Transformations of African Marriage
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Transformations of African Marriage

David Parkin, David Nyamwaya, David Parkin, David Nyamwaya

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eBook - ePub

Transformations of African Marriage

David Parkin, David Nyamwaya, David Parkin, David Nyamwaya

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Originally published in 1987, this book shows that there is still considerable continuity in the practices and ideas of marriage in Afican against a background of social and economic change. This book discusses the diverse marriage forms in Africa and explores the different systems some of which can be understood in terms of Levi-Strauss's distinciton between complex and semi-complex structures, while others throw up questions of filiation, child custoidanship and rights secured through bridewealth transactions.

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1 Philip Burnham


In treating the theme of African marriage and its transformation, we must consider not only the patterns of social change which have emerged over the last few decades but also the changes in theory relating to African marriage which have supervened during this period and which have substantially altered our perceptions of the data themselves. Although my own fieldwork experience has been confined to West and West-Central Africa and some of my empirical examples in this discussion will be drawn from these regions, the sources of theoretical influence in this field of study are of a more diverse provenance and range across the continent and beyond. A full review of the theoretical literature on African marriage is obviously beyond the scope of this short chapter, but I shall begin by considering the major positions as an introduction to the substantive discussion of social change tendencies.
A logical place to begin our review is the seminal volume African Systems of Kinship and Marriage (Radcliffe-Brown and Forde 1950), which embodied many of the major findings of structural-functional anthropology of the previous two decades. In its very conception, paired as it was with African Political Systems (Fortes and Evans-Pritchard 1940), this book reflected the views of Radcliffe-Brown, Fortes, Evans-Pritchard and others of this school that marriage was to be analysed as a part of the ‘domestic domain’, which was analytically separated from the ‘politico-jural’ domain dominated by rules of unilineal descent, corporate lineages and states. From this perspective, the importance of marriage lay principally in its effect of creating new elementary family units, the universal, basic building blocks of kinship structure according to Radcliffe-Brown (1950: 5), and in its role in legitimating children to provide social continuity for lineages and other corporate groups.
Although Africanist descent theorists recognised that marriage was also of political significance in that it allied two distinct bodies of persons (endogamous systems were effectively ignored by almost all descent theorists), the political implications of marriage were clearly thought to be subordinate to those of consanguineal kin ties in general and relations of descent in particular. Thus, as Fortes wrote (1959: 209), ‘I would 
 say that marriage and affinity are the media through which (author’s emphasis) structurally prior politico-jural alliances and associations are expressed and affirmed, and I would contend that they are effective as such media because they give rise to matrilateral kinship bonds.’ In much of the descent theorists’ writing, marriage and family formation were analysed using the concept of the ‘developmental cycle of domestic groups’ (Goody 1958), an approach originally elaborated by Fortes (1949) in his Ashanti household surveys. The emphasis here, as mentioned above, was on processes of social continuity, and from this perspective, marriage was considered to fulfil relatively predictable and mechanistic functions in the reproduction of kin group membership (see Fortes 1958: 2 et passim). As a result, analytical attention was directed away from patterns and processes of competition, inequality, conflict, and exploitation within domestic groups and, most particularly, within the elementary family units which were seen as the unproblematic atoms of kinship. To the extent that such dynamic political and economic forces were noted within domestic groups, they were analysed as resulting from factors extrinsic to the ‘domestic domain’ and as aspects, definitionally speaking, of the ‘politico-jural domain’.
The publication in 1949 of LĂ©vi-Strauss’s Les Structures ElĂ©mentaires de la ParentĂ© (English translation 1969) offered a radically different approach to marriage from that of the descent theorists – one that emphasised the role of marriage in defining and allying groups in society. This structuralist challenge to British structural-functionalism generated the debate known as the ‘descent versus alliance controversy’, which dominated the social anthropological literature through the 1950s and 1960s. Initially, LĂ©vi-Strauss’s views exercised less of an influence on the thinking of Africanists than in other areas of the world since he himself had suggested that his theories concerning prescriptive alliance systems would be of limited applicability in bridewealth-based marriage systems such as those found in most parts of Africa (LĂ©vi-Strauss 1949: ix; see also Leach 1961: 123, where it is suggested that descent theory may be more applicable to African systems while alliance theory is best applied elsewhere). It has been left to LĂ©vi-Strauss’s colleagues and former students, such as HĂ©ritier, de Heusch, Dupire, and others, to adapt his alliance theory to the African context, and the last fifteen years have witnessed the publication of a number of important structuralist analyses of African marriage systems. A particularly significant aspect of this development has been the efforts of HĂ©ritier (1981) to extend LĂ©vi-Strauss’s methods to encompass various forms of non-prescriptive marriage system, especially the so-called Crow-Omaha or semi-complex systems of marriage alliance, which are relatively common on the African continent.
The structuralist method has also proved to be useful in comparative regional analyses of marriage systems. De Heusch’s (1981) work on Central African systems, Muller’s (1981) on the systems of the Nigerian Plateau, and Dupire’s (1970) on the Fulani of West Africa all provide examples of this type of study, which is based on the assumption that the various forms of marriage within a culture area can be understood as variants, or transformations, of a single underlying marriage structure.
Given the title of the present conference, it is important to emphasise that the concept of ‘transformation’ has a particular meaning within French structuralist discourse. Rather than merely being a synonym for social change, transformation as understood by this school refers to the array of structural forms which is logically derivable from an underlying set of structural elements or constraints. De Heusch (1981: 13), for one, has argued that this usage of the concept of transformation is not incompatible with the use of the concept to refer to ‘the concrete historical process by which one particular kinship system is converted into another in one particular place’ (see also Pouillon 1966). But my own view is that LĂ©vi-Strauss’s structuralism, taken in its pure form, has proved relatively unsatisfactory for the analysis of social change, emphasising as it does the logical workings of abstract marriage rules considered independently from political-economic context and historical process.
The opposing theoretical position of the neo-Marxists, which emerged in the early 1960s, was more than prepared to find structures of exploitation and inequality within kinship groups and to link these structures closely with marriage practices, but in proposing this corrective to the descent theorists’ functionalist views of African kin groups, the Marxist writers themselves treated African marriage in a very categorical and partial manner. At the same time, reacting also against LĂ©vi-Strauss’s ahistorical structuralism, the neo-Marxists professed an interest in analysing societies within the flow of historical change. Claude Meillassoux’s seminal article of 1960, which proposed the analytical model that has come to be known as the ‘lineage mode of production’, focused on the issue of elders’ power over junior men via their control over the marriage system. In Meillassoux’s view, control over women is crucial in such a system because of their role as ‘producers of producers’ – women’s direct participation in agricultural production, food processing, and other economic activities being considered secondary to their reproductive functions. This emphasis on reproduction emerges in agricultural, kin-based societies where, to quote Meillassoux (as cited in Molyneux 1977: 75), ‘duration, expectation, and cyclical repetition – that is time – are paramount 
 The future becomes a concern and, along with it, the problems of reproduction 
 Women, as producers of the producer, become the most potent of the means of production oriented towards the future and therefore subjugated to coercion and restrictions.’
Meillassoux’s several discussions of the role of marriage in the political economies of kin-based societies, along with the work of other Marxist anthropologists such as Terray (1972) and DuprĂ© and Rey (1969) on this theme, have clearly made a contribution to a more dynamic understanding of African marriage and household formation and, combined with the work of non-Marxist writers such as Douglas (1963) and Spencer (1965), have been particularly illuminating for the analysis of gerontocratic societies. However, the ‘mode of production’ concept and the very generalised evolutionary stage typology employed by Meillassoux and other Marxists have not proved adequate for the analysis of the many empirical varieties of African marriage and domestic group systems – a point which I shall elaborate upon further later in this chapter. Moreover, the Marxist discussions of the ‘lineage’ mode of production have also come in for substantial criticism from feminist anthropologists. Molyneux (1977), for example, has argued that women’s roles in economic production have been undervalued in this literature, and Harris and Young (1981: 120 et passim), while essentially agreeing with Molyneux’s point, also voice a concern that the ‘very loose and ambiguous meaning given to the term reproduction’ in Meillassoux’s work has hindered understanding of gender difference and the position of women within pre-capitalist social formations.
Throughout the post-1945 period that we are considering in this review, a fourth theoretical position has remained prominent, especially among writers interested in processes of economic and social development, and this approach is usually identified by the label ‘modernisation theory’. This wide-ranging set of theories, associated most closely with Talcott Parsons and his co-workers in the USA, posits a progressive evolution of societies from the ‘traditional’ stage to the ‘modern’ and makes strong predictions regarding the pattern of conjugal and family relations which can be expected to emerge in the latter stage (Parsons 1949). Thus, for example, in his influential book entitled The Family which is written from a modernisation theory perspective, William Goode writes (1964: 108): ‘Family research in the post-World War II period has documented one gross empirical regularity whose processes are not yet clearly understood—that in all parts of the world and for the first time in world history all social systems are moving fast or slowly toward some form of the conjugal family system and also toward industrialization.’ According to Goode (1964: 51–2), the conjugal family system (which is synonymous with the nuclear family) is characterised by the following attributes: (1) greater structural emphasis is placed on the conjugal bond than in other family systems; (2) the nuclear family unit is subject to weaker social controls emanating from extended kin ties; (3) there are few pressures on the conjugal family to reside near other relatives and neolocality is therefore common; (4) the choice of spouse is relatively free from extended family pressures; (5) the conjugal system is multilineal or bilineal, rather than unilineal, at least in the sense that neither the female or the male line is given much priority; and (6) there is a strong intensity of emotionality within the nuclear family unit. Such a family system, in Goode’s view (1964: 52), ‘may fit the needs of an industrial system better than many other family forms’ although it is not without its strains and complications.
To his credit, Radcliffe-Brown was one of the early sceptics regarding the modernisation theory predictions, and in 1950 he voiced this caveat:
Not only are marriage and ideas about marriage in England and America the product of a recent, special, and complex development, but there is good evidence that they are still changing. The demand for greater freedom of divorce is one indication of this. Yet it is clear that despite all this some people take twentieth-century English marriage as a standard of “civilized” marriage with which to compare African marriage (Radcliffe-Brown 1950: 45–6).
As Radcliffe-Brown implied, a careful consideration of present-day marriage and family structures in ‘modern’ Western societies reveals substantial diversity and changing demographic trends – hardly the stable and uniform nuclear family pattern towards which ‘traditional’ societies are asserted to be developing. For example, it appears that divorce rates are increasing in most Western societies – in England and Wales, for example, the rate of divorce has increased more than fourfold since 1950 (Williams 1978: 103) when Radcliffe-Brown wrote the quoted sentences. Such statistics should not necessarily be taken to indicate that the popularity of marriage has declined in the West. Recent censuses in Great Britain and the USA show that as divorce has increased, so has the incidence of remarriage (Rapoport, Rapoport and Strelitz 1977: 92). As a result, Western household structures are displaying a new complexity, with half-siblings and/or unrelated children frequently living under the one roof of their remarried parents. Equally, the proportion of one-parent families is on the increase, and the proportion of the households in societies like Great Britain and the USA which conform to the nuclear family ideal is declining. Unfortunately, there is no space within the present paper...

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