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Author: Zach Lamb

Differentiate between the systems of descent. 

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello, welcome to Sociological Studies. Thank you for joining me. The topic of today's lesson is descent, the idea of how we trace our relationships through generations.

To define descent, descent is the system that people use to trace kinship relationships throughout the generations. So let's look at this diagram here behind me. And we have you in the middle. And you can either trace your descent, your kinship, through your father, through your mother, or through both like we do today. But it wasn't always this way.

In preindustrial societies, often people traced their descent through either the father, the males, or the mother, not both like we do now. And what's really sociologically interesting about this is that the reasons why somebody traced their descent through their father or their mother related to how resources were produced in that society, which sex played a more dominant role with resource production.

So in those preindustrial societies that were agrarian, where men produced more of the resources, often we traced descent through the father because it was important for the father to pass on property to children, to sons. Whereas, in more horticultural societies, we trace descent from females, through the mother. Because the females were the more resource-producing sex, so it was important then for property to be passed on from mothers to daughters.

So you see this is really sociologically interesting because it's not just arbitrary. It's, in fact, connected with the holistic cultural logic of the entire society.

So if all of kinship is traced through the males, we call this patrilineal descent. Patrinlineal.

Imagine today that none of your mother's relatives-- your grandparents on your mom's side, your cousins, your aunts and uncles-- none of that would be considered part of your family in patrinlineal societies. It seems really silly and absurd by today's standard.

Well, what do you mean? Why wouldn't these people be part of my family?

But in the context of agrarian patrinlineal societies, it was normal. It wasn't crazy because again, it was connected with resource production. And in agrarian societies, men were more valuable in producing resources.

On the other side of the coin, when we trace descent relationships, kinship relationships, through females in the society, we call that matrilineal descent. Just as it was important for men to pass on property to sons in societies characterized by patrinlineal descent, it's important for women to pass on property to females in societies characterized by matrilineal descent.

And again, these were primarily preindustrial horticultural societies where women were the most responsible for producing resources. So that is why we see then matrilineal descent.

Now today in society, we trace descent both ways, between both mother and father. And we call that bilateral descent, or two-sided descent. This means that both the mother's side and the father's side are considered part of your family. And resources can be inherited from both sides and are commonly inherited from both sides.

We still have historical vestiges of patrilineal descent in our society, but we've largely moved to a bilateral descent system. We still take our father's last name, but as we have moved with industrialization towards greater gender equality, we've made a corresponding move to trace descent bilaterally.

I hope you enjoyed this brief introduction to systems of descent, have a great rest of your day.

Terms to Know
Bilateral Descent

Tracing descent through both the males and the females in society.


The system people use to trace their kinship relationships through generations.

Matrilineal Descent

Tracing descent through the females in society.

Patrilineal Descent

Tracing descent through the males in society.