35.
This content downloaded on Wed, 16 Jan 2013 08:32:53 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions