Anthropology, Department of



Mara D. Giles

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Published in Nebraska Anthropologist Vol. 19 (2003-2004). Copyright © Mara D. Giles; published by The University of Nebraska-Lincoln AnthroGroup.


The rules for legitimacy and illegitimacy are not universal, yet every culture classifies its children into valid and invalid A review of the literature, including Teichman, Hendrix, and Davis, has indicated that legitimacy is a status of marriage. This status is determined by several factors including race, class, inheritance patterns, lineage systems, the role of fathers, and the position of women. European and subSaharan African cultures use these factors differently to validate the boundaries separating the legitimate from the illegitimate. Until as recently as thirty years ago, English culture asserted that a man had to be proven to be the legal father of a child in order for it to be considered legitimate and the most successful way to prove legitimacy was through marriage. In comparison, Evans-Pritchard's research on the Nuer has shown that as a patrilineal group the legitimacy of their children is based not only on marriage but on the strong sense of paternal kinship felt in the culture as well. Another contrast is Malinowski's study of the Trobriand Islanders, a matrilineal society that has a much simpler concept of legitimacy, for all children born to a mother belong to her line, yet there is still a preference for marriage. Thus it was through the institution of marriage that the concept of illegitimacy was formed The focus of this paper is to examine illegitimacy as directly related to marriage in three distinct cultures.

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