House society

In anthropology, a house society is a society where kinship and political relations are organized around membership in corporately-organized dwellings rather than around descent groups or lineages, as in the "House of Windsor". The concept was originally proposed by Claude Lévi-Strauss who called them "sociétés à maison".[1][2] The concept has been applied to understand the organization of societies from Mesoamerica and the Moluccas to North Africa and medieval Europe.[3][4]

The House society is a hybrid, transitional form between kin-based and class-based social orders, and is not one of Lévi-Strauss' 'elementary structures' of kinship. Lévi-Strauss introduced the concept as an alternative to 'corporate kinship group' among the cognatic kinship groups of the Pacific region. The socially significant groupings within these societies have variable membership because kinship is reckoned bilaterally (through both father's and mother's kin) and come together for only short periods. Property, genealogy and residence are not the basis for the group's existence.[5]

House societies and kinship

Lévi-Strauss' most succinct definition of a House was that it is "a corporate body holding an estate made up of both material and immaterial wealth, which perpetuates itself through the transmission of its name, its goods and its titles down a real or imaginary line considered legitimate as long as this continuity can express itself in the language of kinship or of affinity and, most often, of both."[6]

There are three elements to this definition:[7]

  1. The House is a corporate body ("moral person") holding an estate made up of both material and immaterial goods.
  2. As a "moral person", it is an alternate metaphor replacing "blood" in defining the social identity of the group. As a symbol of the group, the House persists over generations and links the group to its sacred origins.
  3. The House persists over time by transmitting its titles through conditional kinship principles: "patrilineal descent and matrilineal descent, filiation and residence, hypergamy and hypogamy, close marriage and distant marriage, heredity and election: all these notions which usually allow anthropologists to distinguish the various known types of society, are united in the house, as if, in the last analysis the spirit (in the eighteenth-century sense) of this institution expressed an effort to transcend, in all spheres of collective life, theoretically incompatible principles."[8]

Only the core group (the highest-ranking members) will inhabit the House as a residence. The other House members (which Errington refers to as the "server group") will only come together on special ritual occasions, making this an "occasional kinship group." Other House members have multiple overlapping ties to other Houses as well, through both mother's and father's kin. Their ability to assert a claim to membership in a House will depend on a number of criteria, such as their parents' participation, their ability to contribute to the House's upkeep, and their participation in its rituals. Successful claims of membership may bring special benefits, such as the right to utilize House resources with the consent of the core members.[9]

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