Clan Research Paper

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The modern, now widely accepted, definition of the clan, as a group of persons who believe themselves to be related by unilineal descent but who are unable to trace genealogical connections linking all members of the group, has emerged out of a complex intellectual history stretching back to the Enlightenment. Many social theorists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who were concerned to understand the origins of the state and democracy favored evolutionist explanations. Some viewed the family as the original form of society which, over the course of human history, had aggregated into progressively larger and more complex kinship-based groupings of clans and tribes, which were transformed eventually into the territorially-based political formation of the state. Drawing on the work of Barthold Niebuhr (1828), George Grote (1851) and other historians of Greece and Rome, social theorists such as Sir Henry Maine, Numa Fustel de Coulanges, and Lewis Henry Morgan used the ancient Greek and Roman kinship groups, the genos and the gens, as models upon which they based their understanding of early stages of social evolution.

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Maine’s (1861) analysis of the evolution of legal systems, using the example of the Roman gens and the concept of agnation—that is, kinship traced through exclusively male links—posited a primitive stage of social development in which membership in patriarchal kinship groups defined a person’s social status. Maine emphasized that the gens was a corporate group which had a legal personality that endured beyond the lives of its individual members, an insight which has been very influential in subsequent work on clans and other forms of descent grouping.

In contrast to Maine’s theory of primitive patriarchy, John Ferguson McLennan (1865) and Lewis Henry Morgan (1877) argued that the early stage of social evolution was characterized by group marriage, which meant that paternity was uncertain, and kinship was traced in the maternal line. For some authors favoring the theory of primitive matriliny, the term ‘clan’ was applied exclusively to matrilineal descent groups, while gens referred to patrilineal groups, a terminological distinction that has fallen out of use in the modern literature. Morgan, whose own research among the Iroquois in New York State had been influenced by Grote’s analysis of the ancient Greek genos, saw descent group organization, which he termed the ‘gentile’ system, as characteristic of much of early human social history. McLennan, basing his reasoning on contemporary reports of female infanticide in India, claimed that primitive societies were obliged, in their struggles for survival, to engage in this population-limiting practice, which in turn led kin groups to procure wives by capture from outside their own group. McLennan termed this marriage outside the group ‘exogamy,’ which came to be seen, by many nineteenth and early twentieth century social theorists, as another characteristic attribute of clanship.

McLennan was also influential in developing the theory of totemism, which built on E. B. Tylor’s notion that primitive religion was based on animism, the worship of inanimate objects or fetishes which were believed to be the abodes of spirits. Along with his follower W. Robertson Smith and Smith’s student Sir James Fraser, McLennan defined totemism as a system that originally combined animistic religious beliefs with matrilineal descent and exogamy. According to this view, through their ignorance of paternity caused by group marriage and their belief in animism, primitive societies posited links to original animal or plant ancestors. These natural species, which were treated as sacred emblems or ‘totems’ of different clans, were worshipped periodically by clan members in totemic rituals.

Emile Durkheim (1912), in his work on the social origins of religion which drew extensively on early ethnographic reports of aboriginal Australian societies, reproduced many of these classic arguments concerning totemism, particularly emphasizing the concept of a sacred social solidarity based on a belief in a shared substance between clan members and their ancestral totemic species. Claude Levi-Strauss’ (1962) subsequent general critique of theories of totemism, which emphasized the lack of a necessary coincidence between totemic species as emblems, exogamous clans, and religious sacrifice, served to unhitch the clanship concept from the pseudo-historical hypotheses of nineteenth century evolutionism while, at the same time, helping to clarify the classificatory logic operative in cultural categories such as the clan.

The work of the British structural-functionalist A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (1950) and his followers E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Meyer Fortes (Fortes and Evans-Pritchard 1940), and others between the two world wars, did much to put the study of unilineal descent systems on a firmer ethnographic footing, while refining the conceptual framework for their study. The model of the segmentary lineage, consisting of a nested set of increasingly inclusive corporate unilineal descent groups linked by a comprehensive genealogical structure, is the most well-known outgrowth of their work, with the term ‘clan’ often being used by these authors to label a particular segmentary level within a lineage system. Although Radcliffe-Brown’s (1950, pp. 39–40) definition of the clan, given in the first sentence of this research paper, has come to be widely used, this application of the term to characterize one of the levels in a segmentary lineage system is not always appropriate. It reflects a continuing influence of earlier understandings of totemism, in which descent group exogamy and totemic taboos were taken to be defining attributes of clanship.

Although a definitional contrast between clan and lineage is thus still not always made clearly in the more modern literature, there is analytical value in maintaining a definite distinction, since the organizational implications of the two forms of descent grouping are different. Members of a lineage know, or claim to know, the genealogical connections interlinking all members of the group, and these links, viewed in terms of generation and relative birth order, often provide a basis for calculating relations of seniority or degrees of relatedness between individuals and segments within a lineage. Lineage genealogy can also be the basis for internal segmentation of groups, according to the segmentary lineage model. In contrast, lacking such a comprehensive internal genealogical armature, relations of clanship are categorical in character and typically nonhierarchical within the clan. Persons are members of a clan because of being the offspring of their fathers or mothers, with the terms ‘patriclan’ and ‘matriclan’ often being used to indicate a clan’s mode of recruitment of its members. Although ascending descent links beyond the grandparental or great-grandparental generation are normally of little or no organizational significance, clan members in many societies do nonetheless recognize a founding clan ancestor, who is often of mythical or nonhuman status. Thus, when clans do segment according to putative genealogical links, this is typically ‘from the top’, with reference to the founding ancestor and his or her children, producing a set of sub-clan categories that also lack comprehensive internal genealogical structures.

Terminological confusion is also possible in the case of the descent group known as the conical clan, or ranked lineage, which combines characteristic features of both lineages and clans. Such descent groups are differentiated internally into a high ranked, lineage-like, chiefly or noble descent line, and a lower ranked and internally undifferentiated clan-like category of commoners (Kirchhoff 1959, Friedman 1979). Chiefly rank in a conical clan typically is based on relative birth order in present and ancestral generations, so that senior sons or daughters of senior ranking ancestors keep careful track of their pedigrees to validate their noble status. Junior offspring of junior ancestors, on the other hand, have little motivation in remembering their genealogies, and their affiliation to the group is more categorical in character. Numerous ethnographers have drawn attention to the structural potential of conical clanship, particularly as a transitional formation between uncentralized and centralized political systems. Conical clan structures are relatively common in Polynesian societies, such as the Maori, and in south-east and central Asian societies, such as the Mongols.

The clans of the Scottish Highlands also displayed such internal ranking (Dodgshon 1998). The Scottish clan chief and his close relatives enjoyed high status due to their close patrilineal connection to the founding clan ancestor. The commoner members of the clan, on the other hand, could not necessarily demonstrate such genealogical links, but were bound to their clan chief by diverse social ties including land tenancy or marriage alliance, as well as real or fictive kinship expressed by a common surname.

Systems of clanship occur in many parts of the world, and their diversity of form can be understood in relation to several key variables. Of prime importance is their capacity for organized collective action as corporate groups, which frequently is limited or absent due to the spatial dispersal of clan memberships. Particularly in territorially extensive societies with large populations, a clan’s members often reside in many different locations, and there are limited possibilities for the full membership of a clan to meet as a total group. In such circumstances, clans may act collectively on only a few occasions, such as during annual rituals like the aboriginal Australian corroboree ceremonies, which clans celebrated to ensure the continued fertility of their totemic species. In other cases of spatially dispersed clan membership, a clan may never meet as a totality, but simply act as a named category from which localized sets of clan members may be mobilized to pursue collective action if necessary or advantageous.

In addition to their variable capacities for organizing group action, numerous authors have also drawn attention to the potential of clanship systems to serve a social networking function. For example, in West Africa among speakers of the Mande family of languages (Jackson 1974), a limited set of clan names is found throughout this large zone, and a clan member making a long journey can feel confident of finding members of his or her clan who will provide assistance at the distant destination.

Even in cases where the set of clan names changes from one society to an adjacent one, conventional equivalences are often established between clan names to facilitate the extension of such networks of mutual aid. Similar clan networks have also been noted among North American Amerindian and aboriginal Australian societies.

Although ethnographic analysts of clanship frequently have conflated it with lineage structure, as mentioned above, the logic of clanship is often more a matter of ‘sub-ethnicity’ rather than ‘super-lineage.’ Many cultures’ understandings of clanship, which are often rooted in myth, posit a primordial clan identity which is seen as immutable, much like many cultures’ conceptualizations of ethnicity. It is this theme that Levi-Strauss (1962) explored in his work on totemism, in which the classificatory logic of clans as social species is seen as homologous to cultural classifications of animal and plant species. In such cases, the total number of clans in a society may be quite small and be viewed as unchanging, with the various clanship categories standing in long-term interrelationships of marriage alliance, ritual cooperation or other modes of mutual exchange or solidarity. In societies where the total number of clan categories is only two, these groupings are conventionally referred to as ‘moieties.’

In contrast, some societies have systems of proliferating clans in which it is evident to the analyst, from the presence of large numbers of clans with relatively small memberships in the context of overall population growth, that clans are undergoing segmentation, although this is not acknowledged by clan members themselves. Such systems of proliferating clanship tend to be found in politically uncentralized societies with high rates of spatial mobility, where local groups frequently split as a mode of dispute settlement. In such cases it may be posited that, following an episode of intraclan dispute which has been resolved by group fission and spatial displacement, the members of the resultant new segments have an active interest in denying knowledge of former genealogical interlink-age. Such systems of proliferating clanship, characterized by many small clans that are widely dispersed spatially, are not conducive to the maintenance of the patterns of long-term interclan alliance mentioned above.

In some cases, the term ‘clan’ has also been applied to territorial groups which are recruited both on the basis of unilineal descent and long-term co-residence. Such a usage is common in New Guinea. Here, inmigrant strangers hailing from other clans may initially be welcomed in order to strengthen a localized clan grouping.

Over time, cultural theories of personal identity may posit, for example, that through continued consumption of foodstuffs cultivated on the clan’s land, the physical nature of such incomers becomes transformed into that of true clansmen, thus converting coresidence into shared unilineal descent. In effect, as argued by the American kinship specialist, George P. Murdock (1949), such a ‘compromise kin group’ reflects the difficulty of constituting a large-scale, residentially unified and collectively functional kinship grouping on the basis of unilineal descent alone.

Finally, it should be recognized that, in common parlance, the term ‘clan’ is often used in a metaphorical way to refer to any group of persons who act toward each other in a particularly close and mutually supportive way. Thus, criminal organizations such as the Mafia may be referred to as ‘clans,’ in recognition of the ideology of kinlike solidarity that binds their members together.


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  2. Durkheim E 1912 Les Formes Elementaires de la Vie Religieuse. Alcan, Paris [1915 The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Allen & Unwin, London]
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  6. Grote G 1851 A History of Greece, 3rd edn. John Murray, London
  7. Jackson M 1974 The structure and significance of Kuranko clanship. Africa 44(4): 397–415
  8. Kirchhoff P 1959 The principles of clanship in human society. In: Fried M (ed.) Readings in Anthropology. Crowell, New York, Vol. II
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  12. McLennan J F 1865 Primitive Marriage. Adam & Charles Black, Edinburgh, UK
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  15. Niebuhr B 1828 The History of Rome. Taylor, Cambridge, UK
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