In several areas of North-East India and Myanmar, people of different ethnicities, speaking completely different languages and endowed with different social structures, may claim that they “are the same” on the grounds that their respective surnames, though sounding different, are in fact similar, and thus that their children cannot marry. How does one account for this barely understood phenomenon and what might be its origin? We would like to assess the following hypothesis: as people from different societies intermarried, asymmetrical marriage rules prescribed by some groups had the effect of establishing equivalences among certain clans. These equivalences then diffused through interethnic matrimonial networks so that finally unified classes of patronymic equivalences emerged at regional level. Validating this hypothesis does not only consist in modelling its central scenario-the diffusion of equivalences-but also requires identifying and modelling several critical elements: the spatial level(s) at which marriage systems stabilize, the demographic dynamics of populations practising asymmetrical marriage, the physical limits of matrimonial choices, and migrating patterns in a context of shifting cultivation and frequent epidemics…
Interrogating the conditions of emergence, diffusion and maintenance of patronymic equivalences leads to interrogating nothing less than the realisation of any prescriptive marriage rules, a topic seldom approached by social anthropologists. Sophisticated analysis have since long pertained to the internal logic of “models” reported by indigenous depictions, but the applicability of such models to “real” biological, demographic and ecological conditions have received much less attention. Through concrete examples we wish to show that the questions raised by the relations between models and practices in social anthropology closely converge with those raised by ecological complexity.


Philippe Ramirez

Open e-session