Avunculate (Anthropology)

The term ‘avunculate’ evokes two related images. First, there is the social institution that the term designates. Second, there is the complex of theories which have been thought up to explain that insitution where it occurs.

In the first sense, the avunculate is any institutionalized, special relationship between a mother’s brother (MB) and a sister’s son (ZS). In some societies this relationship is formal or one of authority, as for example, in the well-known Trobriand case. In others, it is an informal indulgent relationship characteristically involving sexual joking, gift-giving on the part of the mother’s brother, or permitted ‘theft’ on the part of the sister’s son. This sort of relationship is by far the more common image, thanks to ethnographic examples such as the Tsonga (BaThonga) of Mozambique, the Tongans of the Pacific, and the Nama of Namibia. These three cases are those described in Radcliffe-Brown’s key paper on the subject, ‘The Mother’s Brother in South Africa’ (1952 [1924]).

Radcliffe-Brown read this paper before the South African Association for the Advancement of Science in 1924. He intended to draw attention to the fact that the same institution was found in diverse locations across the globe. His purpose was largely to refute the claim made by Junod that the Tsonga custom of a young man taking his mother’s brother’s cattle for his own was a survival of a time of "matrilineal descent. Ironically, the Tsonga probably once had been matrilineal, and the fact that Radcliffe-Brown chose three "patrilineal examples left open the question of the relation of such customs to principles of descent.

This leads us to the second sense of the term ‘avunculate’. The debate which ensued from Radcliffe-Brown’s paper polarized kinship studies. Levi-Strauss (1963 [1945]: 31-54) postulated an "’atom of kinship’ which contra-posed structural relations between father/son, and mother’s brother/sister’s son, and between brother/sister and husband/wife. He saw the avunculate as a cornerstone of marital alliance. Homans and "Schneider (1955) argued against this with a descent-theory approach which took to extreme Radcliffe-Brown’s notion that sentiments attached to the mother were extended to the mother’s brother, and that the formality observed in the relation to the father was extended to the father’s sister. Homans and Schneider said this was the reason why in patrilineal soci-ties matrilineal cross-cousin marriage seemed to be preferred, while in matrilineal societies patrilineal cross-cousin marriage is said to be more common. However, as "Needham (1962) pointed out, cross-cousin marriage actually involves marriage to people of the cross-cousin category, not necessarily to actual cross-cousins at all. Therefore, Homans and Schneider’s argument does not hold water.

Late developments in avunculate studies in both western and southern Africa have stressed relations between descent-group structure, the inheritance of property, and avuncular indulgence. Radcliffe-Brown’s notion of ‘extension’ had some vogue in relationship terminology studies in the 1960s, but his concern with ‘sentiments’ was overshadowed as the field of kinship moved to models more formal than he could ever have dreamed of.

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