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10.4: Marriage

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Bride and groom posing for a 'wedding kiss' photograph.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): A Sikh family during the Batna ceremony, the bride's female kin apply besan to the bride's body while singing traditional songs.

    Anthropologists recognize marriage as a way to “describe how different societies organize and understand mating and its consequences”. [19] The Anthropological definition of a prototypical marriage highlights the general expectations and facets that form this social construct. Within various cultures, marriage is symbolically represented through a range of very simple to elaborate weddings. A marriage generally transforms the roles and responsibilities of two individuals within society. For example, an individual’s expectation of personal finance may be transformed to support both himself/herself and their spouse. Marriage also sets the implications of permitted sexual access by setting boundaries for what is acceptable and when it is acceptable. However, these implications are also set based on personal preference as well as cultural norms.

    Marriage is also a method in which cultural tradition is passed on to the children of the participants. Although the marriage relationship is a ‘traditional’ means for shaping a child’s standing and position in society, nontraditional roles also serve as a valid means of raising children within a cultural context. Marriage also serves as a means of creating extended families linking the Kin of the individuals.

    Why Do People Get Married?

    According to the textbook, "people get married in order to combine political and economic relations which empower both families". This means that marriage is not only for love and sex, but to share values and gain recognition of the public. For instance, when a couple gets married they now share insurance benefits to each other and their potential children. Marriage could be a way to put a loyalty promise between the couple for in terms of prosperity, as well as an indication of being sexually owned by your partner. In some societies, sex is prohibited, usually because of religious purposes or cultural reasons. Marriages became a symbolic method to practice sex without social discrimination or violating laws and morals.

    Monogamy and Polygamy


    Monogamy is the custom of having only one spouse at one time. In some cases, monogamy means having only one spouse for an entire life span. Out of the different types of marriages, monogamy is the only one that is legal in the United States and in most industrial nations. While Polygamy was at one time allowed in Utah because it was part of the traditions of the Fundamentalist Mormons [20] that were settled there, it is now illegal in the United States as a whole. There are several types of monogamy that are practiced throughout the world which include: social, sexual, genetic, marital, and serial monogamy.

    • Social monogamy: Two persons/creatures that live together, have sex with one another, and cooperate in acquiring basic resources such as food, clothes, and money.
    • Sexual monogamy: Two persons/creatures that remain sexually exclusive with one another and have no outside sex partners.
    • Genetic monogamy: Two partners that only have offspring with one another.
    • Marital monogamy: Marriages of only two people.
    • Serial monogamy: A series of relationships. One person has only one partner at a time and then moves on to another partner after severing the relationship with the first.

    Monogamy is seen as the most common type of practice in the United States. Monogamy is the type of marriage practiced in many Christian countries around the world because Christians share the belief that marriage should be between one man and one woman no matter what. To reference the Bible, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh, Genesis 2:24” Christianity is the dominant religion in the United States and this is one of the reasons why monogamy is largely practiced.

    Although the American definition of monogamy restricts an individual to legally have only a single spouse, he or she can divorce that spouse and remarry as many times as desirable.


    The term Polygamy is a Greek word meaning "The practice of multiple Marriage". It is a marriage pattern in which an individual is married to more than one person at a time. One example of a society in which Polygamy was prevalent was the Tiwi. They are a group of hunter-gathers in North Australia. However, the Tiwi have slowly adapted to a monogamous family structure.[33] There are two different types of Polygamy: Polygyny and Polyandry.


    Polygyny is the most common and accepted form of polygamy, involving the marriage of one man with several women. Most countries that permit polygyny are Muslim-majority countries, although historically Hinduism, Judaism, and early Christianity have also permitted the practice.

    The Hindu scriptures acknowledge many instances of polygyny, as was the cultural norm among kings, nobility and the very wealthy. While having only one wife was regarded and morally exemplary, polygyny remained acceptable among Hindus until the Hindu Marriage Act of 1956 legally abolished the practice.

    In Judaism and early Christianity, the Torah includes specific regulations on the practice of polygyny and was practiced well into the biblical period; although the practice was largely restricted to the wealthy. For a man to take on a second, or multitude of wives, one must be able to financially and sexually satisfy each and obtain permission from his first wife. In recent years, most persons practicing Judaism have banned polygyny except in rare circumstances. However, some Jewish communities in non-European countries such as Yemen and the Arab world still practice polygyny.

    Under Sharia, Muslim men are allowed to practice polygyny and have up to a total of four wives. There are strict requirements to marrying more than one woman, as the man must be able to treat each equally financially and in terms of support for each wife. The polygyny that is allowed in the Qur’an is for special situations and advises monogamy if a man cannot satisfy the requirements. The practice of polygyny is legal in most Muslim-majority countries and is illegal in Muslim-majority Turkey, Tunisia, and Central Asian Countries.

    Polygynous Families

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): A Mende woman in the village of Njama in Kailahun District

    Polygynous families are families with husbands who have multiple wives. All of the wives interact with the husband at different times individually and as a whole. The wives also have relationships with one another as individuals and as a group. Whether there is jealousy between co-wives depends on the specific situation, individuals involved, and cultural attitudes toward polygyny. Polygynous families may have children from multiple mothers and the same father. The connection between the children and the true mother and same mother siblings is always different and usually stronger than with the other children. This large family of mothers and children may again lead to jealousy and competition for the husband or father.

    The competition between co-wives usually focused on how many children each wife had and what these children are given in materials and education. The wives are usually ranked higher depending on who married first, and with the addition of the status of the families they came from. The husbands are supposed to avoid showing favoritism, especially when it is out of ranking or anger and jealousy can break out in the family. The rivalries between wives can lead to bitter feuds and divorces. The wives depend on their children to support them after the husband dies, so education and the passing down of land or cash is crucial. Most husbands can only afford to send one or two children to school, which is why there can be such fierce competition.

    • Mende of Sierra Leone
      The Mende culture is patrilineal, patrilocal, and polygamous. They have multiple wives with multiple children from different wives. The wives are ranked in order or marriage to the husband and from the status of the family in which they first came from. Everyone works as a group and as individuals with the husband, which is also the perfect cooking pot for competition and feuds. The Mende's are a perfect example of polygynous families, but only one of thousands of cultures with such structures.
    • Nayars
      The Nayars, a warrior group of the Malabar coast of India. This tribe had the belief in which the woman was “married” to a man she rarely saw. He received a fee for this and was considered the official “father” of her children. From adolescence, she was free to copulate with several husbands, presented to her by her mother or uncle. Each husband would spend a few days at a time with her and the privilege of hanging his weapons on her door. As wars became less common among the Nayars, they moved toward monogamy.
      Marriage customs among the Nayars have caused much controversy in India among social scientists and jurists. The two kinds of marriage: talikettu kalyanam (tying ceremony); and sambandham (the customary nuptials of a man and a woman). The tali-tying ceremony had to be held before puberty and often the ceremony was held for several girls at the same time to save on expenses. The tali could be tied by a member of a linked lineage, by a member of a higher subcaste of Nayars, by one of the matrilineal Ambilavasi (temple servant) castes, or by a member of royal lineage. By the mid-1950s it became common for girls to have the tali tied by their mothers. This is still controversial to if this was even a ceremonial marriage or just an age-grade ceremony.[21]


    When most people think about a relationship between more than two people, they generally envision one man with multiple wives, usually as part of a religious community. However, there is a growing community of people in the United States (and other Western countries) who engage in a relationship style called polyamory. Polyamory can take many forms; a closed relationship between three people is often called a "triad", while more complex arrangements are sometimes referred to as a "polycule" because the web of attachments between people can resemble complex diagrams of the structure of molecules. Members of a triad, "polycule", or any other type of polyamorous relationship can be of any gender identities and sexual orientations, and different people choose this type of relationship for different reasons. The underlying philosophy of most polyamorous people is that love is not something with a finite quantity, and loving multiple people does not diminish the depth of the relationship with any of them.

    Serial Monogamy vs. Serial Polygamy

    Monogamy is the practice of being married to one person at a time. To be a serial monogamist is a lifestyle consisting of repeated relationships with one partner. More specifically, it’s described as going from being in a sexual relationship with one person to another after ending a relationship with that person.[22] This is an example of modern day dating. Many relationships involve being with one person, and then when that relationship ends, moving on. With serial polygamy, it is the opposite. A serial polygamist will have multiple partners at any given point of their dating or marital life. This practice is often frowned upon in many western cultures, as cheating on a partner is a morally irresponsible thing to do, however there are many cultures that accept these types of arrangements as the norm; these can be seen in many lesser known religions as well as many native tribes in Africa and around the world.

    Same-Sex Marriage

    New York City Proposition 8 Protest outside LDS temple 20.jpg
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    In the United States, LGBTQ, (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning or Queer) individuals have finally begun to be recognized as legitimate parts of society. There is still great prejudice against members of the LGBTQ community, and hate crimes are continuously prevalent, especially against the groups which are less commonly accepted such as transgender individuals. Even though the LGBTQ community has lived under this harassment for so many years, many major strides have been made in the United States to better the lives of everyone who identifies as part of the community; one of which being the landmark supreme court decision in the Obergefell vs. Hodges case in 2015. This case determined that due to the legislation written in the 14th amendment (created in 1868) marriage is not to be denied to any United States citizens. Many other nations have recognized gay marriage as well, including Canada, France, Ireland, Mexico, Norway, Spain, United Kingdom, and many more. There is an ever spreading institution of clubs that promote equality and awareness, an example of which is the G.S.A. (Gay-Straight Alliance), the G.S.A. club is commonly seen in high schools and other youth dominated systems. In schools, this is a large factor in the ever rising awareness and acceptance of the LGBTQ community. Groups such as these also support outreach to LGBTQ individuals, often youths, who have struggled with issues ranging from depression to poverty to complete abandonment and disconnection from their families upon coming out.

    Ghost Marriage

    Ghost marriages take place when a wealthy or influential male member of a village dies without any living children. A woman will then marry his "ghost" at a ceremony, usually with the brother of the deceased as a stand-in. The wife is then said to be married to the ghost of the man, and can then have his children, using the brother to facilitate this. These children, although not biological children to the deceased, serve as heirs to his heritage and can inherit both his property and his status in a society. However, this means that the brother is usually left without any children of his own before he dies, and then he must have his children through a ghost marriage, creating a circle. These practices are most common in Sudan but is also practiced in China.

    In China a ghost marriage is called Minghun. In china ghost marriages also mean when a man is married to a deceased female, more likely currently due to the growing shortage of females, so that he maintains his status in this world. This can also help the deceased brides family from feeling the shame of an unwed daughter. The practices of a Minghun are conditional to that of the Sudanese ghost marriage. In arranging a ghost marriage in China, families do not use a diviner or priest, but feel the groom is "chosen" for the deceased ghost-bride. A red envelope used for money or gifts are placed in the middle of the street where a stranger will come to pick it up. Meanwhile the family hides nearby. At which time the stranger picks up the envelope the family reveals itself and announces that the stranger is the ghost brides groom.[34]

    Among other cultures who practice ghost marriage, is the Nuer of Nigeria. The Nuer believed that a man who died without male heirs would leave an unsatisfied angry spirit behind to trouble his family. A woman would then be chosen to marry a family member of the dead man and the children produced by these two would be thought of as belonging to the man who died.

    Levirate Marriages are somewhat similar to ghost marriages. A levirate marriage is when a woman marries one of her husband's brothers after her husband has died. In some cases, this only occurs if the husband died without children. Then, since the woman marries his brother, the family name carries on. These marriages have mostly happened in places in Asia and the Middle East.

    Arranged Marriage

    Arranged marriage is a union established by the parents, or other interested parties, often without consent from the couple involved. There are 5 different types or levels of arranged marriages:

    • Forced: Parents dictate whom their children will marry and the children have no say in the matter.
    • Traditional-Limited. However, in this level individuals are given slightly more choice and this is therefore seen as more "modern" method.
    • Modern with Courtship: Parents will say whom their child should marry, but the child is allowed a period of courtship to get to know their intended spouse.
    • Introduction Only: Parents only introduce those involved to each other, and do not force their children to marry if they do not want to. This is seen as more of a "nudge" than an arrangement.

    An arranged marriage is often seen, not as a bond between a couple, but as a promise/approval of a union between two families. Arranged marriages usually benefit the families more than the couple, as it strengthens economic and social ties between the two. For example, an arranged marriage to a cousin makes sure that wealth and rank stay within the family.

    Parents can make sure that the arranged marriage goes through in several ways. They can not come to a wedding that they do not approve of, they can pay only for the marriage that they want, and in some countries, they can even impose legal sanctions on the undesired marriage.

    Arranged marriages tend to last because the people participating enter the marriage with lower expectations and no responsibility. Often the two parties will grow together, and learn to accommodate one another's needs. The responsibility for the happiness of the marriage lies with the parents who put the two together. These marriages also tend to be more functional and stable, and they can be maintained with less effort than traditional Western marriages. This, however, may be due to factors relating to the beliefs and traditions of the cultures in which arranged marriages are more common.

    The Unification Church strongly believes in arranged marriages. Reverend Moon started the Unification church in 1954 in Seoul, South Korea. He is believed to be “the one who clarified the Truth.” He believes that it is his job to unify the world through integrated marriages. This religion is present in over 150 countries. In 1982, 2000 couples in the U.S were married. Reverend Moon had arranged marriages for all of his followers, which he had personally picked out. Now that the church has grown immensely, he has passed down the responsibility to the mothers. Many of them have arranged spouses for their daughters by the time they are 13. However, the family waits to set them up until they graduate high school or sometimes college.

    Residence Pattern

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): A wooden wagon (Doli) in which a bride is taken to her husband's home. Although this is a thing of past now, the administration of Chandigarh depicted this in its annual Chandigarh carnival 2005.

    There are four major residence patterns, Neolocal, Patrilocal, Matrilocal, and Avunculocal.

    1. Neolocal Residence is most common with North American couples. This is where the couple finds their own house, independent from all family members.
    2. Patrilocal Residence is most commonly used with herding and farming societies. It's where the married couple lives with the husband’s father’s family. By living with the husband’s family, it lets all the men, (the father, brothers, and sons) continue to work together on the land.
    3. Matrilocal Residence is most familiar among horticultural groups. It's where the couple moves to live where the wife grew up; usually found with matrilineal kinship systems.
    4. Avunculocal Residence is also related in matrilineal societies however in this case the couple moves to live with the husband’s mother’s brother. They live with the most significant man, his uncle, because it's who they will later inherit everything from.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): A Hindu Kush woman in the Northeastern part of India in the Himalayan Region.

    There are two other forms of residence, however, they aren't as common. There's Ambilocal residence where the couple lives with one family for a while and then moves to live with the other spouse's family. Eventually, they have to decide who to live with permanently. And then there's Duolocal residence where lineage membership is so important to both the husband and wife that even though the couple is married they still live apart from one another and with their families.

    The division of labor by sex largely determines where a couple resides after marriage. If the male predominates in the division of labor than the couple's residence tends to be an Avunculocal and Patrilocal residence. However, if the females predominate than they tend to live in matrilocal residence. And if neither sex predominates in the division of labor than their residence tends to be more ambilocal or neolocal residence.

    Marriage and Economic Exchange

    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Eating special foods such as cake is a common part of many wedding ceremonies.

    Often paired with marriage in many cultures is a trade of symbolic or economic goods. These types of exchanges can mainly be fit into two distinct camps, dowry and bridewealth.


    Dowry is a transfer of wealth, usually flowing from a woman’s parents or family when she is to be married in the form of money, land or other goods. Often, the husband brings various forms of wealth to a newly created household, and a dowry is thought of as the wife’s donation, to the household or the husband. Dowry can also be viewed as an inheritance for the woman, though this is usually in cultures where both men and women are heirs. In other cases, such as in socially stratified societies, a dowry gives a woman the security of knowing that after she is married she can still enjoy her usual lifestyle and in the case of divorce, avoid poverty and discomfort.If the husband and wife are to be divorced, the wife is able to get back the dowry that her parents had given. Usually, a woman with a greater dowry is able to find herself a rich husband, while a woman with a smaller dowry is able to only find herself a poor husband. Dowry is mainly found in Europe and Asia's agricultural communities, but can also be found in Africa. The types of goods that a dowry can consist of vary greatly from society to society, but some specific examples are:

    • A dowry consisting of televisions, refrigerators and air conditioners in contemporary India.
    • The Western-European tradition of a bride’s family paying for the bulk of their daughter's wedding. However, this is a greatly diffused example of dowry.
    • The Rajput tradition of a solely transportable dowry, consisting of jewelry, clothing, money and household goods.

    More specifically, in the society of the northern Indian Khalapur Rajputs, how well women marry, and more importantly how they are treated by their husbands family corresponds directly with the size of their dowries. This is because women will normally marry into a higher social ranking. This process forces them to move to their husband's village (Patrilocal Residence), and assume the role of foreigner alongside the family. Prior to the late 1900’s, Rajput wives actions were completely facilitated by their mother-in-laws, who gave them household jobs, oversaw how much time they spend with their husbands, and controlled their dowries- a contradiction to the idea that a dowry is a woman’s inheritance from her parents. In more contemporary India, however, dowries have been banned, though they are still quite regularly used.


    Bridewealth is the transfer of symbolic goods from the husband’s family to the bride’s family. This form of economic exchange is most often found in agricultural and pastoral patrilineal societies, though it is not limited those lifestyles. Usually, bridewealth represents some form of compensation to the bride’s family from the husband’s family, for their loss of her labor and ability to bear them children. This is because when a woman marries, she goes to live, produce children, and work with her husband’s family, leaving her own. In many cases, bridewealth also serves to create a positive relationship between the families of the husband and wife. When the wife's family receives the bridewealth, they use the goods they receive for their daughter to find her brother a wife. Some examples of the goods which are exchanged in regards to bridewealth are:

    • A bridewealth consisting of animals, such as cattle or goats, in east and South Africa.
    • A bridewealth of cash in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

    Different Cultural Reference Rules for Marriage

    Kinship terminologies are shaped by the kind of clan organization found in a society, not by a group's position on evolutionary scale. The term you use to identify someone in relation to you shapes how you should interact with them


    Endogamy is the practice of marriage within a specific cultural group or social group based on custom or law. An example of endogamy is the marriage between those who are of the same faith or belief system.

    Practicing endogamy requires that you reject marrying someone on the basis that they do not fit into your social group whether it is because of religious affiliations, social classes, ethnicities, etc.. Individuals that practice endogamy says that it unifies social groups and encourages bonding. Some say the practice of endogamy allows for cultures to survive and maintain practices and beliefs when they move to an alien area. Yet this very same idea of cultural survival through endogamy may also lead to the extinction of some social groups that refuse to intermarry, leading to a decrease in their population.

    One social practice that can identify with endogamy is Jewish marriages. Although not all Jewish people practice endogamy, 47% of Jews in the United States are in intermarriages. Still many orthodox rabbis will not officiate at interfaith marriages because the three major branches of Judaism do not allow, people who want to be in intermarriages. This long-standing belief that intermarriages should not be allowed in Judaism originates from an idea that women are sanctified to their husbands and cannot be sanctioned if both are not Jewish. Endogamy is practiced for many reasons, and it is a large part of Jewish culture, but as globalization occurs more and more people are beginning to become part of intermarriages and stopping the practice of endogamy.

    Although marriage within one's specific cultural or social group is common throughout various many societies, the presence of 'incest taboo' creates a prohibition on sexual relations between close family members. One proposed reason as to why this taboo prevent incest in so many societies is the correlation of increased birth defects when the two parents are genetically similar. The Westermarck Effect also works to combat incest as it causes a natural revulsion toward marriage or sex with close relatives. The Westermarck Effect is also responsible for a revulsion towards people that resemble your close family members, but not those that resemble you.


    Exogamy is the practice of marriage outside of a specific cultural group or social group. Exogamy was said to have arisen as a way of avoiding inter-familial marriage or incest. Examples of exogamy groups include, but are not limited to, people from the immediate family, people whom are considered kin, and those of the same sex. A lot of times exogamy is less likely to occur in places where different races are of higher classes than others are. Such as in South Africa the whites are considered to be of a higher class than the full Africans in the townships, so a parent would be against the exogamy of a white into the African community. Exogamy is often practiced in tribal communities, where a male from one tribe will marry a woman from a tribe outside of his own. Exceptions to exogamy, such as interracial or same-sex marriages can make a person a pariah in their own community. American culture naturally harbors exogamy in the social and marital realms, since it is such a diverse nation.

    Hypergamy and Hypogamy

    Hypergamy is the practice of marrying into a social or cultural group that is equal to or higher than the caste that one was born into. Hypergamy deals with women marrying into a higher class. Hypergamy includes but is not limited to marring a person of higher education, financial status, as well as social status. Usually cultures that practice hypergamy have a very strong focus on class and the finances necessary to support a prosperous life. A man with higher earning power can provide better for offspring than a man of lesser status. Hypogamy is the practice of a man marrying a woman of a higher class or of higher social status than himself. This happens mostly in countries where women have an equal opportunity to make money or be better educated. Hypogamy is less commonly found in cultures where women have fewer rights than men. Some examples of this are the Islamic and early American cultures.


    Isogamy refers to a biological condition where sex cells, or gametes, are identical to each other. Many fungi and plants have isogamous gametes. In mammals, though, the ovum (female reproductive cell) is larger and looks much different than the sperm cell (male reproductive cell). This is called anisogamy. This may also pertain to same-sex relations since monogamy means having a committed relationship with just one partner at a time. Isogamy could also mean being in a committed relationship with the same sex.

    This page titled 10.4: Marriage is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Wikibooks - Cultural Anthropology (Wikibooks) .

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