Clan is an exogamous group which comes next to family. If the tribe or caste is endogamous, the clan is exogamous. The institution of clan is found in all the primitive societies.
It resembles the family but differs from it fundamentally. In British anthropology sib is understood as clan whereas in American anthropology clan is defined as sib.
The family is bilateral; either the individual belongs to matriarchal descent or to patriarchal descent. In other words, an individual recognizes his relationship either with a woman as his mother or a man as his father.
Thus, clan or sib traces its origin through either parent to the total neglect of the other. If a tribe is organized into mother clans, every child regardless of sex is considered a member of his/her mother’s clan and takes the maternal clan name, if there is one.
In the same manner, if the tribe is organized into father clans, every child is a member of his/her father’s clan and takes the paternal clan name. In the Indian context, the tribal groups follow both the patterns.
The importance of clan can hardly be exaggerated. It is often said that everybody in a tribal group is related by agnatic or descent ties. Viewed from this perspective the members of the clan are members of a wider blood group, constituting a sort of brotherhood. Normally, clans are found in a particular region and more often a single village consists of one or two clans only.
It is because of this that a village is an exogamous unit. Village exogamy goes with the clan exogamy. There are several uses of clan in a primitive society. Anthropologists consider clan to be an organization between family and descent.
In this chapter, we discuss the origin and meaning of clan and its differentiation from family, lineage and totemism. All these concepts are closely related. They constitute the comprehensive concept of kinship.
Social anthropologists define clan as a unilinear group. Originally, the meaning of clan was taken from the Latin word gens, the literal meaning of which is unilinear group. But in English the meaning of gens has come to mean a patrilineal group.
It is because of this that the American anthropologists differentiate the terms clan and sib. They use clan for matrilineal groups and gens for patrilineal groups. Thus, for them, the clan and gens together make a sib.
The meaning of clan runs into debate. American anthropologists prefer to use sib in place of clan in social anthropology. Murdock, for instance, has suggested that clan should be used only for a descent group whereas in the British tradition the meaning of clan is wider and includes both the matriarchal and patriarchal clans.
On the other hand, Morgan and others who vouch for evolutionary theory use clan only for the patriarchal descent group. Despite this controversy there is a consensus in social anthropology that clan is an important kin group which determines the life order of the people. It creates integration among the wider descent group.
It must be admitted that there is rich literature on clan in social anthropology. Kroeber has come out with a classical work on clan known as Zuni Kin and Clan (1917). Firth has described the kin and clan organization of the Tikopia tribal group of Africa in his book we, the Tikopia (1936). Similarly, Fortes has studied the Ashanti tribe along with other African primitive groups.
His book, The Dynamics of Clanship amongst the Tallensi (1945) very elaborately describes the changing character of clanship. Evans-Pritchard has also analyzed the kinship organization in his classical work, The Nuer (1940).
All these works assume importance in social anthropology because for the first time primitive clan and kin have been taken for comprehensive analysis. These studies have also conceptually examined the differences in kinship, descent, lineage, totemism and clan.
Different scholars have defined the term ‘clan’ differently. To begin with, Robert H. Lowie says:
The sib (‘clan’ of British anthropologists) is most briefly defined as a unilateral kinship group.
We have already seen that the family is bilateral. We reckon the origin of the family either from the male ancestor or the female ancestor, never both. An individual cannot marry within his own descent group-patriarchal or matriachal. It is in this sense that family is bilateral. On the other hand, the clan is always unilateral.
Likewise, describing the characteristics of clan found among the Ashanti tribal group, Fortes writes:
There are only eight such clans in Ashanti, and it is noteworthy that the same small number of clans bearing the same or equivalent names is duplicated among all the Akan-speaking peoples. This is often adduced in confirmation of their remote common origins.
There is evidence that traditionally each clan had specific totemic animal avoidance. These appear to have been associated with the hereditary offices held in the clan, and have largely lapsed in modern times. What now remains distinctive of each clan is the strict recognition of its structural autonomy, founded on the dogma of common matrilineal descent.
According to Thomas Hylland Eriksen, people of one clan belong to a common ancestory. This ancestory could be either matriarchal or patriarchal. Thus, according to him, clan is a unilinear descent group. However, the ancestors do not constitute any regular genealogy. His definition runs as under:
A clan encompasses people who assume shared descent from an ancestor/ ancestress without being able to enumerate all of these links.
Finally, the definition given by John Lewis:
Membership in a clan depends on kinship through one parent. It is often exogamous. It provides mutual security, government, marriage regulations, religion and ceremonies, property regulations and social control. Some authorities require not only a rule of descent but also a definite place of residence or locality and social integration.