Cognatic society (Anthropology)

In Murdock’s terms, ‘cognatic’ refers to a social system in which ideally the ascription of statuses is based on kinship ties traced equally through both the maternal and paternal lines, or which allows for a choice to be made in affiliation between the mother’s and father’s kin. Murdock explicitly contrasted cognatic systems with uni-lineal ones. The classificatory term ‘cognatic’ became increasingly popular in anthropology following the publication of Murdock’s edited volume (1960). Other terms often used as synonyms are ‘bilateral’ or, ‘non-unilineal’. Murdock attempted to classify the main features of cog-natic social organization and establish a typology of subcategories of cognatic society.

Major published ethnographies on cognatic societies, mainly from Southeast Asia and Polynesia, did not begin to appear until the 1950s. Among the most important were the Borneo studies by "Freeman (1955) and Geddes (1954).

This early work was undertaken in the context of anthropological theories of kinship dominated by ethnographic material from Africa and native North America on "corporate unilineal descent groups. The preoccupation with delineating social groups and mechanisms for the maintenance of social order and continuity explains Radcliffe-Brown’s now famous judgement in 1950:

Cognatic systems are rare, not only in Africa but in the world at large [because] it is difficult to establish and maintain a wide range system on a purely cognatic basis; it is only a unilineal system that will permit the division of society into separate organized kin groups.

Certainly there was very little information on cognatic societies at that time, but subsequent work on cognation in the 1950s and 1960s was directed, in part, to refuting Radcliffe-Brown’s statement. For example, it was established that cognatic systems are found widely, especially in Western industrialized societies and in the Asia Pacific region. Furthermore, Freeman, in particular, showed how the cognatic system of the Iban of Borneo was structured and order maintained; he described and analysed in detail the household as the basic corporate group of Iban society; and he demonstrated how large numbers of people could be mobilized and organized through the mechanism of personal kinship circles or kindreds (1961). The main purpose of Mur-dock’s volume too was to delimit the structures, systems and order of cognatic societies.

The significant features of these early studies of cognation were the examination of the composition, structure and operation of the household, or what is sometimes referred to as the small family or domestic unit; the principle of physical propinquity in the organization of neighbourhoods, wards, communities and villages; and the networks of dyadic ties based on kindreds, patronage, shared space or mutual economic and political interest. This literature on cognation, in its concern with personal networks, informal social groupings and action sets, has also given greater emphasis to mechanisms and processes of individual choice rather than to representative action arising from membership of corporate groups.

The shortcomings of the term ‘cognatic society’ as a category were emphasized increasingly in debates from the mid-1960s onwards (King 1978; Husken and Kemp 1991). First, it has been argued that there is the danger of misplaced emphasis in classifying a society according to its system of reckoning kinship, when this might not be the most important principle of social organization. For example, subsequent studies revealed that such principles as rank, class or shared residence are sometimes more important than cognation in organizing social relations, and, in consequence, can structure elements of kinship.

Second, anthropologists became more aware of the marked variations in societies classified as cognatic in terms of such features as household organization, personal kindreds, and in the degree to which descent plays a role in generating social units. In this regard, peoples such as the Maori of New Zealand recognize cognatic or bilateral descent groups which control or own resources such as land or other valued property

Third, the validity of the distinction between cognatic and unilineal societies has been questioned, since, as Needham has argued, ‘The cognatic recognition of relatives is common to all societies and characteristic of none’ (1966: 29). In other words, in societies with unilineal descent groups, as in those without them, individuals also recognize kinship ties bilaterally. It is for this reason that some studies of unilineal communities in Indonesia have also explored cognatic linkages between relatives (Husken and Kemp 1991).

Finally, the general shift in anthropological perspectives on kinship which gathered pace in the 1970s demonstrated the problems of the static, essentialist view of kinship held by such anthropologists as Murdock. The value of classifying societies into types was called into question and the concept of kinship as a concrete, discrete and irreducible area of social life which could be used to characterize communities was criticized. Instead, anthropologists studying cog-natic systems began to examine the complex interrelations between cognatic kinship linkages and other domains of organization and activity, and the strategic and dynamic use of kin ties for economic and political purposes.

The term ‘cognatic society’ still has some currency in the anthropological literature. However, once the importance of understanding cognatic systems in their own terms was accepted in anthropology, the utility of the category became the subject of intense debate. Some anthropologists specifically abandoned the concept ‘cognatic society’ because it was used either to lump societies together as a residual or negatively defined class in relation to unilineal societies, or to establish a positively constituted class on the basis of the superficial similarity of bilateral reckoning of kinship. Thus, ‘cognatic society’ has been deconstructed; but cognation and its interrelations with other modes of organizing social life still remains an important field of anthropological enquiry.

Next post:

Previous post: