Harvard Professor on Cousin Marriages, Kinship and Democracy in Pakistan

In his recently published book entitled "The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous", Harvard Professor Joseph Henrich argues that western democracy and prosperity in America and Europe can be traced back to the Catholic Church's ban on cousin marriages and polygamy. These bans promoted individualism and created what is now known as a "nuclear family". Cousin marriages and strong kinship remain prevalent in present-day Pakistan, according to the author. Cousin marriage not only helps keep the wealth within the family but it is also used as a device to maintain kinship (biradri) networks that have negative political and economic consequences for the nation. Biradris promote nepotism and work against meritocracy. While the extent of kinship (biradri) networks in Pakistan is much higher than in America and Europe, it is not as high as in Africa and the Middle East. Biradris (kinships) play a powerful role in Pakistan's elections and political patronage networks. These run counter to meritocracy and the basic precepts of western-style democracy and national prosperity. Others, including Professor Anatol Lieven, believe that the presence of strong kinship networks makes Pakistani society strong and resilient. 

What's WEIRD About the West?

The WEIRD acronym in the title of the book stands for Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democracies. It represents the the West's cultural evolution (distinct from biological evolution) over the last few centuries that has produced what the author describes as "Self-focused, individualistic, nonconforming, patient, trusting, analytic, and intention-obsessed capture just a small sampling of the ways in which WEIRD people are psychologically unusual when seen in a global and historical perspective". 

Kinship Intensity. Source: Phys.Org

Kinship Intensity Index: 

The extent of kinship in Pakistan is much higher than in America and Europe but not as high as in Africa and the Middle East. Professor Henrich defines what he calls Kinship Intensity Index to capture the strength of kinship in different societies.  

The KII combines the data about cousin marriage, nuclear families, bilateral inheritance, neo-local residence, and monogamous marriage (vs. polygyny) with information on clans and customs about marrying within a certain community (endogamy). 

Kinship (Biradri) in Pakistan: 

Professor Joseph Henrich says that kinship system (biradri), cousin marriages and polygamy remain prevalent in Pakistan.  He cites a study showing that cousin marriages were 76% of all marriages for second-generation Pakistani Brits, while in Pakistan comparable rates were under 50%.  

To make this point about identities, the author cites a 1972 quote from late Pakistani politician Khan Abdul Wali Khan who said, “I have been a Pashtun for six thousand years, a Muslim for thirteen hundred years, and a Pakistani for twenty-five.” Professor Henrich explains that "what Khan was saying is that his lineage comes well before both Islam and Pakistan. In fact, his dates suggest that his lineage was four to five times more important than his universalizing religion, Islam, and 240 times more important than his country, Pakistan".

Biradri's Role in Pakistani Elections:

Electioneering in Pakistan is rarely about debating issues and offering solutions; it's more about biradris (kinship networks). Political parties and politicians are rarely judged based on their capabilities, ideas and performance. The focus is on recruiting "electable" candidates with a known vote bank of their ethnicity and "biradri" (clan).  

Pakistan's mainstream political parties continue to rely on the "electables" to win general elections. "Electables" are powerful, resourceful and wealthy, often land-owning individuals from certain biradris who have a greater chance of winning enough votes to get elected regardless of their party affiliation. Major political parties recruit them to run on their "tickets" as their nominees. Winning more seats in the parliament helps political parties form governments to gain control of the state's resources for the benefit of their leaders and their cronies in their political patronage networks. It is a good investment for the electables to be aligned with the party in power.

The preference for "electables" perpetuates the status quo and preserves the power of the privileged few. It denies the opportunity for new aspiring entrants to bring about any positive change.  It depresses new voter turnout and discourages wider participation in the political process.

Strong Society, Weak State:

British Professor Anatol Lieven described Pakistan as "strong society, weak state" in his 2012 book entitled "Pakistan: A Hard Country". Lieven believes that the presence of strong kinship networks makes Pakistani society strong and resilient.   Here's an excerpt of his book: 

Marriage with members of the same kinship group, and when possible of the same extended family, is explicitly intended to maintain the strength, solidarity and reliability of these groups against dilution by outsiders. (Professor Alison) Shaw writes of the Pakistanis of Oxford that in the year 2000, almost fifty years after they first started arriving in Britain, there had been barely any increase in the proportion of marriages with non-kin, and that over the previous fifteen years 59% of marriages had been with first cousins; and the proportion in strongly Pakistani cities such as Bradford is even higher: 

Greater wealth was perceived not solely in terms of individual social mobility, although it provides opportunities for this, but in terms of raising the status of a group of kin relation in their wider biradiri and neighbours in Pakistan . . . Status derives not only from wealth, mainly in terms of property and business, but also from respectability (primarily) expressed by an ashraf (noble) lifestyle. One element of being considered a man worthy of respect derives from having a reputation as being someone who honours his obligations to kin. Cousin marriage is one of the most important expressions of this obligation. The majority of east Oxford families have not achieved social mobility and status through massive accumulation of property and business. For them the marriage of their children to the children of siblings in Pakistan is an important symbol of honour and respectability, a public statement that even families separated by continents recognize their mutual obligations.


Harvard's Professor Joe Henrich has argued in his recent book that the Catholic Church's ban on cousin marriages and polygamy has spurred democracy and prosperity in the West. The ban has promoted individualism and created the modern nuclear family. This cultural evolution of the West has distinguished it from much of Asia and Africa where kinship remains strong. While the extent of kinship (biradri) networks in Pakistan is much higher than in America and Europe, it is not as high as in Africa and the Middle East. Cousin marriage not only helps keep the wealth within the family but it is also used as a device to maintain kinship (biradri) networks that have negative political and economic consequences for the nation. Biradris (kinships) play a powerful role in Pakistan's elections and political patronage networks. These run counter to meritocracy and the basic precepts of western-style democracy and national prosperity.  Others, including Professor Anatol Lieven, believe that the presence of strong kinship networks makes Pakistani society strong and resilient. 


Pan said…
So according to him Americans stigmatizing Cousin marriages has made prosperous. Although i do agree on avoiding cousin marriages for medical reasons but saying that it has transformed western society is nothing but load of crap.
Riaz Haq said…
Pan: "Although i do agree on avoiding cousin marriages for medical reasons but saying that it has transformed western society is nothing but load of crap"

Cousin marriage is a device to maintain kinship (biradri) networks that have negative political and economic consequences for the nation.Biradris promote nepotism and work against meritocracy.

Riaz Haq said…
Caste and Political Organization - Roles of Leadership and Patronage


Political organization of Punjabi and Pakhtun villages revolve around the landholdings
and caste affiliations and thus the roles of patronage and leadership always reside with
the traditional landowning Quoms. In other words, land and caste status are seen as the
major factors determining the dynamics of, and rights to, political and feudal power
(Ahmad, 1970; Alavi, 1972; Barth, 1959a; Eglar, 1960; Lyon, 2004).
Eglar (1960) described how the political power and roles of leadership and patronage in
Mohla, a Punjabi village, resided with the Zamindars of village. Land was the major
source of income, gaining political prestige in village by entertaining more people, and
extending influence in official circles. Since land holds the key to power for Zamindars,
they have strong feelings for their land and Eglar (1960) highlighted that Zamindars
may share food and money with others but not their land. Zamindars, Chaudharis, in
Mohla fulfilled a number of different social roles and devoted their time to the village
affairs. A Chaudhari forms a link between villagers and government, sees to it that his
village recieves governmental loans/subsidies in case of distress, helps villagers
financially and socially in the time of need, arranges Parea (village councils) in case of
disputes, elopement and theft in the village and takes decisions. Moreover, a Chaudhari
maintains a guest house as a symbol of his status. This guest house serves as a men's
club for the villagers and Chaudhari's guests are also entertained here. Chaudharis
command respect and have influence through their wealth, generosity, and power (Eglar,
1960). On the other hand, Eglar (1960) mentioned that Kammis are not given the status
of Zamindars, even if they acquire land. Leadership roles always reside with Zamindars
of the village and only Zamindars are called Chaudhari. It shows that the political power
and roles ofleadership in a Punjabi village are not associated merely with the ownership
of land or economic wellbeing but should be supported by the membership in a
Zamindar Quom.
Riaz Haq said…
Cousin Marriage and Democracy


A recent paper finds that consangunuity is strongly negatively correlated with democracy:

How might consanguinity affect democracy? Cousin marriages create extended families that
are much more closely related than is the case where such marriages are not practiced. To illustrate,
if a man’s daughter marries his brother’s son, the latter is then not only his nephew but also
his son-in-law, and any children born of that union are more genetically similar to the two grandfathers
than would be the case with non-consanguineous marriages. Following the principles of
kin selection (Hamilton, 1964) and genetic similarity theory (Rushton, 1989, 2005), the high
level of genetic similarity creates extended families with exceptionally close bonds. Kurtz succinctly
illustrates this idea in his description of Middle Eastern educational practices:

If, for example, a child shows a special aptitude in school, his siblings might willingly
sacrifice their personal chances for advancement simply to support his education. Yet once
that child becomes a professional, his income will help to support his siblings, while his
prestige will enhance their marriage prospects. (Kurtz, 2002, p. 37).

Such kin groupings may be extremely nepotistic and distrusting of non-family members in the
larger society. In this context, non-democratic regimes emerge as a consequence of individuals turning to reliable kinship groupings for support rather than to the state or the free market. It has
been found, for example, that societies having high levels of familism tend to have low levels of
generalized trust and civic engagement (Realo, Allik, & Greenfield, 2008), two important correlates
of democracy. Moreover, to people in closely related kin groups, individualism and the
recognition of individual rights, which are part of the cultural idiom of democracy, are perceived
as strange and counterintuitive ideological abstractions (Sailer, 2004).

By the way, cousin marriage results in an elevated risk of birth defects but on the same order as a 40 year old woman having children as opposed to a 30 year old. In other words, the risks are small relative to other accepted risks. Results do get worse when cousin marriage is prevalent over many generations.

Riaz Haq said…
Consanguinity as a Major Predictor of Levels of Democracy: A Study of 70 Nations


This article examines the hypothesis that although the level of democracy in a society is a complex phenomenon involving many antecedents, consanguinity (marriage and subsequent mating between second cousins or closer relatives) is an important though often overlooked predictor of it. Measures of the two variables correlate substantially in a sample of 70 nations (r = −0.632, p < 0.001), and consanguinity remains a significant predictor of democracy in multiple regression and path analyses involving several additional independent variables. The data suggest that where consanguineous kinship networks are numerically predominant and have been made to share a common statehood, democracy is unlikely to develop. Possible explanations for these findings include the idea that restricted gene flow arising from consanguineous marriage facilitates a rigid collectivism that is inimical to individualism and the recognition of individual rights, which are key elements of the democratic ethos. Furthermore, high levels of within-group genetic similarity may discourage cooperation between different large-scale kin groupings sharing the same nation, inhibiting democracy. Finally, genetic similarity stemming from consanguinity may encourage resource predation by members of socially elite kinship networks as an inclusive fitness enhancing behavior.
Riaz Haq said…
In the field of Pakistani Studies, Political Kinship makes an important and timely contribution, rendering visible the complex networks beneath the surface among Pakistan’s elites, both at regional and national level, while raising questions about how power is sustained and the state survives, despite its seeming descent as it lurches from one crisis to the next. -- Pnina Werbner, Professor Emerita, Keele University


As an anthropology professor, I have been looking for new ethnographies that retain the holistic, thick descriptive breadth of traditional ethnographic monographs. I would want such an ethnography to be undergraduate friendly, not laden with academic jargon, yet updated and infused with contemporary theoretical perspectives, methods, and concerns. Political Kinship in Pakistan is that book. Stephen M. Lyon has conducted fieldwork for decades in a Punjabi village as well as worked in Lahore. He combines his descriptions and insights into the daily ebb and flow of conflict and cooperation among villagers into an analysis of the contextualized, but systematic distribution of power at the local level. Using an emic (insider) perspective he shows how power is constructed and manipulated through kinship ties, wealth, and modes of alliances. He expands on the ethnographic focus to link the ideas and organizations associated with local power to an analysis of national level politics. Lyons writes with grace, and moves seamlessly from Evans-Pritchard to Foucault, relying on theories as tools for explanation, rather than as means to perform scholarship. I would recommend this book for area courses on Asia or for introductory cultural anthropology courses. -- Victor C. de Munck, Vilnius University and State University of New York at New Paltz

Stephen Lyon is a great storyteller. His stories enable a thorough understanding of the intricacies of kinship in local as well as national politics. -- Martin Sökefeld, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich

Stephen M. Lyon’s deep understanding of kinship provides a unique and fascinating prism through which to understand the culture and politics of a country that has rarely been examined in such depth. -- Ali Khan, Lahore University of Management Sciences

Drawing on two decades of ethnographic fieldwork in Pakistan, Stephen Lyon expertly illuminates the critical effects that kinship networks have on local and national power arrangements. His argument that cultural systems of attachment shape the larger political landscape, and significantly account for a resilient Pakistani state that few would have predicted, is both astute and bold. -- James Piscatori, Australian National University, coauthor of Muslim Politics
Khan said…
what evidence do you have to support your statement?

Europeans became wealthy due to slavery and stolen wealth from country countries and then exploitation of poor immigrants.
Riaz Haq said…
Khan: "what evidence do you have to support your statement?"

The evidence can be found in how Pakistani elections are won or lost based on biradris' support for particular candidates.

Winners, often called "electables" then patronize particular biradris for their political support.

The patronage is doled out in the form of government jobs & contracts to supporters regardless of merit.
Riaz Haq said…
Pakistan: why the US must think outside the 'military' box
Three very different books about Pakistan have one thing in common: they all fail to give anything like a satisfactory account of that powder-keg country.


(Anatol)Lieven acknowledges the pernicious effects of the Inter-Services Intelligence and that the actions in Balochistan are self-destructive, yet there remains the wonder – at the cleanliness of military hospitals (which he thinks remain unmatched by their civilian counterparts), the smartness of the soldiers, the high-regard for their service. The Pakistani army is, to Lieven, “the only element of a great society that has ever existed in ­Pakistan”.

This romance would not be so unseemly if in his many interviews – and decades-long visits – Lieven had perceived the hundreds of thousands of grunt recruits who become orderlies, drivers, cooks, gardeners and nannies to the commissioned officers. With meagre salaries and near-bondage relationships to their “assigned officers”, this vast underclass of the Pakistani army keeps the cantonments clean, the major happy and the cars washed. Their silence makes just as much a lie out of Pakistan’s “great society” as the exploitative, self-immolating behaviour of the rest of the Pakistan military.

More broadly, both Riedel and Lieven, despite the differences between their expertise and their approaches to Pakistan, remain on the same page with regards to viewing the country as the sum of all its military parts. But there is a missing decade in these books. In the past 10 years, US foreign policy granted a military dictator unprecedented power by endowing him with billions of dollars and no strings attached. Musharraf and the military regime used this money to swallow more swathes of Pakistani land and economy, and impose further militarisation of civil and social structures.

The Lawyers’ Movement in 2007 did galvanise millions and force Musharraf from power – despite continued and vocal support of the White House. Yet, the military voice remains the only one that speaks for Pakistan. It matters little that Riedel and Lieven differ in their reading of the military – whether as an institution or as a politics or as a theology, the military is their central focus. But, insofar as this constitutes knowledge about Pakistan, is it enough to give us any understanding of the nation-state?
Riaz Haq said…
The (Pakistani) military therefore provides opportunities which the Pakistani economy cannot, and a position in the officer corps is immensely prized by the sons of shopkeepers and bigger farmers across Punjab and the NWFP. This allows the military to pick the very best recruits, and increases their sense of belonging to an elite. In the last years of British rule and the first years of Pakistan, most officers were recruited from the landed gentry and upper middle classes. These are still represented by figures such as former Chief of Army Staff General Jehangir Karamat, but a much more typical figure is the present COAS (as of 2010), General Ashfaq Kayani, son of an NCO. This social change reflects reflects partly the withdrawal of the upper middle classes to more comfortable professions, but also the immense increase in the numbers of officers required. Meanwhile, the political parties continue to be dominated by ‘feudal’ landowners and wealthy urban bosses, many of them not just corrupt but barely educated. This increases the sense of superiority to the politicians in the officer corps – something that I have heard from many officers and which was very marked in General Musharraf’s personal contempt for Benazir Bhutto and her husband. I have also been told by a number of officers and members of military families that ‘the officers’ mess is the most democratic institution in Pakistan, because its members are superior and junior during the day, but in the evening are comrades. That is something we have inherited from the British.’18 This may seem like a very strange statement, until one remembers that, in Pakistan, saying that something is the most spiritually democratic institution isn’t saying very much. Pakistani society is permeated by a culture of deference to superiors, starting with elders within the family and kinship group. As Stephen Lyon writes: Asymmetrical power relations form the cornerstone of Pakistani society . . . Close relations of equality are problematic for Pakistanis and seem to occur only in very limited conditions. In general, when Pakistanis meet, they weigh up the status of the person in front of them and behave accordingly.19 Pakistan’s dynastically ruled ‘democratic’ political parties exemplify this deference to inheritance and wealth; while in the army, as an officer told me: You rise on merit – well, mostly – not by inheritance,inheritance, and you salute the military rank and not the sardar or pir who has inherited his position from his father, or the businessman’s money. These days, many of the generals are the sons of clerks and shopkeepers, or if they are from military families, they are the sons of havildars [NCOs]. It doesn’t matter. The point is that they are generals.

Lieven, Anatol. Pakistan (pp. 181-182). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.
Riaz Haq said…
What the data were showing us was that the genetic distinctions among jati groups within India were in many cases real, thanks to the long-standing history of endogamy in the subcontinent. People tend to think of India, with its more than 1.3 billion people, as having a tremendously large population, and indeed many Indians as well as foreigners see it this way. But genetically, this is an incorrect way to view the situation. The Han Chinese are truly a large population. They have been mixing freely for thousands of years. In contrast, there are few if any Indian groups that are demographically very large, and the degree of genetic differentiation among Indian jati groups living side by side in the same village is typically two to three times higher than the genetic differentiation between northern and southern Europeans.39 The truth is that India is composed of a large number of small populations.

Reich, David. Who We Are and How We Got Here (p. 170). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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