The incest taboo refers to the cultural prohibition of sexual activity or marriage between persons defined as "close" relatives; the degree of which is determined by the society in which the persons live. Various theories exist to explain the origins and motivations of incest taboo, and in particular, whether or not such a taboo exists universally or relatively.

Ethnographic research[]

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?

As this excerpt suggests, anthropologists are interested in the gulf between cultural rules and actual behavior, and many ethnographers have observed that incest occurs in societies with prohibitions against incest. It should be further noted that in these theories anthropologists are generally concerned solely with brother-sister incest, and are not claiming that all forms of incest are taboo (these theories are further complicated by the fact that in many societies people related to one another in different ways, and sometimes distantly, are classified together as siblings). Moreover, the definition restricts itself to sexual intercourse; this does not mean that other forms of sexual contact do not occur, or are proscribed, or prescribed. It should also be noted that in these theories anthropologists are primarily concerned with marriage rules and not sexual behavior. In short, anthropologists were not studying "incest" per se; they were asking informants what they meant by "incest," and what the consequences of "incest" were, in order to map out social relationships within the community.

This excerpt also suggests that the relationship between sexual and marriage practices is complex, and that societies distinguish between different sorts of prohibitions. In other words, although an individual may be prohibited from marrying or having sexual relations with many people, different sexual relations may be prohibited for different reasons, and with different penalties.

For example, Trobriand Islanders prohibit both sexual relations between a man and his mother, and between a woman and her father, but they describe these prohibitions in very different ways: relations between a man and his mother fall within the category of forbidden relations among members of the same clan; relations between a woman and her father do not. This is because the Trobrianders are matrilineal; children belong to the clan of their mother and not of their father. Thus, sexual relations between a man and his mother's sister (and mother's sister's daughter) are also considered incestuous, but relations between a man and his father's sister are not. Indeed, a man and his father's sister will often have a flirtatious relationship, and a man and the daughter of his father's sister may prefer to have sexual relations or marry.

Examples from other societies further reveal the variation in local understandings of incest. In Chinese societies, there is a strong taboo against marriage of persons with the same surname no matter how distantly related. There are often local taboos against marriage between people of certain surnames on the grounds that these surnames belong to clans which were closely related in the past. Similarly, although marriage between first cousins is forbidden in some contemporary jurisdictions it is both legal and acceptable in others.

Explaining the incest taboo[]

Although anthropologists have observed and studied violations of incest taboos (in other words, cases of incest), all anthropological theories of the incest taboo are concerned with the formal proscription against incest (as defined locally), not with actual cases of incest (however defined). These theories are motivated by two major questions: first, given the variation in how different societies define incest, and in which relationships are proscribed, is there any general pattern or universal function of incest taboos? Second, given that people do commit incest, why do so many (indeed, arguably, all) societies proscribe certain forms of incest? These questions are not concerned with the specific effects of incest on specific people — a matter usually left to psychologists.

A social response to the costs of incest[]

One theory is that the observance of the taboo would lower the incidence of congenital birth defects caused by inbreeding. A society that had noticed this might tend to form an incest taboo.

Anthropologists reject this explanation for two reasons. First, inbreeding does not directly lead to congenital birth defects per se; it leads to an increase in the frequency of homozygotes. A homozygote encoding a congenital birth defect will produce children with birth defects, but homozygotes that do not encode for congenital birth defects will decrease the number of carriers in a population.

One might complain that a society would have to have a fairly advanced understanding of genetics to recognise this potential "benefit" of incest, whereas the increased prevalence of birth defects is relatively easy to spot.

Second, anthropologists have pointed out that in the Trobriand case a man and the daughter of his father's sister, and a man and the daughter of his mother's sister, are equally distant genetically. In that particular case, the prohibition against relations is not based on or motivated by concerns over biological closeness.

Evolutionary psychology and the Westermarck effect[]

Another theory suggests that the taboo expresses a psychological revulsion that people naturally experience anyway at the thought of incest.

Under this view, advanced by evolutionary psychologists, the incest taboo is primarily caused not by social condemnation, but rather by genes for incest avoidance, which would tend to prosper, by ensuring that an individual's children (possibly containing those same genes) are not unhealthy due to inbreeding. Furthermore, the benefits of sex (as opposed to asexual reproduction) are mysterious (see evolution of sex), but whatever they are, they would tend to be reduced by incest. Genes that prevented incest would tend to inhabit bodies that had more of these benefits, and therefore tend to become more widely spread.

Evolutionary psychologists (e.g. Steven Pinker in How the Mind Works) suggest that genetic influence is at work in the Westermarck effect, whereby people raised in close proximity (whether related or not) tend to feel little sexual attraction to each other, after maturity.

Most anthropologists reject this explanation, since incest does in fact occur. They suggest that the taboo itself may be the cause of the psychological revulsion.

Endogamy and Exogamy[]

Claude Lévi-Strauss has argued that the incest taboo is in effect a prohibition against endogamy, and the effect is to encourage exogamy. Through exogamy, otherwise unrelated households or lineages will form relationships through marriage, thus strengthening social solidarity. Lévi-Strauss first exposed this Alliance theory in the Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949).

This theory was debated intensely by anthropologists in the 1950s. It appealed to many because it used the study of incest taboos and marriage to answer more fundamental research interests of anthropologists at the time: how can an anthropologist map out the social relationships within a given community, and how do these relationships promote or endanger social solidarity? Nevertheless, anthropologists never reached a consensus, and with the Vietnam War and the process of de-colonization in Africa, Asia, and Oceania, anthropological interests shifted away from mapping local social relationships.


  • Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship
  • George Homans and David M. Schneider, Marriage, Authority, and Final Causes: A Study of Unilateral Cross-Cousin Marriage
  • Rodney Needham, Structure and Sentiment: A Test Case in Social Anthropology
  • Arthur P. Wolf and William H. Durham (editors), Inbreeding, Incest, and the Incest Taboo: The State of Knowledge at the Turn of the Century, ISBN 0-8047-5141-2

See also[]

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