Matrilineal Kinship and Spousal Cooperation

By Sara Lowes*

My dissertation explores the origins and consequences of variation in culture and institutions in sub-Saharan Africa. The first paper, “Matrilineal Kinship and Spousal Cooperation: Evidence from the Matrilineal Belt,” asks how the structure of kinship systems affects cooperation within the household and outcomes for women and children (Lowes, 2018). In many developing countries, kinship systems, which determine the group of people to whom an individual is considered related, are important for determining obligations, the distribution of resources, and the organization of economic production. In matrilineal kinship systems, which are prevalent in Central Africa, group membership and inheritance are traced through female members. Individuals are part of their mother’s kinship group, and inheritance is restricted to the children of the female group members. In contrast, in patrilineal systems individuals are part of their father’s kinship group, and inheritance can only be passed on to children of male group members.

Anthropologists had suggested that the structure of matrilineal kinship systems undermines spousal cooperation. First, in matrilineal systems husbands and wives have strong allegiances with their own kin group, while in patrilineal systems wives are incorporated into the broader kin group of the husband. Second, in matrilineal systems, women have greater support from their kin group than women in patrilineal systems because her children are part of the wife’s group. I test whether matrilineal systems do indeed undermine spousal cooperation, and if so, if there are benefits of matrilineal systems despite that they undermine cooperation within the household.

I study this question in the setting of the matrilineal belt, which describes the distribution of matrilineal groups across the center of sub-Saharan Africa. I combine survey and experimental data collected from 320 couples who come from along the matrilineal belt in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with data from the Demographic and Health Surveys for DRC. I find that in my experimental measure, matrilineal systems do seem to undermine spousal cooperation. In a public goods game with a spouse, matrilineal individuals contribute less to the public good. This is particularly the case when they are able to hide the initial endowment size from their partner. The effect of matrilineal kinship is specific to being paired with a spouse; matrilineal individuals are no longer differentially cooperative when paired with a stranger of the opposite sex.

Despite that matrilineal individuals may undermine spousal cooperation, there may be important benefits to matrilineal systems. Using my own survey data and data from the DHS, I find that matrilineal women have greater autonomy and experience less domestic violence. Additionally, their children are healthier and better educated. Thus, despite that I find evidence of less cooperation between matrilineal spouses, I also find that there may be particular benefits of kinship systems that result in greater autonomy for women. This speaks partially to the matrilineal puzzle, which suggested that the existence of matrilineal kinship systems is puzzling if they undermine an integral unit of cooperation. The results highlight how household outcomes are tied to broader social structures.

* Sara Lowes won the 2019 Ronald H. Coase Dissertation Award of SIOE. In this post, she describes the content of her award-winning PhD thesis. The post will be continued in the near future. Sara is a Postdoctoral Fellow at King Center on Global Development at Stanford University currently and will be starting as an Assistant Professor of Economics at UCSD in the summer.