Demystifying the Mosuo: The behavioral ecology of kinship and reproduction of China's "last matriarchal" society

Author: Mattison, Siobhan

Date: 2010

Publisher: University of Washington

Type: Thesis

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The University of Auckland Library


Virtually every human endeavor is accomplished with some form of assistance from kin. From subsistence activities to child rearing to the provision of emotional support, relatives are called on to aid their kin. Yet while the importance of families to individuals arguably is universal, family systems are extremely variable in terms of their composition, the services they provide, and how services are organized and allocated. This dissertation examines the factors underlying variation in kinship systems in a population of agropastoralists currently undergoing economic and cultural transition: the ethnic Mosuo of Southwest China. Through the lens of behavioral ecology, it views kinship systems as dynamic, responding flexibly and adaptively to changes in social, cultural and ecological circumstances. The first chapter introduces the basic questions that this dissertation aims to address, the context surrounding my interests in the Mosuo, and basic descriptions of the field site and methodology. The second chapter tests a recent behavioral ecological model of matrilineal inheritance, asking whether Mosuo inheritance varies predictably according to source of wealth. It explains a hypothesized link between matriliny and resource paucity, and provides the first independent evidence in support of the behavioral ecology model under test. In the third chapter, I explore the impacts of economic differences on Mosuo reproduction and kinship, showing that wealth is associated with higher levels of marital commitment, as evidenced by increased stability in reproductive partnerships, and other departures from stated matrilineal norms. The fourth chapter examines the impacts of wealth and residential ecology on paternal investment in children, arguing that in contrast to previous assertions, fathers are important among the Mosuo, and that fathers’ levels of investment in child rearing varies according to the resources they have to provide and local availability of reproductive partners. The fifth and final chapter of my dissertation summarizes the evidence presented in previous chapters and suggests specific avenues for future research. I conclude by emphasizing the power of behavioral ecology to understand the ultimate foundations of kinship.

Citation: ["ub type: PhD Thesis. Supervisors: Smith EA, Leonetti DL, Harrell S, Lundberg S. University of Washington, 2010"]