The lesson will seek to explain the different systems of family descent found around the globe. In doing so, it will define unilateral, bilateral, and ambilineal descent.
Due to the fact that both my mom and dad came from very large families, I have lots and lots of cousins. For instance, my dad comes from a family of 11 and each of his brothers and sisters have at least 3 kids.
Despite the size of our extended family, and the distance we lived from lots of them, my parents did a great job at keeping us close to both sides of our family. In other words, my cousins from my dad’s side were just as important to me as those of my mom’s.According to anthropologists, this would be because my family, along with most of the Western world, employs what is known as a bilateral descent system and not a unilateral or ambilineal descent. Knowing that these terms are foreign to most us, we’ll use today’s lesson to explain them.
Since bilateral descent is common to most of us, we’ll start with it.
Speaking anthropologically, bilateral descent is the tracing of kinship through both parents’ ancestral lines. Not needing to explain it much further, it’s the reason that most of us go to family reunions on both our mom’s side and our dad’s side of the family. It’s also the reason why my kids get Christmas presents from more than one set of grandparents.
In short, bilateral descent ties a person to the biological family of both his/her mother and father.
Pretty much opposite of bilateral descent is unilateral descent. As the name ‘unilateral’ suggests, with ‘uni’ meaning ‘one’ as in ‘unicorn’ or ‘unicycle,’ unilateral descent is a kinship system in which descent is traced through only one gender. To really state it simply, it’s a family tree that is only tracked through the men or women of the family, but not both.When speaking of unilateral descent, there are two types.
The most common type is patrilineal descent, in which an individual’s kin group, or clan membership, is traced through men. Making it easy to remember, we could say patrilineal descent is traced through your papa! Odd as it may seem to us, in a unilateral, patrilineal descent system, your mom’s family would not be considered part of your kin group despite the fact that you share the same biology.Not surprising, the second type of unilateral descent is matrilineal descent, a system that traces descent through the women of the clan.
Again making things simple, we can say that the matrilineal system traces descent through your mama! Under this system, your mom’s family, her parents and her siblings would be considered your kin group, and not your dad’s.
Our last term of the day is ambilineal descent. To be honest, this one can be a bit confusing, so we’ll give the official definition and then we’ll back up and explain. Ambilineal descent is a system of descent that affiliates a person to a kin group through either men or women. Now, at first glance, this looks just like the unilateral system we just covered.However, in an ambilineal system, some individuals within the same people group trace their lineage through women, while some trace it through men.
However, no one ever traces it through both. Also unique to the ambilineal system, the gender chosen to trace kinship can change from person to person or generation to generation. For instance, and putting it in very, very Western terms, in an ambilineal descent system, you may choose to trace your descent through your grandma, while your cousin chooses to trace it through your grandpa.
When speaking anthropologically, a person’s affiliation to a kin group is usually decided using one of three descent systems. They are bilateral, unilateral, or ambilineal descent.
Most common in the Western world, bilateral descent is the tracing of kinship through both parents’ ancestral lines. Conversely, unilateral descent is a kinship system in which descent is traced through only one gender. Within unilateral descent, there is patrilineal descent, in which an individual’s kin group, or clan membership, is traced through men, or matrilineal descent, the system that traces descent through the women of the clan.Lastly, ambilineal descent is a system of descent that affiliates a person to a kin group through either men or women. Unlike the other two forms of descent, in ambilineal descent, the gender chosen to trace kinship can change from person to person or generation to generation.
You should be able to describe the three descent systems of bilateral, unilateral, and ambilineal after reviewing this lesson.