Re: Prescriptive and Proscriptive in Anthropologese

Anthony Good (agood@BLUENOTE.DEMON.CO.UK)
Fri, 26 Apr 1996 08:39:41 +0000

With reference to Phil Young's posting on the use of the terms prescriptive and
proscriptive in anthropology, in which he said:

>The prescriptive/proscriptive terminology that you recall does not refer to
>types of families but to marriage systems. Proscriptive systems are those
>which specify who you cannot marry, e.g., parallel cousins in some systems.
>Prescriptive systems are those which tell you that you must marry someone from
>one or more named social categories. These categories are usually labeled by
>referential kin terms. For example, some systems prescribe that men must marry
>women who belong to the category which contains the mother's brother's

He is of course right in saying that these refer to marriageability rather than
family types. I would however make a slight but crucial difference to his
definition of 'prescription' to make it clear that this is NOT a matter of rules
but of definitions. Thus, the referential kin terms which he mentions connote
'marriageable man/woman'. There is no need therefore to have a rule
saying, in effect, 'you must marry a marriageable person', since that
would be pure tautology. (Rather like having a rule in British or US society
saying 'the woman you married must be your wife'!) In short, prescriptions
are not kinds of rules (e.g., not just strong preferences) but matters of
classification. I would therefore modify Phil's definition to read

Prescriptive systems are those which define one or more named social categories
of person as marriageable.

Tony Good