Re: What is the Alliance Theory

Mike Salovesh (t20mxs1@CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU)
Sun, 16 Apr 1995 02:09:05 -0500

Well, somebody has to say this the simple way--and I feel simple tonight.

"Alliance theories" (there are several variants, so it's unfair to speak
of THE Alliance Theory) in kinship studies emphasize the idea that
kinship and marriage are about making alliances between groups. Tylor's
classic statement about "primitive" societies being faced with a choice
between marrying out or dying out thus was an early kind of alliance

Othe kinship analysts choose to emphasize the idea that kinship and
marriage are about producing continuity across generations; those who
take this view are doing "descent theories".

Looking at nuclear families as a (or maybe THE) basic unit of interaction
in kinship systems, an alliance theorist would say that the central link
within the nuclear family is the one between husband and wife. Marriage
would thus be the central institution because it brings together both
husband and wife as individuals and husband's group (lineage, clan, etc.)
and wife's group as collectivities. A descent theorist, on the other
hand, would say that the central link within a nuclear family is the one
between parent and child. Clans, sibs, lineages, etc. are the social
group recognition of the fact of descent.

One of the clearest elementary statements of this contrast is in Robin
Fox's (old) Penguin paperback on kinship (republished by I forget who).

Maybe that will give Stringfellow Bourbon a point of entry into what the
alliance vs. descent "debate" was about.

Some light may come from a verse fragment from an interminable song called
"the anthropologist" (to the tune of Jesse James): "Levi-Strauss and the
French/seem to think that a wench/is a token that increases solidarity . .
. CHORUS: I'm an anthropologist and I've got a good trait list, with the
structure and the function well in view--I've got a lot of poop on the
nature of the corporate group, and multilineal evolution too."

No, I can't provide those interminable verses just now. My wife and I
wrote them back in 1958/1961 as a way of cursing out the whole profession
when fieldwork got to be too much for us. Next time you see me at a
meeting, get me to sing it, instead.

-- mike salovesh <>

======================= This in response to: ==========================
> Date: Sat, 15 Apr 1995 13:03:19 -0800
> From: Stringfellow Bourbon <string@SONNET.COM>
> Subject: What is the Alliance Theory
> Hello,
> I don't know what happened when I posted this a few minutes ago. Some of
> the text got garbled. I hope it is more clear this time. Sorry.
> I need help in answering a question.
> Recently I had to give a presentation in one of my anthro. classes on
> Claude Levi Strauss. When my presentation was through, I was asked several
> questions, one of which was posed by my instructor about the Alliance
> Theory and how it relates to some of Strauss=B9 work regarding The Elementar=
> y
> Structures of Kinship.
> I have had a very difficult time finding anything on this theory anywhere.
> I had the reference librarian going crazy in my university library, as she
> could not find hardly anything either, and believe me, we looked all over
> that library.
> What I do know is that it has something do with kinship =8B I think. Anyway=
> ,
> I would appreciate any help anybody can give.
> Stringfellow Bourbon