Incest taboo

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Incest taboo is a term used by anthropologists to refer to a class of prohibitions, both formal and informal, stated and unstated, against incest, the practice of sexual relations between certain or close relatives, in human societies. There are various theories that seek to explain how and why an incest taboo originates. Some advocates maintain that some sort of incest taboo is universal, while others dispute its universality. Research on the incest taboo necessarily involves research into what different societies consider "incest" which, according to anthropology, varies strikingly from one society to another. The term may encompass, but is not identical to, the legal regulation of marriage by states.


Researching the incest taboo

Since humanity developed writing only around 5,000 years ago, anthropological research on sex and marriage has largely focused on non-literate or only recently literate societies. Such societies may not have written laws concerning marriage and incest. Nevertheless, anthropologists have found that the institution of marriage, and rules concerning appropriate and inappropriate sexual behavior, exist in every society.[1] The following excerpt from Notes and Queries, the most well-established field manual for ethnographic research, illustrates the scope of ethnographic investigation into the matter:

Incest is sexual intercourse between individuals related in certain prohibited degrees of kinship. In every society there are rules prohibiting incestuous unions, both as to sexual intercourse and recognized marriage. The two prohibitions do not necessarily coincide. There is no uniformity as to which degrees are involved in the prohibitions. The rules regulating incest must be investigated in every society by means of the Genealogical Method. The prohibition may be so narrow as to include only one type of parent-child relationship (though this is very rare), or those within the elementary family; or so wide as to include all with whom genealogical or classificatory kinship can be traced. The more usual practice is that unions with certain relatives only are considered incestuous, the relationships being regulated by the type of descent emphasized. In some societies unions with certain persons related by affinity are also considered incestuous. What penalties fall on (a) the individuals concerned; (b) the community as a whole? Are such penalties enforced by authority, or are they believed to ensure automatically by all action of supernatural force? Is there any correlation between the severity of the penalty and the nearness of the blood-tie of the partners in guilt? Should children be born as the result of incestuous unions, how are they treated? Are there any methods, ritual or legal, by which persons who fall within the prohibited degrees and wish to marry can break the relationship and become free to marry?[2]

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