Family, Marriage and Kinship

By Anonymous

Editor’s NoteNotes on Family, Marriage and Kinship.


– a domestic group, consisting of adults and children, may contain one or more elementary families – nuclear and joint families.

Comes from the latin word ‘familia’ meaning a household. It is the most efficient example of a ‘primary group’. A family is a group and an institution, as it has certain rules and procedures at its base. Family is a primary institution responsible for ‘socialisation’ (the AGIL model of Parsons).


Michel Foucault gave the concept of biopolitics. It basically means that the life and life choices of an individual citizen is a prerogative of the state.  A state earlier in the garb of a king and his dynasty and now in the garb of sovereigns and democracies, govern and control the lives of its subjects. When we had kings and dynasties, the subject’s life could anyday be sacrificed by the king for the sake of the benefit of the king or the dynasty, now in the times of the sovereign nations, this concept though loosely held still exists, wherein, the life of a citizen is controlled by the nation state, indirectly through its policies, laws and politics. What a state makes available for a citizen to choose from, how he/she goes about that choice and what is the result of that choice, in the fields of personal, professional and economic terms are all influenced by the state’s ideology. The state’s ideology thus influencial to the citizens is carried from a macro to a micro level through the institution of family. As Parsons has rightfully said, ‘family is an institution which creates personalities’. Family is the tool by which nation states wield biopolitics and ensure a control on the lives of their citizens, if not directly (like in the times of the kings and monarchs) then indirectly.

In a patriarchal social system of authority, the senior most male agnate exercises absolute power  over all family members. There is a marked distinction between family and household, the later being defined as the co resident and commensual unit, but not necessarily property sharing group.

Levi Strauss: focus and starting point of his reflection was the ‘incest taboo’ – its significance lay in its universality, highlighting the transition of humans from the state of ‘nature’ of that of ‘culture’. Though incest taboo is manifestly a negative injunction i.e. a set of prohibitions, but Levi Strauss emphasized that it had an opposite and positive function also. The positive function is expressed in rules of exogamy, which require marriage outside a defined circle of relatives, and in rules of endogamy which define the group within which marriages are to be contracted. For Levi Strauss, the prohibition of incest is ultimately a rule of reciprocity, requiring men to exchange the most precious category of goods (women) in marriage. By ensuring the circulation of women, the incest taboo constitutes a crucial mechanism of social integration.

According to Iravati Karve, the unity of India is to be found in the existence of two important social institutions throughout the subcontinent, one is the joint family and the other is the caste system.

According to MacIver and Page “family is by far the most important primary group in society. The family is a group defined by a sex relationship sufficiently precise and enduring to provide for the production and upbringing of children.”

Burgess and Locke say “the family is a group of persons united by the ties of marriage, blood or adoption; constituting a single household, interacting and communicating with each other in their respective social roles of husband and wife, mother and father, brother and sister, creating a common culture.”

Characteristics of a family:

  1. It is a universal phenomena
  2. Prevelance of emotional relationship
  3. Limited in size
  4. Family is a basic unit of society
  5. Existence of mutual rights and duties among the members of the family
  6. Socializing of the members is the basic task of all families
  7. Prevelance of mating relationships
  8. Having a form of marriage
  9. Some economic provisions shared by the members
  10. Common habitation
  11. Permanence

In several parts of the country people live in lineage groups. Large lineages were probably more frequent during the nineteenth century than they are today. The members of a lineage lived under the same roof, or in the neighboring houses, held property together and ate together. Such a lineage formed coparcenaries, every member (male in case of patriarchal and female in case of matriarchal) having a share in the ancestral property. Among some groups, including the Nayars, Namboodaris and Kodagus ancestral property was traditionally impartible.

Among the poorer and uneducated folk in rural areas, the residential groups generally tend to be small, being confined to members of elementary family and one or two other relatives. In this section of the population, the family group holds together during the father’s lifetime, partition being usual after his death. Among the richer rural folk and among the urban – educated, joint families tend to be more frequent. (Srinivas 1979)

A joint family consists of a man, his married sons and their wives and children, and his unmarried daughters. A joint family may persist even after the father’s death, the eldest son becoming the head in place of the dead father. Occasionally a widowed sister or daughter and her children may be part of the joint family. An affinal (from the bride’s side) relative of the head may also be living in a joint or elementary family.

A joint family loses members on the occasion of marriage of daughters, death and gains members through marriage of boys and through birth or adoption of children.

The composition of a joint family depends upon the mode of descent and the pattern of residence general to a group. Descent may be patrilineal or matrilineal and the residence may be virilocal (staying with husband) or uxorilocal (staying with wife) or neolocal (both moving to a new residence).

Uxorilocality, polyandry and easy divorce in the traditional kinship system of the nayars were all intended to strengthen the sibling bond and weaken the conjugal bond. The head of the Tarawad was expected to treat his sister’s children as his own and be indifferent to his own children. The changes which have occurred in recent years have strengthened the father’s position at the expense of the maternal uncle’s.

A joint family is bound together by periodic propitiation of dead ancestors. This happens through the conduct of the ceremony of ‘Sraddha’, a ceremony where a man propitiates his dead father’s or mother’s spirit by offering ‘pinda’.



  1. Fulfillment of sexual needs
  2. Production of children
  3. Provision of a secure home through creation of a shared household
  4. Socialization of the young members
  5. Protection of the young
  6. Economic provision for the members
  7. Religious orientation
  8. Education provision
  9. Health care provision
  10. Recreation
  11. Crime prevention; social control
  12. Provision of social status
  13. Stabilization of adult personalities
  14. Cooperation and division
  15. Psychological stability


  1. In a joint family: In a joint family ‘privacy’ of individuals is highly compromised
  2. Individual accumulation of capital is affected
  3. Individual personality growth is being affected in a joint family
  4. Nuclear family: socialization of the members as per the state gets compromised, as the restrictions and limitations are loosened in the nuclear family structure
  5. Social support systems are compromised
  6. Individual burden in terms of roles and responsibilities increases.
  7. As an institution: family as an institution necessitates conforming to its rules, regulations, norms and values and harsh treatment is meted out to individuals expressing to difference of opinion.
  8. According to Andre Beteille, “family plays a crucial if not decisive role in the reproduction of social structure, including the structure of inequality”. wealth – there’s going to be a vast difference between the way a child grows up in the home of a civil servant or a doctor and a watchman or a clerk. Reproduction, if not creation of inequalities and life chances is an entailment of the institution of family. The macro level steps to counter social inequalities of caste and class are not working after an extent because the most intimate social structure, that of a family is, in the name of tradition and family norms and morals, carrying forward/reproducing the social inequalities already existent in society.


“Marriage is a stable relationship in which a man and a woman are socially permitted without loss of standing in the community to have children”

– Harry M. Johnson

“Marriage is the approved social pattern whereby two or more persons establish a family”

– Horton and Hunt


Throughout India, marriages are customarily arranged. Partners are chosen from within a caste (endogamy), excluding certain categories of very close kin. Strategies both of the ‘extension’ and of the ‘intensification’ of kin ties are manifested through marriage alliances. The northern marriages are systems of extension, whereas the southern marriages are systems of intensification. In the north women tend to marry slightly upwards in the status hierarchy (hypergamy); while in the south, system of preferential marriage exists. The two most important groups are that of the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas. Their social prestige makes others copy their institutions, at least in name.

Kulinism: Kulin is a caste of Brhamin anciently stratified as the purest of the pure. The custom according to which a kulin man marries a girl belonging to the same division or to one which is of a slightly lower status, is known as Kulinism. This is especially true of Bengal, the Kulin groom could always demand a very high dowry. Sometimes the poorer wives were never brought as brides to the husband’s home at all children born and brought up at the maternal uncle’s house. Matrimonial difficulties led to a wave of suicides. A very high demand of such grooms led to Polygamy amongst the Kulin Brahmins.

Rules of marriage –

  • Must avoid marriage a. children of his mother’s siblings and cousins, b. with children of his father’s and c. children of his father’s female cousins
  • Avoid marriage with sapinda – agnate (from father’s side) 5 generations, uterine (from mother’s side)3 generations
  • Marriage of cousins viewed with great disfavor

The northern zone: Part of india which lies between the Himalayas to the north and the Vindhya ranges to the south, Punjab, Kashmir, Delhi, U.P., parts of M.P., Bihar, Bengal, Assam.

‘Ideal’ marriage pattern in the northern zone

  • The gotra and the clan systems
  • Hypergamy and Kulinism

The jat is an agricultural and fighting caste of south Punjab, Delhi, and northern Rajputana.  It is divided into exogamous gotras and the marriage rule is that a man must not marry into – his father’s, i.e. his own gotra, his mother’s gotra, his mother’s mother’s gotra and his father’s mother’s gotra. – This is also known as the four gotra rule

Spatial and geographical limits of endogamy and exogamy: if a daughter is given into a certain family of a certain village, a second daughter is generally not given into the same family or village in that generation and, not in the next two generations at least.

In Rajasthan, rajputs are divided into hypergamous clans. The western villages provide grooms while the eastern villages provide brides

Not only is the family the family which gives a daughter in marriage supposed to have a status inferior to the family which receives a daughter, but even a village which gives a daughter in marriage is considered inferior to the village which receives one.

Daughters vs. Brides (from Iravati Karve’s essay in ‘family and kinship in India, edited by Patricia Uberoi)

Early marriage of girls and boys are rampant in the northern zone, but in these marriages, the bride is not sent to the groom’s house until she reaches puberty. After her first menses, the groom is called to take away the bride on an auspicious day and a ceremony called ‘gauna’ is performed.

Between marriage and gauna ceremony a period of anything from a few months to a few years can elapse, depending on the ages of the groom and the bride. It is the parents of the groom and the bride who arrange the marriage. The groom and bride see each other only at the time of marriage.

The north has separate words for daughters and brides in each regional language, with a double standards of behavior and sometimes of morality of each category.

Folk literature singles out certain pairs of relations as natural enemies. Nanad – bhojai i.e. a woman and her husband’s sister is one such pair. Saas – bahu i.e. a woman and her husband’s mother is another pair.

Only when a girl becomes the mother of a boy does she feel completely at home in her husband’s house.

The relationship between the wife-givers and the wife-receivers is an unequal one. A respectable man does not take food at his daughter’s husband’s house when he goes on a visit. Infact, a father rarely visits a married daughter but the brother may go often.


In certain Indian societies, a woman, after the death of her husband, marries his younger brother. This is referred to as ‘levirate’ and is prevalent amongst the ‘ahirs’ of Haryana, some jats and gujjars and among some muslim castes. Sororate i.e. the marriage of a widower with his wife’s younger sister occurs primarily in southern part of india.

The most powerful motive for polygyny, besides the display of social status and wealth is desire for male progeny.

The marriage of a widow was absolutely prohibited in certain castes, while in other castes, where it was allowed, such a marriage did not have the sanctity of a first marriage.

Multiple marriages gave prestige to a man, but lowered his social status of the family which gave its daughters to a man whose first wife was alive.


In the north the man lives with his patri-kin (relatives from the father’s side) among whom he is born and reared. He comes in contact with his wife’s relations but rarely.  Definite patterns are set up for her role vis a vis these relations. A woman must stand up and cover her face if she is in the same room as her parents – in law, or their brothers or cousins. Towards the younger brother of her husband, her behavior is more free and she may joke with him.

Only when she becomes a mother can she be a little freer, but only when the mother in law is old or dead does a woman have freedom of speech and behavior. If the husband dies when the bride is young, she is branded as an inauspicious woman and her lot is hard.

The northern joint family is a status group, where all the members have a definite place assigned to him or her vis a vis all others. The work which each has to do, the pleasures each will enjoy are more or less fixed by convention and these conventions are of kinship behavior.

In the north, women rarely go out of their houses, or take part in marriage processions. The present northern family is patrilineal, patrilocal and patriarchal. It is a joint family in which the brides are all brought from outside and the girls are all given away. The behavior is strictly regulated according to 1. Generations, 2. Whether one is born into the family or married into the family, 3. Whether one is a man or a woman.


Marriage is a union of two minds, bodies and souls. Each community has different religious rites by which a marriage is solemnized. Marriage and divorce among Hindus (including Jains and Budhists) are covered by the Hindu marriage act, 1955. According to the law, marriage is a holy sacrament. The following conditions should be fulfilled at the time of marriage:

  • Both individuals should be Hindus
  • Boy should be at least 21 years and girl 18 years old
  • Neither person should be insane or suffering from epilepsy
  • One cannot marry within prohibited degrees of relations – 5 degrees patri kin and 3 degrees matri kin
  • There must be a religious ceremony in accordance with Hindu rites
  • No polygamy
  • Not necessary to register a hindu marriage – section 8 has a mandate by Supreme Court of India which advises all couples to register their marriages.

A muslim may marry on reaching the age of puberty (under chid marriage restraint act, 1929, it is an offence for a boy under 21 years and girls under 18 years to marry, but the violation of this rule does not effect the validity of muslim marriage). The muslim law of marriage is based on sacred texts and has not been put down in the form of any law. A proposal from one side and its acceptance by other side at one and the same meeting. The Hanafi school of muslim law requires witnesses. A muslim male can have four wives, but he must obtain the consent of his spouses before taking another wife. Any two wives must not be related to each other.


It includes those areas of india where the languages of the Dravidian family are spoken, four zones are – Karnataka, where Kannada language is spoken, A.P. where Telugu is spoken, T.N. where tamil is spoken and Kerela, where malyalam is spoken.

The southern zone presents a very complicated pattern of kinship systems and family organization. Both patrilineal and patrilocal along with matrilineal and matrilocal systems are present. As in the rest of India, most castes allow practice of polygyny and some practice both polyandry and polygyny.

In Karnataka, A.P., T.N, and among certain important castes of Malabar, the predominant form of family organization is the patrilineal and patrilocal joint family. But among the Nayars and Tiyan in Malabar, some Mohhamadan castes and Bants in the Kanara district the family is matrilineal and matrilocal.

Matrilineal cross cousins marriages: a gives a daughter to B in one generation and in every subsequent generation it will continue to give Ds to B and never take Ds from B. instead, it will take wives from another clan. Levi Strauss called this type of exchange as ‘asymmetrical’.

Patrilineal cross cousin marriages: if in one generation A gives a daughter to B, in the next generation, A takes a daughter from B and so on. Thus in alternate generations wife takers become wife givers. Levi Strauss called this exchange as ‘symmetrical’


  1. In a large number of castes, the first preference is given by a man choosing his eZD (elder sister’s daughter) as a bride. The norm behind this is that a man’s eZ is given in marriage to a family, which led into an obligation to give the D of the marriage back to the family from which they had originally received the bride. In the case of MB=eZD, the girl to be returned belongs to a generation lower than the man to whom she is given in marriage.

Among the non – Brahmin castes there is a taboo against a man’s marriage with the yZD. But, Marriage of a woman to her MB is a taboo amongst all matrilineal communities of the south.

  1. Among the preferred marriages is a man’s marriage with his FZD (a woman marrying her MBS). The norm is that the family which gives a daughter expects one in return. This return is however affected in the next generation.
  2. The third type of preferential marriage is that of a man with his MBD. E.g. the having Brahmins of Karnataka, the Kallar of TN and some types of Reddi in Andhra (Telangana).

In the case of those who practice MBD (cross cousin marriage) there are generally claims of social superiority, or inter caste hypergamy. The Reddis claim to be Kshatriyas, the Kallars, though poverty ridden people, also claim to be kshatriyas. Those who have given a D to a particular family must continue to do so ever afterwards, those who have received one from a particular family must always go on receiving from that family.

Besides all these marriages which are preferred types, there are also quite a number of marriages outside the group of close kins. These happen if there is no suitable mate in one’s kin group.

The proposed uniform civil code of all India is looked at as an attempt of the north to impose its social mores on the south. In the south there is a definite bias for marriage within a very small kin group, just outside of the immediate primary family. The only rule for southern marriages is clan exogamy and no type of marriage discussed above infringes this rule.

However certain type of marriages, though conforming to the principal of clan exogamy, are not allowed and where the prohibition seems to be based on some other considerations.

Certain prohibitions are:

  1. A man can marry his eZD but is not allowed except in Brahmins, to marry his yZD.
  2. Though widow remarriage is practiced among almost all castes (except Brahmins), a widow is not allowed to marry either HeB/HyB (real or classificatory). The regions where Dravidian speaking population has come in contact with northern population, the taboo is not observed and the marriage of a widow to her HyB is allowed.
  3. There seems to be a general taboo against the marriage of a man with his MZD even if she belongs to a clan different from his own.

The kin in the immediate family are arranged not according to generations but according to age categories of ‘older than ego’ and ‘younger than ego’. A girl must marry a person who belongs to the group older than self and also younger than the parents.


 Kinship system is seen as a method of organizing marriage relations between groups. Through marriage, Levi Strauss observes, members are recruited to kinship groups. Kinship is a system of the way the relations between individuals in the family and between families are organized. Kinship relations are the most basic attachment a man has. Mother – child relationship is the atom of kinship. As a cultural construct kinship primarily shapes people for their social living.

“Kinship is merely a structured system of relationships in which individuals are bound to one another by complex interlocking and ramifying ties”

  • P. Murdock

Kinship was first studied by Lewis Henry Morgan by the way in which the relation between individuals and groups is established. He propounded the ‘synchronic’ method of kinship, and the structural theory of kinship in his book, ‘System of Consanguinity and affinity’, 1870. He studied kinship in ‘descriptive’ as well as ‘classificatory’ systems. Descriptive terminology – simplex and complex terms fashioned from simplex ones, terms keep collaterals distinct from lineal kins. Classificatory terminology – only simplex terms, terms merge many genealogical kin types into a few large categories. A classificatory system is one in which the same term is used to address different relatives such as the term ‘uncle’ is used to address chacha, mama, mausa, foofa etc. in the descriptive system, a particular term refers to only one particular relation.

Relations established through marriage are called: affinity

Relations established by blood: consanguinity

Levi Strauss has described in his ‘harmonic’ and ‘disharmonic’ analysis, in ‘harmonic’ the locality and descent  are the same e.g. matrilineal and matrilocal. In ‘disharmonic’, the descent and residence do not coincide e.g. patrilineal and patrilocal.

Robin Fox gave four basic principles of kinship as follows:

  1. The women have children
  2. The men impregnate women
  3. The men usually exercise control
  4. Primary kins do not mate with each other

According to Harry Johnson, kinship has six important bases – sex, generation, closeness, blood relations, division and binding thread

Regional variations of kinship in India (as given in marriage rules by Iravati Karve)

The northern zone: (the following points are in addition to the points of marriage in the Northern zone)

  1. Society in the northern zone is divided into gotra, which are large and loosely connected kin groups resembling the clan system, they are exogamous and patrilineal group.
  2. There exists separate kinship terms for persons related by blood and by marriage. The kinship terms being role terms indicate that the behavior towards consanguine is markedly different from the behavior towards affine.
  3. Marriage is governed by the principle of caste endogamy. All castes consist of hierarchy of sub castes. These sub castes constitute heterogamous division among all upper castes especially Brahmins and Rajputs. In Bengal Kulin marriage is practiced. Kulin is group of Brahmins, who claim themselves to be descendants of learned people.
  4. The relationship between the families aligned through marriage are characterized by indifference and muted hostility. An individual is very close to his agnatic kinsmen but is not so close to his uterine kinsmen except the mother’s brother. The groom’s family enjoys a higher status than the bride family.
  5. Normally, the north Indian marriages takes place at an early age, the spouses being total strangers. In case the bride has not attained puberty at the time of marriage then second marriage called ‘gauna’, is performed after she had attained puberty and only then she goes to live with the groom as husband and wife.
  6. Levirate and sororatic alliances exist in the northern kinship
  7. The traditional north Indian family is patrilineal, patrilocal and patriarchal in which women are subordinated generally to authority of men and they come to enjoy respect only when they become mother or mother in law.

The Southern zone: (the following points are in addition to the points of marriage in the southern zone)

  1. The southern zone is a mix of patriarchal and matriarchal kinship systems. Both polyandry and polygyny are existent in the Sotuhern zone.
  2. N. Srinivas studied the ‘Okka’ in Okkalinge of Karnataka. Okka is the family organized on almost the same principle as the North Indian joint family.
  3. Instances of matrilineal and matrilocal type of family are to be found among the Kshatriyas, Nayars and Mopla muslims of Kerala and among certain groups in Karnataka.
  4. The matrilineal joint family of Nayars is called ‘Tarawad’ consisting of only consanguinely related men and women.
  5. Marriage relationships are intensification specific.
  6. The Namboodari Brahmins follow the practice of primogeniture. The younger son establishes hypergamous marital alliance with Kshatriyas and Nayar women, such marital alliance is called Sambandhan.

The central zone:

  1. The central zone comprises of the following regions: Rajasthan, M.P, Gujrat, Maharashtra and Orissa. Beside following the northern practice, there are also certain castes which show a new type of mating – the marriage of a man to his mother’s brother’s daughter. In some regions the marriage is practiced only by a few.
  2. Rajasthan, Gujarat and Kathiawad practice both the south and north Indian kinship systems. Some groups practice one type of cross cousin marriage as the permissive form of marriage e.g. the marriage of a man to his mother’s brother’s daughter.
  3. In Maharashtra. The majority of castes and tribes practice one type of cross cousin marriage.
  4. The Marathas show a hypergamous clan structure.

The eastern zone:

  1. The eastern zone consists of parts of Orissa, Santhal, Pargana district of Jharkhand. All people speaking Mundari language are patrilineal and patrilocal. E.g. Ho, Munda and Santhal have patrilineal systems.
  2. Most of the tribal groups permit premarital sexual relationships between the bachelor and maiden. Thus boys and girls after attaining puberty start living in youth dormitory which leads to marriages among them.
  3. All these tribes are divided into exogamous totemic clans. A person may marry outside his patri – clans and outside the circle of near relationships like first cousins. However among the Hos and the Santhals a special types of cross cousin marriage is practiced a man cannot marry his mother’s brother’s daughter as long as father’s sister is alive.
  4. The married couple live in nuclear household and these are called neonatal.
  5. The Khasi of Assam are matrilineal but they are quite different from the Nayyars of Kerala. The inheritance is along the female line. The youngest daughter always gets the largest share of the family property. The husband generally lives in the wife’s family for sometime and is treated as a stranger, but after the birth of child, the husband and wife establish a separate household. The house and the land belongs to the man and after his death, to the youngest sister. The widow may get half if she does not marry again. In the family the children are normally closer to their mother than their father and live with the mother after the father’s death. Matri clan exogamy is practiced. Parallel cousins marriage is not permitted while cross cousin marriage is also very rare. Perhaps a man can marry his mother’s brother’s daughter after the death of the mother’s brother and similarly can marry his father’s sister’s daughter.

Primary Kins: related to ‘ego’ directly through blood or affinal relationships.

Secondary kins: are primary kins of primary kins e.g. father’s brother and brother’s wife.

Tertiary kins are secondary kins of one’s primary kins and also primary kins of ego’s secondary kin.

Agnate is one related by descent through males only.

Uterine – when descent is traced through females exclusively.

Teknonymy: when a person is reffered to as a parent of his/her child.


The matrilineage of the Nayars is called Tarawad and consists of all the descendants, in the female line, of an ancestress. A Nayar household may include a woman her brother and younger sister, her children and her sister’s children and daughter’s children and sister’s daughter’s children.  The anscetral property is impartible. The oldest living male is the manager of the Tarawad and it is his duty to look after its property. The members lived in the ancestral home, situated on the ancestral estate, which included a sacred serpent grove (Kavu) and even cremation ground.

The Namboodari Brahmins lived in patrilineage which was called ‘illam’. The household was situated on the ancestral estate and with it were the sacred serpent grove and the cremation ground.  Only the eldest son was permitted to marry a Namboodari girl and the younger sons had liason (sambandan) with girls belonging to the Nayar caste. The younger sons visit their partners at night and children born of this union become a part of their mother’s tarawad. The Namboodari illam consists of the eldest son and his wife, the younger brothers, sometimes his old parents or eldest son’s children.

Edited by Hariharan Kumar

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