Morgan proposed a much controversial theory of kinship. During his lifetime his theory was rejected. It was after his death and particularly after River’s interpretation that his theory came into prominence. The structural theory of kinship which Levi-Strauss developed at a later stage borrows heavily from Morgan.
It is because of this that Meyer Fortes calls Morgan the founding father of kinship theory of structure and social organization. Morgan’s classificatory theory of kinship is found in his Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity. Besides being a theorist, Morgan was a first-rate ethnologist.
When he propounded his theory of sex promiscuity or communism, he was criticized severely. Among his critics were Radcliffe-Brown and Frazer. He was rejected for making conjectures without any ethnic evidence.
His classificatory kinship theory begins with systems of relationships. Morgan does not consider biology as a central point of kinship. For him social relations were highly important in kinship.
Lewis Henry Morgan has been a victim of history. And history as is often said a fickle jade. He was honoured by Americans and was equally condemned. Morgan was, by all accounts, as robust and uncompromising an American of his day as could have been found anywhere in the United States.
Along with Henry Maine, Morgan is also considered to be the founder of modern anthropology. His most important contribution to early anthropology was his theory of social evolution. His Ancient Society (1877) is said to be a classic piece of work. His other work Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity is of equal status.
Morgan worked on social evolution and established that all societies passed through the phases of savagery, barbarism and civilization. His theories include structural theory of kinship and social organization.
He also established: (1) the theory of primitive promiscuity, (2) group marriage, and (3) classificatory kinship system. Whatever theories of kinship we have, all stem from Morgan’s theory. His contemporaries were Rivers, Boas, Henry Maine and Radcliffe- Brown.
And, therefore, kin need to be classified according to the degree of their social relations.
In his classical theoretical treatise Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity Morgan elaborates the classificatory and descriptive systems of kinship. After having analyzed this, he gives his master hypothesis of primitive promiscuity and group marriage. He has defined descriptive and classificatory terms with reference to marital and blood relations.
For empirical evidence he has taken Ganowanian, Turanian and Malayan families. In a Malayan family blood relations are never described by a combination of the primary terms.
On the contrary, these are arranged in classes or categories upon principles of discrimination peculiar to these families. All the individuals of the same class are admitted into one and the same relationship. The same special term is applied indiscriminately to each and every one of them.
To explain the classificatory system, Morgan gives an example: My father’s brother’s son is my brother under the system about to be considered, and I call him by the same term which I use to designate an own brother; the son of this collateral brother (my father’s brother’s son’s son) and the son of my own brother are both my sons.
And, I apply to them the same term I would use to designate my own son. In other words, the person first named is admitted into the same relationship as my brothers, and those last named as my sons.
The principle of classification is carried to every person in several collateral lines, near and remote, in such a manner as to include them all in the several great classes. Morgan’s classificatory system reckons the kin in arbitrary and artificial way, but the results produced by this theory are coherent and systematic.
The descriptive system is defined as the reverse of the classificatory system. In this system each relationship falls in the recognized relationship. The relations are not classified but are addressed only as their description is given.
To differentiate descriptive and classificatory system it can be said that in the descriptive system a single special term is applied to each relation, whereas in the classificatory system there is a combination of primary terms.
Meyer Fortes has given an analysis of the legacy of Lewis Henry Morgan in his work Kinship and the Social Order. He says that descriptive and classificatory terms of kinship are actually the terms of binary opposition. Later on, Levi-Strauss also developed his theory of elementary and complex kinship relations in structural analysis.
The structuralists consider binary opposition as a form of mind. Morgan has followed the binary terms consistently in his work. He works on descent relations. His classificatory system is applied to descent group. The major elements of classificatory system are given below:
(1) It is generic in its connotation. It takes into consideration the descent of kin relations such as mother’s brother and sister’s son.
(2) It is a method of dividing kin according to socially pre-established categories or types.
(3) It indicates social relations based on affinal (marital) and agnate (blood) ties.
(4) It is an important part of the knowledge system of any society. Knowledge is always related to social organization and power. This is what sociology of knowledge gives us.