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Meyer Fortes

Meyer Fortes is one of the founding generation of British social anthropologists. He and his contemporaries were some of the first anthropologists who were themselves trained by anthropologists. For Fortes, anthropology was a distinct form of science, with its own questions, theories and methods. As such, all of his work, on diverse topics, reflects the central concerns of classical British social anthropology, which is the nature of order in society and the universal features of social systems.

Fortes was born in South Africa in 1906. He started out studying psychology, but then switched to anthropology as taught by Bronislaw Malinowski. For his field research, he traveled to Ghana to live among the Tallensi people. He collected information on the topics that were considered important to an account of social structure and organization, especially kinship and ritual.

While his Tallensi studies contributed the the reigning paradigm of structural functionalism, he later attempted to marry Malinowski's focus on individuals with this paradigm. One example of this is his 1969 book, Kinship and the Social Order, in which he lays out an axiom on which all kinship systems are based.

[K]inship concepts, institutions, and relations classify, identify, and categorize persons and groups. … [T]his is associated with rules of conduct whose efficacy comes, in the last resort, from a general principle of kinship morality that is rooted in the familial domain and is assumed everywhere to be axiomatically binding. This is the rule of prescriptive altruism which I have referred to as the principle of kinship amity and which Hiatt calls the ethic of generosity (Fortes 2004 [1969]: 231-232).

In other words, if all kinship systems at some level uphold a principle of amity, or prescriptive altruism, then this is because of the universals of the “familial domain” as well as the functional requirements of the social structure. Parenthood and the childhood experiences of nurture are, for Malinowski, universal to all cultures, and different kinship systems are just different ways of satisfying the basic needs of the individual for a familial unit. Thus, Fortes attempts to reconcile both the view that kinship is society's way of sorting people into units, and Malinowski's contrarian view.


Fortes, Meyer. 2004 [1969]. Kinship and the Social Order: The Legacy of Lewis Henry Morgan. London: Routledge.

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meyer_fortes.txt · Last modified: 2021/07/08 01:12 by Ryan Schram (admin)