Anthropology of Marriage Research Paper

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1. The Definition of Marriage

Marriage has been a central area of study since the beginnings of anthropology, as a main factor in explaining the variety of kinship systems (Morgan 1870, Rivers 1914). The institution of marriage, however, has not been easy to define as an anthropological concept.

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From a descriptive point of view it seems clear that when anthropologists refer to the institution of marriage, they designate a distinct class of phenomena. Yet it is extremely difficult to define marriage as a concept useful in accounting for all the ethnographic cases. Cohabitation, sexual access, affiliation of children, food sharing, and division of labor are very restricted criteria in accounting for the ethnographic spectrum. Let us examine, for example, the definition given in Notes and Queries (R. A. I. 1951, p. 110): ‘Marriage is a union between a man and a woman such that children born to the woman are recognised legitimate offspring of both parents.’ The first element (heterosexual union) does not conform to such ethnographic phenomena as the traditional womanmarriage among the Nuer (Evans-Pritchard 1951) or the homosexual marriages of postmodern societies (Weston 1991). Even if the second element (offspring legitimacy) apparently fits with the marriage customs of the matrilineal Nayar of South India, an anthropological test case for the definition of marriage (Gough 1959), it might be rejected for its vagueness and its limited range of ethnographic cases. As Bell (1997) notes, the statement that marriage is required to produce legitimate children is finalist and tautological. According to the ethnographic data, marriage is neither necessary nor sufficient to define the legitimacy of children and many societies recognize a sharp differentiation between social parenthood and marriage. Leach (1961), recognizing that marriage might be defined as ‘a bundle of rights,’ identified the following different rights: legal fatherhood, legal motherhood, monopoly of sexual access between married partners, right to domestic services and other forms of labor, right over property accruing to one’s spouse, rights to a joint fund of property for the benefit of the children of marriage, and recognized relations of affinity such as that between brothers-in-law. But from this bundle of rights, no single right or set of rights might be defined as central to the universal definition of marriage. Needham (1974), similarly skeptical of a universal definition of marriage, viewed it as a useful word for descriptive purposes, because we know intuitively on which domain the ethnographer will focus, but troublesome when we want to define it, because we risk leaving out of the account the features that are central to the institution in any given society. Needham (1974, p. 44) concludes: ‘So ‘‘marriage’’… is an odd-job word: very handy in all sorts of descriptive sentences, but worse than misleading in comparison and of no real use at all in analysis.’ Marriage defined cross-culturally is a concept based upon a serial likeness, with a family resemblance between the elements, rather than a univocal concept defined by a universal structural feature. It is a polythetic concept: a list of uses whose meaning depends upon the ethnographic context. As Needham (1974, p. 43) suggests, ‘the comparison of marriage in different societies needs therefore to be contextual, and ultimately ‘‘total’’ in a Maussian sense, if we are to be sure that we understand what we are trying to compare.’

2. Marriage Prestations

For anthropologists marriage means the creation of new social relations, not only between husband and wife, but also between kin groups of both sides. As Radcliffe-Brown (1950, p. 43) considered it, ‘marriage is essentially a rearrangement of social structure.’ In most societies this kind of rearrangement is expressed by a ceremony or a ritual, and is sanctioned by marriage prestations. Two of the most common forms of marriage prestation are bridewealth and dowry. Bridewealth refers to the transfer of valuables from the bridegroom’s kin group to that of the bride. In pastoral patrilineal societies such as that of the Nuer, the process of marriage involves handing over cattle from the family and kin of the bridegroom to the family and kin of the bride. By way of this process the children born in the marriage are attached to the lineage of the father who paid the bridewealth. They are ‘the children of the cattle’ (Evans-Pritchard 1951, p. 98). The marriage payments have not been interpreted as a form of purchase, but as a transfer of rights between kin groups. As Hutchinson (1996) remarks, even if the Nuer nowadays have entered into the sphere of commodification, and money and cattle are interchangeable, they distinguish between ‘cattle of girls’ which comes from the bridewealth and ‘money of cattle’ which comes from the market. Cattle remains the dominant metaphor of value; the cultural elaboration of the unique blood links uniting people and cattle allows cattle to enter into the sphere of kinship without the interference of the sphere of money. ‘Cattle, like people, have blood,’ but ‘money has no blood,’ say the late twentieth-century Nuer.

Whereas bridewealth always moves in the opposite direction to the bride, dowry moves in the same direction as the bride. It is the transfer of valuables from the bride’s family to the bride herself. Due to the fact that marriage prestations have crucial political, economic, and ritual consequences for the society as a whole, they have formed one important class of phenomena to be compared in anthropological studies of marriage. Goody (1976) undertook a grand comparison between bridewealth societies of sub-Saharan Africa and dowry societies of Euro-Asia. The former practice pastoralism and simple agriculture, and the valuables exchanged through the bridewealth form a societal fund of the descent group. The latter have intensive agriculture and developed social stratification. The dowry is part of a conjugal fund, which moves down from parents to daughter, and its amount varies according to the status and wealth of the bride’s family. In order to maintain stratification, the dowry system associated with the virginity of the women ensures homogamy and the control of daughters. Another strategy has been the marriage of near kin in Mediterranean societies, which safeguards the control of property inside the family.

3. Gender and the Meaning of Marriage

Collier (1988) has demonstrated how different gender relations can be correlated with slightly distinct types of marriage prestations in classless societies. In societies with the bride service model, both men and women perceive themselves as autonomous agents. Nevertheless, for men, marriage is the precondition of adult status and enables them to acquire independence. For women, marriage marks a decline in their status and independence. While men consider marriage as an advantageous achievement, women are reluctant to marry. When they become mothers of marriageable daughters, they enjoy access to the labor services of their prospective sons-in-law. In societies with an equal bridewealth model, marriage is the moment when oppositions of gender and age are realized. Both men and women perceive themselves as having opposed and dangerous potentialities. It implies that young men and women depend upon senior kin for marriage arrangements. In societies with an unequal bridewealth model, marriage and rank are mutually defining. Men and women perceive to themselves as bearers of ranks.

According to gender perspectives, marriage involves different situations. Gender asymmetry may also entail the absence of a common name for marriage. As Aristotle stated, in the Greek language ‘the union of a man and a woman has no name.’ Benveniste demonstrated (1969) that in the Indo-European languages the idea of marriage has no common name for men and women. For a man the terms have a verbal root. He is the agent of an action as he carries a woman to his house. In contrast, for a woman there is no one verb denoting her marriage. She is not the subject of an action; she just changes condition.

4. Marriage Alliance

Levi-Strauss (1967) has made the major contribution to the study of marriage as the core of the kinship systems. He argues that the rules governing the prohibition of incest lead to exogamy, which in turn produces exchange and reciprocity between kinship groups. ‘Marriage alliance’ refers to the repetition of intermarriages between exchange units; with crosscousin marriage as the most elementary form of the system of alliances. One marries into a specific category of the kinship system, which does not distinguish between consanguines and affines. In this category of kinship the potential spouses come from different exchange units, and the system of relationships assures the repetition of alliances. Levi-Strauss’ theory explains the complicated system of marriage classes of the Australian aborigines, the Dravidian system of South India as well as the kinship systems of Asia. The tour de force of the theory has been the explanation of so-called Crow–Omaha systems (where there are no positive rules of marriage, but many negative rules applicable to allied descent groups) and the complex systems where there are only negative rules related to some kin degrees. Arab marriage— marriage with the father’s brother’s daughter—could appear to be out of the scope of the theory, when analyzed as the mirror image of the elementary forms of marriage—marriage with a cross-cousin. When it began to be analyzed as a form of marriage with a near kin degree, however, it could be considered as a case of a complex system of alliance. Heritier (1981) has solved the Crow–Omaha problem and tried to understand the complexities of alliances. Simple exchanges are compatible with limitations of repetition of alliances between groups. The analysis done in some European peasant communities has demonstrated the recurrence of some elementary forms, as well as the social limits of individual marriage choices that have been done between two poles: neither too remote in terms of social status or class nor too close in terms of kin degrees.

5. The Union of Indi idual Persons and Alliance Systems

In relation to the anthropological perspective of analyzing marriage as an alliance system, marriage in Western societies, as Wolfram (1987) stated, was not traditionally conceptualized as an alliance between groups, but as a union of individual spouses. Marriage creates a relationship between kin on both sides who become connected to each other. Each becomes the ‘in-law’ relation of the other side, but marriage does not consist of an alliance between both sides. It consists of the union of the spouses, who become ‘one flesh.’ This view is supposed to have its origin in the Christian concept of marriage. It is probably unique to Western societies and it might be regarded as the centerpoint of the Western kinship system. The Church doctrine of ‘one flesh’ presumed that the two spouses became ‘one person.’ Due to the gender asymmetry, the wife was only a part of the husband’s person. This relational view of marriage has been replaced by the idea of a couple constituted by two individual persons, and kinship is composed by individual persons who exist prior to any relationship. In non-Western societies kinship constitutes relationships, and individuals are icons of these relationships. Marriage is not the union of individual persons who create new relations, but alliances and flows of prestations between persons who embody diverse relations.


  1. Bell D 1997 Defining marriage and legitimacy. Current Anthropology 38(2): 237–53
  2. Benveniste E 1969 L’expression indo-europeenne du ‘marriage.’ In: Benveniste E (ed.) Le ocabulaire des institutions Indoeuropeennes. Minuit, Paris, Vol. 1
  3. Collier J F 1988 Marriage and Inequality in Classless Societies. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
  4. Evans-Pritchard E E 1951 Kinship and Marriage Among the Nuer. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK
  5. Goody J 1976 Production and Reproduction: A Comparati e Study of the Domestic Domain. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  6. Gough E K 1959 The Nayars and the definition of marriage. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 89: 23–34
  7. Heritier F 1981 L’exercise de la parente. Hautes EtudesGallimard, Le Seuil, Paris
  8. Hutchinson S E 1996 Nuer Dilemmas. Coping with Money, War, and the State. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  9. Leach E R 1961 Rethinking Anthropology. Athlone Press, London
  10. Levi-Strauss C 1967 Les structures elementaires de la parente, rev. edn. Mouton, Paris
  11. Morgan L H 1870 Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
  12. Needham R 1974 Remarks and In entions: Skeptical Essays about Kinship. Tavistock, London
  13. Radcliffe-Brown A R 1950 Introduction. In: Radcliffe-Brown A R, Forde D (eds.) African Systems of Kinship and Marriage. Oxford University Press, London
  14. A.I. 1951 (Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland) Notes and Queries on Anthropology, 6th edn. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London
  15. Rivers W H R 1914 Kinship and Social Organisation. Constable, London
  16. Weston K 1991 Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship. Columbia University Press, New York
  17. Wolfram S 1987 In-Laws and Outlaws. Kinship and Marriage in England. St. Martin’s, New York
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