Asymmetric / Symmetric Alliance – A Marriage Alliance Theory

In his book Structural Anthropology, Levi-Strauss proposed the concept of the Asymmetric and Symmetric Alliance and applied it to the way marriage is organised in a society.

He argued that human societies are based on two fundamental principles: the principle of alliance and the principle of reciprocity.

The principle of alliance is the idea that humans are social animals who form alliances with each other in order to survive. In this context, the idea of a “marriage alliance” evolved, highlighting the essential connection of many families and lineages. As a result, anthropologists like Lévi-Strauss, Louis Dumont, and Rodney Needham came to view marriages as a type of communication. Thus, marriage alliances are used to form political alliances between families and lineages. By marrying someone from another family or lineage, each family or lineage reduces the risk of being attacked by the other.

The central tenet of marriage alliance theory is the incest taboo, which is the idea that marriage should not take place between members of the same family. As a result, men are forced to seek out women outside of their own family. As a result, since it is forbidden to offer one’s daughter or sister to someone inside of the family, kinship groups initiate a cycle of exchange of women, creating a reciprocal exchange of women that creates affinity between the participating kinship groups.

Marriage alliances can be either symmetric or asymmetric, reflecting the pattern of marriage within and between groups.

A symmetric alliance is one in which women are exchanged between two kin groups – women from either group are paired with men from the other group, and vice versa, creating a symmetric exchange of women moving between the two. According to Levi-Strauss this system creates stability between the two kinship groups participating in the exchange, but it isolates them from other groups.

An asymmetric alliance, on the other hand, refers to the situation where marriages occur between more than two kinship groups, but women only travel in one direction – in other words some groups are always wife-givers and the other groups are always wife-takers. This system is conducive to wider integration between different kinship groupings than symmetric marriage alliances, but it is also less stable. In fact, this type of alliance is typically found in situations where there is a power imbalance between kinship groups, and the asymmetry reflects this unequal power relationship.

Related Terminology:

Alliance – a relationship between two or more groups, typically for the purpose of mutual assistance or protection.

Kinship – the network of relationships that exist between people who are related to each other by blood, marriage, or adoption.

Incest – sexual relations between members of the same family.

Taboo – a social prohibition or ban.

Structural Anthropology – a branch of anthropology that focuses on the structure of human societies.

Cooperation – working together to achieve a common goal.

Reciprocity – the exchange of goods or services (or women) between two parties, in which each party receives something of equal value from the other.

Social structure – the way in which a society is organized.

Status – the relative position of an individual in a social hierarchy.

Band Society – A band society is a type of small-scale society in which people live in small groups, or bands, and have relatively equal access to resources. Band societies are often nomadic, and they have simple social structures.

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