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  The incest taboo prohibits sexual relations between certain categories of kin. Certain kinds of incest taboo are universal, yet even in the immediate nuclear family the categories are not uniform. The taboo varies from culture to culture, whether including the father, all or some of the offspring and siblings, or even larger groups. For example, a Kachin tribesman in Burma is prohibited from sexual relations with his daughter or sister because of incest taboos, but in the case of his mother it would qualify as adultery.

Incest categories were incorrectly assumed to be due to a natural repugnance for sexual relations between members of a family because of their close physical proximity. Sigmund Freud suggested that there was in fact an unconscious inclination towards incest precisely because it was forbidden.

The structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss argued that though the incest taboo manifests itself in different forms, it is a universal rule. It was a fundamental way of classifying the world, and could be related to his distinction between nature and culture. It was a crucial step in the establishment of ‘culture’ to renounce one\'s own women in order to create wider social links through exchange. He saw the incest taboo as a way of demarcating separate marriage groups in complementary relationship to each other. By exchanging sisters for wives in exogamy—the practice of spouses marrying outside a specified group—wider social networks could be created based on a principle of reciprocal exchange. However, incest is only one aspect of the rules which regulate marriage and sexual relations. Exogamy prohibits marriage within a specified group but not necessarily sexual relations. It appears that marriage partners are confused with sexual partners in Lévi-Strauss\'s analysis.

Anthropologists have tended to neglect rules regarding sexual relationships in favour of kinship patterns. They have also neglected to examine the behaviour that is classified as incest in each society, assuming it to be a universal category close to the concept of child abuse as it is applied to Western society. Anthropologists are currently engaged in an exploration of the categories and conceptions of incest. CL

Further reading Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship.



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