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Introduction to Anthropology

11.4 Marriage and Families across Cultures

Introduction to Anthropology11.4 Marriage and Families across Cultures

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • State the anthropological definition of marriage.
  • Provide examples of different forms of marriage across cultures.
  • Summarize economic and symbolic dimensions of marriage (marriage compensations).
  • Describe how marriage intersects with residence rules.
  • Explain the social importance of remarriage obligations.

Anthropological Definition of Marriage

Customers at a street market in Lima Peru.
Figure 11.14 Customers peruse goods in a market in downtown Lima, Peru. Some Indigenous people in Peru begin marriage with a practice known as servinakuy. In servinakuy, a couple establish an independent household and live together until the birth of their first child, after which they are formally considered to be a fully married couple. (credit: “Lima, Peru” by YoTuT/flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Marriage is the formation of a socially recognized union. Depending on the society, it may be a union between a man and a woman, between any two adults (regardless of their gender), or between multiple spouses in polygamous societies. Marriages are most commonly established to provide a formal structure in which to raise and nurture offspring (whether biological or adopted/fostered), but not all marriages involve reproduction, and marriage can serve multiple functions. One function is to create alliances between individuals, families, and sometimes larger social networks. These alliances may provide political and economic advantages. While there are variations of marriage, the institution itself, with a few notable exceptions, is universal across cultures.

Marriage is an effective means of addressing several common challenges within families. It provides a structure in which to produce, raise, and nurture offspring. It reduces competition among and between males and females. And it creates a stable, long-term socioeconomic household in which the family unit can more adequately subsist with shared labor and resources. All societies practice rules of marriage that determine what groups an individual should marry into (called endogamy rules) and which groups are considered off limits and not appropriate for marriage partners (called exogamy rules). These rules are behavioral norms in a society. For example, in the United States, individuals tend to marry within the same generation (endogamy) and usually the same linguistic group, but they marry outside of very close kin (exogamy). Those considered to be too closely related to marry are prohibited by rules of incest, a relationship defined as too close for sexual relations.

Across all cultures, there is an incest taboo, a cultural norm that prohibits sexual relations between parents and their offspring. This taboo sometimes extends to other relations considered too close for sexual relationship. In some societies, this taboo may extend to first cousins. In the United States, first-cousin marriage laws vary across states (see “Cousin Marriage Law in the United States” for current state laws). French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss argued that incest is the original social structure because it naturally separates groups of people into two types—those with whom an individual has family ties (so-called biological ties) and those with whom an individual can have sexual relations and establish ties.

Defining marriage can be complex. In the southern Andes of Peru and Bolivia, Indigenous people begin marriage with a practice known as servinakuy (with spelling variations). In servinakuy, a man and woman establish their own independent household with very little formal social acknowledgement and live together until the birth of their first child, after which they are formally considered to be a fully married couple. Not a trial marriage and not considered informal cohabitation, servinakuy is, instead, a prolonged marriage process during which family is created over time. Andean legal scholars argue that these unions should carry with them the legal rights and protections associated with a formal marriage from the time the couple begins living together (Ingar 2015).

Like all social institutions, ideas about marriage can adapt and change. Within urban Western societies, the concept of marriage is undergoing a great deal of change as socioeconomic opportunities shift and new opportunities open up for women. In Iceland, in 2016, almost 70 percent of children were born outside of a marriage, usually to committed unmarried couples (Peng 2018). This trend is supported by national social policies that provide generous parental leave for both married individuals and those within a consensual union, but the change is also due to the more fluid nature of family today. As norms change in Iceland across generations, it will be interesting to see if the practiced form of consensual union we see today eventually comes to be considered a sanctioned form of marriage.

Forms of Marriage

Anthropologists group marriage customs into two primary types: a union of two spouses only (monogamy) or a union involving more than two spouses (polygamy). Monogamy is the socially sanctioned union of two adults. In some societies this union is restricted to a man and a woman, and in other societies it can be two adults of any gender. Monogamy, because it produces an overall smaller family unit, is especially well adapted to postindustrial societies and cultures where family units are highly mobile (such as nomadic foragers). Monogamy also includes same-sex marriage. In June 2015, in Obergefell v. Hodges, the US Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in the United States, following earlier legal recognitions in many other Western countries. Today, same-sex marriage is legal in 30 countries. While the movement to legalize same-sex marriage has been long and tumultuous in many of these countries, same-sex marriages and unions have historically played significant roles in both Indigenous and Western societies.

Serial monogamy: Serial monogamy is a form of monogamy in which adults have a series of two-person monogamous marriages over a lifetime. It is increasingly common in Western societies, but it is also practiced in some small-scale societies, such as bands. In serial monogamy, divorce and remarriage are common.

Polygamy: Polygamy is the socially sanctioned union of more than two adults at the same time. In polygamous societies, families usually begin with a two-person marriage between a man and a woman. In some cases, the marriage will remain as a single couple for a long period of time or for the duration of their lives because of lack of resources or availability of partners. Adding partners is frequently a sign of status and is considered an ideal for families in polygamous societies. In some cases, too, polygamy is practiced to address extreme social stress due to things such as warfare or skewed population distributions caused by famine and high mortality rates. In her cross-cultural study of polygamy, cultural anthropologist Miriam Zeitzen (2008) noted a great deal of diversity within polygamy, from de jure unions that are formal, legal contracts (such as is found in Gambia) to de facto polygamy, which may be just as enduring, stable, and acceptable within a society (such as is found in Ivory Coast).

A man in a polygamous marriage surrounded by his four wives.
Figure 11.15 In a polygynous marriage, there is one husband and more than one wife. This is the cast of Sister Wives, a television series about a polygamous household in the United States. (credit: “Sister Wives Cast on Valder Beebe” by Valder Beebe Show/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0)

There are two principle kinds of polygamy, depending on the partners involved, as multiple men and multiple women in a single marriage (called group marriage) is not common. Polygyny, which is the more common form of polygamy, is the marriage of one man to more than one woman. There is often marked age asymmetry in these relationships, with husbands much older than their wives. In polygynous households, each wife commonly lives in her own house with her own biological children, but the family unit cooperates together to share resources and provide childcare. The husband usually “visits” his wives in succession and lives in each of their homes at various times (or lives apart in his own). It is common, also, for there to be a hierarchy of wives based on seniority. Polygyny is found worldwide and offers many benefits. It maximizes the family labor force and the shared resources and opportunities available for family members and creates wide kinship connections within society. Commonly in polygynous societies, larger families are afforded higher social status and they have stronger political and economic alliances.

Polygyny is prevalent in Thailand today, with as many as one in four Thai men between the ages of 30 and 50 having a second wife, called a mia noi (minor wife). In her research in Thailand, cultural anthropologist Jiemin Bao (2008) studied polygyny among a group of lukchin Thai (Thai of Chinese descent). She found that the lukchin practiced polygynous marriages as a joint husband-and-wives economic enterprise, many times sending remittances back to family members still living in China. Bao found that husbands frequently seek their wives’ consent before adding another wife and that the family overall considers polygyny to create greater economic opportunities for all family members because multiple wives create a pool of stable laborers with individual skill sets. Even so, Bao observed turmoil and conflict even within economically successful polygynous families and observed that many marriages were conducted as if they were “cutting a business deal” (151). Gender politics of polygynous marriage among the lukchin often left women with few choices except to work for her husband’s family. Economic success for the family was culturally attributed to the male head of household and not his wives.

A second form of polygamy is polyandry. In polyandry, which is comparatively rare, there is one wife and more than one husband. Polyandrous marriages minimize population growth and may occur in societies where there is a temporary surfeit of males and scarcity of females or scarcity of resources. In fraternal polyandry, brothers marry a single wife. This is the most common in Nepal, where it is practiced by a minority of mainly rural families. Fraternal polyandry offers several benefits for societies like Nepal with scarce resources and dense population. Where there is extreme scarcity of land acreage, it allows brothers to share an inheritance of land instead of dividing it up. It reduces inequality within the household, as the family can thus collectively subsist on the land as a family unit. Also, in areas where land is scattered over large distances, it allows brothers to take turns living away from home to tend herds of animals or fields and then spending time at home with their shared wife. It also minimizes reproduction and population growth in a society where there is a very dense population (Goldstein 1987), as the wife can carry only one pregnancy at a time.

Postmarital Residence Rules

Following marriage, a couple begins a new family and establishes a shared residence, whether as a separate family unit or as part of an already established family group. The social rules that determine where a newly married couple will reside are called postmarital residence rules and are directly related to the descent rules that operate in the society. These rules may be adapted due to extenuating circumstances such as economic need or lack of housing. In the United States today, for example, it is increasingly common for newly married couples to postpone the establishment of a separate household when work, schooling, or children create a need for familial support.

There are five postmarital residence patterns:

  • Under neolocal residence, a newly married couple establishes an independent household not connected to either spouse’s family. This pattern of residence is mostly associated with bilateral descent. While this is a norm in our own society, during times of economic stress or familial need, couples in the United States do occasionally live in the household of one spouse’s parents.
  • More common worldwide is patrilocal residence, associated with societies practicing patrilineal descent. In patrilocal residence, the newly married couple establishes their new household with or near the groom’s father or the groom’s father’s relatives. What this means is that at marriage the groom remains within his household and/or family group, while the bride leaves her parents. Their future children will belong to the groom’s lineage.
  • Matrilocal residence is associated with societies practicing matrilineal descent. In matrilocal residence, the newly married couple establishes their new household with or near the bride’s mother or the bride’s mother’s relatives. At marriage the bride remains within her household and/or family group, while the groom leaves his parents. Their future children will belong to the bride’s lineage.
  • Less frequent but also associated with matrilineal descent is avunculocal residence, in which the newly married couple resides with or near the groom’s mother’s brother. In societies that practice avunculocal residence, the groom has commonly had a long-term relationship with his maternal uncle, who is part of his own mother’s matriline. By joining with household of the groom’s maternal uncle, the couple is able to benefit from both the husband’s and the wife’s matrilines.
  • Under ambilocal residence, the couple decides which spouse’s family to live with or near. Ambilocal residence is associated with ambilineal descent. In ambilocal residence, the newly married couple will usually have made their decision about which spouse’s family to join with prior to their marriage. Their future children will then trace descent through that particular line.

Marriage Compensation

In all cultures, marriage is a consequential matter not only to the adults immediately involved, but also to their families and to the broader community. In societies that practice unilineal descent, the newly married couple moves away from one family and toward another. This creates a disadvantage for the family that has “lost” a son or daughter. For example, in a patrilineal society, while the wife will remain a member of her birth lineage (that of her father), her children and her labor will now be invested mostly in her husband’s lineage. As a result, in societies practicing unilineal descent, there is a marriage compensation from one family to the other for this perceived loss. Marriage compensation is the transfer of some form of wealth (in money, material goods, or labor) from one family to another to legitimize the marriage as a creation of a new social and economic household. It is not seen as payment for a spouse, but as recognition that the marriage and future children are part of one lineage rather than another (Stone 1998, 77). There are several forms of marriage compensation, each symbolically marked by specific cultural practices.

Bride wealth: Bride wealth (also called bride price) is the transfer of material and symbolic value from the groom’s to the bride’s family. Depending on the cultural group, this may involve transfer of money, cattle, house goods, jewelry, or even symbolic ritual artifacts. Bride wealth is the most common form of marriage compensation across cultures. In her study of the Thadou Kukis of northeast India, Burma, and Bangladesh, Indian sociologist Hoineilhing Sitlhou (2018) explores how bride wealth has changed over time. Historically, the items exchanged included cows, copper gongs, silver earrings, and ceremonial clothing for the bride’s parents. Today, more contemporary items are offered, such as gold jewelry, cars, furniture, appliances, and land. One practice that has not changed is paying a portion of the bride wealth prior to the marriage ceremony and the remainder at some later point so that the groom remains in respectful debt to the bride’s family. In other societies, bride wealth must be paid in full before the marriage is considered legitimate. If marriages conducted using bride wealth end in divorce, normally the bride wealth (or equivalent value) is returned to the groom’s family to signify the dissolution of the contract.

Bride service: Similar to bride wealth, bride service involves a transfer of something of value from the groom’s to the bride’s family, but in this case the arrangement involves the contracted labor of the groom, whether before or after the marriage. Future grooms may work for months or years for the bride’s family (usually her father’s household) prior to the marriage, or husbands may work for months or years with the bride’s family after the marriage. In the first case, the groom completes his service prior to the marriage and then moves with the bride back to his family after the marriage. In the second case, the newly married couple remains in residence with the bride’s family until the service is concluded. The advantage of the second type of service is that frequently the wife is living with her mother when her first child (or children) is born. While her children are aligned with her husband’s family as far as descent (and inheritance), her parents are able to support the couple and their first child or children for a period of time.

The contractual obligations of bride wealth and bride service are not without conflict. In many unilineal societies, these obligations create a great deal of strife and conflict that can go on for years. What if the marriage is temperamentally difficult? What if the wife is barren or a child dies? What if the husband’s family suffers economic challenges that create a disparity between what he can offer their family of procreation and what the wife’s lineage could offer the children? Each of these situations creates conflict. Sometimes these conflicts between lineages (because marriage is seen as a contract with the larger family) spill over into the larger society and create larger social divisions.

Dowry: Dowry, a third form of marriage compensation, functions differently than bride wealth and bride price. Dowry is a form of material value, such as money, jewelry, house goods, or family heirlooms, that the bride brings into her own marriage to provide her with wealth within her husband’s lineage. In some societies women turn their dowry over to their husbands, but in other societies they retain rights to this wealth as married women. Among Nepalese Brahmans, sons inherit land and property equally at the death of the father, while women receive a dowry of clothing, jewelry, and household utensils from their own patriline at marriage (Stone 1998). They will use this wealth for status within the marriage. In other societies, women create a dual inheritance for their own daughters from their dowry, passing their dowry down through their daughters. Regardless of how the wealth is used, a woman’s most stable route to higher status within a patrilineal society is through the birth of her sons. It is sons within the patriline who will bring wives into their father’s household and increase the size and prominence of the patriline through the birth of their children. In patrilineal societies, women with many sons typically carry a higher social status.

A man examining many items of a woman's dowery displayed on the floor of a living room.
Figure 11.16 A display of a woman’s dowry in Turkmenistan, in Central Asia. These goods have been laid in preparation for the woman’s marriage. (credit: “wedding gifts 2” Salvatore D’Alia/flickr, CC BY 2.0)

While marriage compensation is most commonly associated with patrilineal societies, it is important to note that almost all marriages represent shared investments of one kind or another. Since marriage is the creation of a new family, spouses most often bring with them into their marriage their skills, traditions, and social networks, all of which carry symbolic weight within societies.

Remarriage Obligations

The many rules and corresponding obligations specific to marriage in unilineal societies (such as residence rules and marriage compensation) are evidence that families and communities invest a great deal in marriages and the formation of new families. So what happens if a young and newly married spouse dies? What about the marriage compensation and the new household? In many unilineal societies (most especially in patrilineal societies), remarriage obligations ensure that in these cases the marriage contract endures. Remarriage obligations require the widowed spouse to remarry someone from the same lineage in order to maintain the stability of the family unit.

There are numerous issues that affect when and how remarriage obligations are enacted. The factors that most affect remarriage obligations are the ages of the spouses and amount of time that has passed since the marriage occurred, the ages of the offspring and whether there are young children within the family unit, and the particular marriage contract and value of the marriage compensation. Cultures (and families) determine how best to enact these rules within their own value systems and based on current need. But the primary underlying purpose of remarriage obligations is to maintain the alliance that was made between the two lineages at the time of the marriage. These are intended to be enduring ties that benefit all members of each lineage.

If the husband dies and there is a surviving wife (now widow), under the levirate remarriage rule she will marry one of her husband’s surviving brothers. While levirate will not be invoked in every case, it is quite common when there are young children remaining within the immediate family unit. Because levirate is usually practiced in societies with polygynous families, a married brother taking an additional wife will not disrupt his existing family, and the new wife and her children will remain within the lineage where the children were born.

The sororate applies to situations in which the wife dies and there is a surviving widower. Under this remarriage rule, the deceased wife’s lineage must provide a replacement female, preferably the former wife’s sister. If her sisters are already married or there are no sisters available, another female from the same lineage can be sent as a replacement. Sororate allows young children from the first marriage to remain with their father in his lineage and also maintain a symbolic and emotional bond with their biological mother’s kindred.

Finally, there is also the highly variable practice of ghost marriage, where a marriage is performed between one or two deceased individuals in order to create an alliance between lineages. Among the Dinka and Nuer of South Sudan, a ghost marriage is similar to the levirate, with the deceased husband’s brother standing in for him in a ghost marriage. Unlike the levirate itself, any children from this second (ghost) marriage will be attributed to the deceased husband and not to the brother or the wider lineage itself. Among Chinese immigrants to Singapore, there are ghost marriage claims in which both spouses may be deceased (Schwartze 2010), continuing a tradition that began generations earlier (Topley 1955).

Arranged Marriages

While all marriages are planned, some are arranged, whether between the spouses involved and/or their families or through a third party. Today, an interesting adaptation of arranged marriages has developed involving online websites and hired marriage brokers to help individuals living in different countries find a suitable spouse from their birth culture. As transnational corporations spread worldwide and individuals become more highly mobile (even nomadic) for work, finding a spouse who shares the same cultural values can be difficult. Although there are marriage brokers for many different cultural groups, there is a proliferation of matchmakers for individuals of Indian nationality or descent. While not all of these sites are reputable, the explosion of marriage brokering businesses reminds us that marriage is, first and foremost, a cultural institution.

Kinship is an adaptive mechanism across cultures. While kinship systems vary, they each address critical elements for a social group. Through families of orientation and procreation and within kinship networks, households are created, offspring are produced, and alliances are established.

Mini-Fieldwork Activity

Kinship Interview


Do a kinship interview with a friend or peer. Collect information about their immediate family and relatives, including information about marriage and descent, being sure to note deceased relatives and any prior marriages. Draw a kinship chart that graphically depicts the information that you collected through the interview. Ask your participant informer to critique your chart, and then make any needed adjustments. Present the results of your project along with a reflection on the highlights of this work. What most challenged you, and how did this work help you better understand your friend/peer? What interesting things did you learn about their life?

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