HE.S.T.A.F.T.A. - Scientific Society of Mental Health Professionals


  • Elsa KoppassiMphil. Social anthropologist, Psychotherapist
  • Tibetan Polyandry
  • Psychotherapy
  • Social Anthropology
  • Autoreference


Man and social groups that are composed by humans, are open systems that are governed among other things, by psychosocial, sociocultural and socioeconomical processes. Under this frame, the observation of the relationship between personal/psychological and social/cultural remains one of the core issues of social sciences that the debate between systemic theory and the science of anthropology tries to spread light on. More specifically both the anthropologist- researcher that observes as well as the therapist, determines and is determined by those that he or she interacts. The dialogue is both internal and external, the personal experience and the social structure interact and determines one another. At the same time, the recognition and the distinction of the alternative stories, are for both the anthropologist- observer and the therapist open creative space of observation, on how does the social/cultural interact continuously with the personal and psychological options and through the otherness leads to the investigation of one’s self. From this perspective, we observe polyandry of Tibet, as an example of alternative family that adds to our knowledge of human universal characteristics through specific cultural traditions.

**Key-words: ** Psychotherapy, Social Anthropology, Autoreference, Tibetan Polyandry


A system isn’t something revealed to the observer but something recognized by him (Maturana & Varela, 1992). This assumption that reality is not "discovered" but rather constructed ​​by the observer, as formulated by (social trends of?) constructivism and then later social constructionism, was adopted by the systemic thinking summarizing the essence of systemic theory of knowledge?

Constructivism’s basic question is how we actively participate in the construction of our own experiences. Constructivism requires us being aware of how we acquire knowledge, holding us accountable for what we know and how we learnt it. But it doesn’t persist that there’s only one way, or only one proper way, to construct meaning (Bruner, 1997). Being the subject of the recognition, implies making a distinction, looking for exceptions, develop alternative stories in order to recognize. We are forced to create concepts; "maps" of the world, which help us orient ourselves and give meaning to our experiences (Schlippe & Schweitzer, 2003).

Social constructionism was developed after constructivism and argues that in addition to how the brain mentally represents the environment, the frame itself affects our perception. According to social constructionism, we can not understand a man without taking into account his social, historical and cultural context and without having, at the same time, awareness of the degree of influence of our social, historical and cultural background. The principles of social constructionism are to consider and understand our world as the product of a loose course of history, and negotiations between groups.

Besides, according to the General Systems Theory (von Bertalanffy, 1968), life's phenomena in general and also specifically, humanity and the social groups it creates, should be treated dynamically, as open systems that are parts (subsystems) of bigger (suprasystems) systems, rather than statically and as a self-contained or closed system. These open systems are constantly exchanging matter, energy and information with their suprasystems, a process that allows them one the one hand to maintain their structure and functionality but also to develop new (inner) structures with their own (internal) relations and functionality.

As seen by the aforementioned theoretical references the investigation of the relationship between the social/cultural and psychological/individual remains a key issue. Developments in anthropology that have occurred in the last decades, may be extremely useful towards this direction. Michel Foucault, in his work “The Order of Things” (1966) considers psychoanalysis and anthropology related sciences, since they articulate the ways in which individual experiences and social structures determine one another and interact.

Furthermore, in the long course of his fieldwork, the anthropologist-researcher is required to engage in intimate relationships with the very people that are the objects of his study (informants), through (the means of) interaction and dialogue. In this way he is included in the same context with the subjects of his anthropological investigation and becomes both a subject and an object of the research process, since his subjectivity affects his understanding of the informant, while being affected by the subjective views of the latter. Therefore, through the interaction with his informants the anthropologist is now entitled to reflect on both data of his individual identity and of his collectivity, in which he is inevitably involved during fieldwork; a dialogue with “another" is both internal and external (Devereux, 1967).

Additionally, anthropology as a science draws much of its creativity from the tension that exists between two tasks: on one hand to explain universal human characteristics and on the other, specific cultural data. From this rule’s perspective, the family and specifically, a woman’s position in it, is one of the most interesting topics, varying greatly from culture to culture and from era to era, in the history of various (different?) cultural traditions (Ortner, 1974).

Social anthropologist, George Murdock, in 1949, defined family as a social group characterized by a common hearth, mutual financial aid and procreation, including adults of both sexes, at least two of whom, maintain an acceptable sexual relationship and one or more children [Murdock, G. P. (1949) SocialStructure. NewYork: Macmillan]. Most of us, by reading this classic definition, will immediately create an image of a couple with their children or even also with a grandmother or grandfather in it. In short, the definition refers more or less to the nuclear family, but as already mentioned and further explained below, this is not the only model of family that we come across on the planet.

  The Tibetan polyandry

A very interesting, although relatively rare, family model is polyandry. It’s a type of polygamy, in which a woman marries two or more husbands at the same time. Polyandry is forbidden by Islam, Judaism and most Hindu and Christian denominations and is not legal in most countries, even those that allow polygyny. When we refer to polyandry we are talking almost exclusively about fraternal polyandry, i.e. the marriage of a woman to two or more siblings of the same family.

The mechanisms of fraternal polyandry are simple: two, three or more siblings marry the same woman, who leaves her home and her paternal family to live with them. Traditionally, the marriage was arranged by their parents and children, especially girls, had no say. Wedding rituals vary, depending on income and region, ranging from all brothers, simultaneously, sitting as grooms, to only the older brother placed as a representative, attending the ceremony. The brothers’ ages play a crucial role in determining the ceremony. Younger siblings are almost never involved in wedding ceremonies, although they come into the marriage when they turn 16. The eldest brother is normally dominant in terms of authority, that is, in managing the household, but all the brothers share the work and participate as sexual partners. Tibetan men and women do not find the sexual aspect of sharing a spouse the least bit unusual, repulsive, or scandalous, and the norm is for the wife to treat all the brothers the same.

Offspring are treated similarly. There is no attempt to link children biologically to particular brothers, and a brother shows no favoritism toward his child even if he knows he is the real father since his other brothers were away at the time the wife conceived. The children, in turn, consider all of the brothers as their parents and treat them equally, even if they also know who their real father is. In some regions children use the term "father" for the eldest brother and "father's brother" for the others, while in other areas they call all the brothers by the same term, modifying this by the use of "elder" and "younger."

Unlike our own society, where monogamy is the only permitted form of marriage, Tibetan society allows a variety of marriage types, including monogamy, fraternal polyandry, and polygyny. Fraternal polyandry and monogamy are the most common forms of marriage, while polygyny occurs only in cases of a barren first wife. The widespread practice of fraternal polyandry, therefore, is not the outcome of a law requiring brothers to jointly marry a wife. There is the possibility of choice, and in fact, divorce is a relatively simple procedure in Tibetan society. If a brother in a polyandrous marriage becomes dissatisfied and wants to separate, he simply has to leave the main house and set up his own household. In cases such as this, all the children stay in the main house with the remaining brothers, even if the departed is their real father.

The Tibetans' own explanation for choosing fraternal polyandry is materialistic. For example, when an older brother was asked why he decided to jointly marry with his two brothers, rather than take his own wife, he said it prevented the division of his family's farm and livestock and thus achieve a higher standard of living for all of them. When later his wife was asked how difficult it was for her to cope with three brothers as husbands, she laughed and talked about the family’s cohesion and the fragmentation land, adding that she would have a better life, since three husbands would work for her and her children.

Exotic as it may seem to us, Westerners, the Tibetan fraternal polyandry has many similarities to nineteenth-century England’s primogenitures. The primogeniture law dictated that the eldest son inherited the family estate, while younger sons had to leave home and make their living, either in the military or the clergy. Primogeniture maintained family lands generation over generation, permitting only one heir per generation. Fraternal polyandry also accomplishes this, by keeping all the brothers together with one wife. Monogamous marriages on the other hand, do not necessarily translate to dividing the family’s land (estate or assets). Brothers could continue to live together, and work together on the family land. According to Tibetans the problem in these cases of family “joint ventures” is that they’re unstable, because each wife is oriented to her own children well-being and not necessarily to all the other children of the family. For example, if the youngest brother’s wife has three sons while the eldest brother's wife only one daughter, the wife of the youngest brother might begin to have more demands for her children since male children represent the future of the family. Thus, the children from different wives in the same generation are competing heirs, and this makes such families unstable.

Tibetans believe that this conflict will spread from the wives to their husbands and thus causes family quarrel, this is the reason it should be avoided. Although Tibetans see an economic advantage to fraternal polyandry, they do not think sharing the wife as a good solution. On the contrary, they articulate a number of problems inherent in the practice. For example, because authority is customarily exercised by the eldest brother, his younger siblings have to come to terms with their small chances of changing their status within the family. If these younger brothers are aggressive or think only for their selves, tensions will no be avoided despite having a common line of heirs. In addition, conflicts may arise because of sexual favouritism of a sibling. The bride normally sleeps with the eldest brother, and it’s the couple’s responsibility to calculate the opportunities for sexual access of the younger brothers. Since the Tibetan subsistence economy requires men to travel a lot, the temporary absence of one or more brothers, makes things easier, but there are also other periodical practices.

The cultural ideal calls for the wife to show equal affection and sexual drive to each of the brothers, but deviations from this ideal occur, especially when there is a great age difference between the two.

Two reasons are usually given for the perpetuation of fraternal polyandry in Tibet. The first is that of female infanticide and therefore a shortage of females; and the second is that Tibet, lying at extremely high altitudes, is so bleak that Tibetans would starve without this mechanism. A Jesuit who lived in Tibet during the eighteenth century articulated this second view, saying: "One reason that mandates this odd custom is the sterility of the land, and what’s left to be cultivated lacks water. The crops are sufficient if the brothers all live together, but if they formed separate families they would be condemned to die of starvation."

Both explanations were not proved, however. Not only has there never been a practice of female infanticide in Tibet, but Tibetan society gives females considerable rights, including inheriting the family fortune in case there is no male heir. In such cases, the woman marries a man who’s a bridegroom that comes to live with her family and adopts her family's name and identity. Moreover, there is no demographic evidence of a shortage of females. In Limi, for example in 1974, there were sixty females and fifty-three males between fifteen to thirty-five years old and many adult females were unmarried.

The second reason seems also not valid. The climate in Tibet is extremely harsh, and ecological factors play a major role in perpetuating polyandry, but polyandry is not a means of preventing starvation. It is a characteristic of the peasant landowning families, rather than of the poorest casts. In the old days the landless poor could not realistically aspire to prosperity, but they did not fear starvation. There was a persistent labour shortage throughout Tibet, and very poor families with little or no land and few animals could be sustained through agricultural labour, renting a piece of land or carpentry craftsmen. Although the per person family income increased somewhat if brothers married polyandrously and pooled their wages, in the absence of inheritable land, the advantages of fraternal polyandry were not generally sufficient to prevent men from setting up their own households. An energetic or skilled young brother could mange on his own, being in complete control of his income and without sharing it with his siblings. Consequently, when we come across polyandry among the poor, it is prone to result in divorce and family fission.

An alternative reason for the persistence of fraternal polyandry is that it reduces population growth (and thereby reduces the pressure on resources) by relegating some females to lifetime spinsterhood. In 1914, 3l% of the females at child-bearing age, 20-49, were not married. These spinsters either continued to live at home, set up their own households, or worked as servants. They could also become Buddhist nuns. But being unmarried doesn’t necessarily translate to exclusion from the reproductive process. Affairs are tolerated, and around half of the adult unmarried women in Limi have one or more children, that they raise as single mothers, working for wages, weaving cloth for carpets (rags?) and blankets. However, calculating the average children of unmarried woman (0.7 children per woman), one sees the great difference next to the average of married women (3.3), whether in a polyandrous or monogamous marriage. While polyandry helps regulate population, this function of polyandry is not consciously perceived by Tibetans and is not the reason they choose it.

So, if neither the shortage of females nor the fear of starvation perpetuates fraternal polyandry, what motivates brothers, particularly younger ones, to opt for this system  of marriage? From the perspective of a younger brother in a landholding family, the main incentive is maintaining a good life. With polyandry, he can expect a more secure and higher standard of living, with access not only to the family's land and livestock but also to its inherited collection of clothes, jewellery, rugs, saddles, and horses. In addition, he will experience less stress and much greater security, since the responsibilities do not all fall on one "father". For Tibetan brothers, the question is whether to choose the greater personal freedom that comes with monogamy or the real or potential financial security, affluence, and social prestige that are associated with life in a larger land-owning polyandrous family. A brother thinking of separating from his polyandrous marriage and taking his own wife would face various disadvantages. Although in the majority of the regions, all Tibetan brothers have theoretically equal rights to their family's estate; in reality they are reluctant to divide their land into small fragments. If a young brother insists on leaving the family, he will receive only a small plot of land, and consequently will have to rely only on his work and not his inheritance.

Although social scientists often do not take into account explanations given by the natives for their choices, in the case of fraternal polyandry such explanations seem very close to be true.

Kind of an epilogue

The above model of marriage and family is defined by broader cultural and socio-economical characteristics of a particular group, in a given society, which, at the same time determines it. The social/ cultural context interacts constantly with individual choices and a person’s Ego. At this point, we could talk about the open and dynamic complementarity of the social and mental. Although polyandry occurs so rarely that can be seen as an ethnographic paradox, as Foucault explains (1966,  The Order of Things ), the exploration of the "other" and the otherness, essentially means examining one’s own self. Just as the formation of the subject  simultaneously determines and is determined by those others whom it engages in relationships of reciprocity and interaction with.

**Bibliography **

Von Bertalanffy L.  (1968), General System Theory, Penguin books.

Bruner J.(1993), Acts of Meaning, Harvard University Press.

Deveraux G.(1967), From Anxiety to Method in the behavioural  Sciences, Mouton, The Hague.

Nancy E. Levine, (Feb 1989), The Dynamics of Polyandry: Kinship, Domesticity, and Population on the Tibetan Border, University of Chicago Press.


Maturana H. & Varela F. (1992), The Tree of Knowledge: Biological Roots of Human Understanding (Revised edition), Shambhala Publications

Melvyn C. Goldstein, When Brothers share a Wife, (Updated 2011 with author's note. Anthropology. 12/13. pp 74-78)  Natural History,  96(3):109-112, 1987.

Ortner S. ( 1974), "Is female to male as nature is to culture?" (pp. 67–87 in Woman, Culture and Society, edited by M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere), Stanford University Press.

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Foucault M. (1966), The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, Pantheon Books (1970)


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