Regions based on social structure


Burton, M., C. Moore, et al. (1996). “Regions based on social structure.” Current Anthropology 37: 87-123.

In this post, I reviewed an article that proposes a new method of regional classification based on social structure, a method that try to incorporates history of migration and effects of environment.  I think this article is interesting for two major reasons.

First, they use scoring system based on social organization and kinship terms and categorized the societies into either patricentric or matricentric.  Patricentric societies are organized around males through patrilocal residence, patrilineal descent, and polygyny.  On the other hand, matricentric societies are characterized with matrilocal post-marital residence, matrilineal descent, and monogamy.  They say “gender is a defining feature of culture regions.”

I believe that the theoretical work by cultural anthropologists needs to be incorporated into anthropological genetics studies.  If polygyny or sex-biased gene flow has played an important role influencing sex-biased demographic patterns have been investigated using X chromosome data (e.g. here, here, and here), but human geneticists should work more closely with cultural anthropologists and exchange their ideas.

Second, they identified five culture regions in the Old World and six regions in the New World.  Their regional classification system is very different from any other system.  For the Old World, they have 1) Sub-Saharan Africa, 2) Middle Old World, 3) Southeast Asia and the Insular Pacific, 4) Australia, New Guinea, and Melanesia, and 5) North Eurasia and Circumpolar.  In the Middle Old World region, they include North Africa, the Middle East, South and Central Asia, China, and possibly southern Europe.  In the North Eurasia and Circumpolar region, they have Europeans, Japanese, Koreans, Siberians, and Eskimos.  Although their method is typological, since they look for homogeneity within a region and difference between regions, they emphasize lack of clear boundaries.

Human geneticists often have assumptions of how humans groups are organized and often use ethnolinguistic groupings as sampling units.  Then, they often find population clusters that correspond to major geographic groups (E.g. here) or linguistic families (E.g. here).  We need to ask what the correlations between population clusters and major geographic groups or between population clusters and linguistic families are telling us.  Burton and his colleagues tell us that there is another way of classify human groups (populations or societies), that reflect histories of migration.

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