Incest, Endogamy & Exogamy: Definition & Examples

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has an M.A in instructional education.

Across nearly every society, there are three main rules that have governed marriage: incest, exogamy, and endogamy. Learn more about the definitions of incest, endogamy, and exogamy, and review examples of each. Updated: 10/20/2021

Rules Governing Marriage

Movies and TV dramas have done a pretty good job of convincing the Western world that marriage takes place when a guy and a girl fall in love from across a crowded room. Then, after a series of mishaps and reconciliations, they walk into the sunset, forever starry-eyed and in love. Although this makes for a great chick flick, it's really not the way marriage occurs in most of the world.

On the contrary, marriage across the globe is usually regulated by the rules and structure of a society. Three of these rules are the rules of the incest taboo, exogamy, and endogamy. In today's lesson, we will seek to break down these rules and give some examples of them from around the globe.

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  • 0:01 Rules Governing Marriage
  • 0:45 Incest Taboo
  • 1:40 Exogamy
  • 2:55 Endogamy
  • 3:50 Lesson Summary
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Incest Taboo

Because incest taboos are found in all cultures, we'll start with this topic. As the name implies, an incest taboo prohibits sexual intercourse or marriage between different categories of kin. In speaking of the incest taboo, anthropologists note that no modern society allows the marriage of mother to son, father to daughter, or sister to brother.

In our more modernized culture, this taboo has grown to include extended family relationships as well. For example, cousins don't marry cousins. This is also an example of the incest taboo.

Still, it should be noted that some past societies did allow marriage between these now prohibited groups. However, even in ancient times, these marriages were usually only reserved for royal families trying to keep the reins of power tightly within their bloodline. A great example of this is Cleopatra, who's believed to have been married off to at least two of her brothers.


Our next governing rule of marriage is exogamy. Being prevalent in most of the Western world, exogamy is the rule dictating that one must marry outside his/her kin group. However, in some cultures, exogamy can also extend to forbid marrying within one's own community, tribe, or village. Playing on words to make this one a bit easier to remember, exogamy states that one must exit his group in order to pick his bride!

Anthropologists often assert that this is done in areas in which cooperation between differing tribes is necessary for survival. For instance, if one tribe only hunts, and another tribe only plants, the best way for them to ensure sharing is to marry off members of their society to one another.

An excellent example of exogamy, cited by the work of Carol and Melvin Ember, is the Rani Khera village of India, in which women from both far and near villages travel to Rani Khera to marry its men. Again, citing the work of the Embers for another example, the average !Kung tribesman of Africa travels at least 40 miles to find a wife. And we Westerners think long-distance relationships are a drag! Imagine 40 miles in the heat of Africa or India!

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