Marriage is a tool society uses to reproduce

Most people in a position to read this blog post probably think of marriage as a contract between two people that serves a few different purposes. Initially it may be an extension of the a tacit contract governing sexual access or fidelity that likely preceded marriage. Later on it may be an arrangement that facilitates the decision a couple makes to have one or more children. Along with this a marriage may be a framework for any subset of a longish list of social relations people tend to engage in such as friendship and mutual aid, financial cooperation and joint ownership of things, or meeting and manipulating social expectations and appearances.

For every one of these functions, we can find examples either among individuals or sets of individuals, or cultures or social strata, that defy these expectations. Monarchs may have hung around courts with concubines rather than spouses. In systems where wealth is inherited strictly through a certain (usually male) line, one of the members of the marriage owns nothing, so there is little financial cooperation and no joint ownership. In some societies, men prefer to marry women who have already had a child, regardless of who the father is. In other societies sex between a man and woman is avoided at all costs except to make babies. And so on. Also, there are societies in which marriage serves very important functions that are not mentioned above but that may be considered the most important role of the practice. In societies where dowries are strictly required, marriage is primarily an inter-caste economic arrangement. In the case of the Maasai, written about earlier, marriage is about the cattle.

So, how do we define marriage then? I think there are two ways. One actually has us reaching back into the above described features of marriage and picking out a few key ones that are functions of marriage in many but not all societies. In this case we would make the claim that the other societies are exceptions, even if they have at times in the Earth’s history been widespread. Some of the more elaborate social, economic, and cultural uses of marriage are matters of exapting the practice for purposes that are particular to highly stratified societies or economies based on very vulnerable resources where ultimately some kind of warfare (or Hobbsian state of Warre, if you will) is more important than, say, a nice Valentine’s day gift or a rewarding sex life. Since these societies are almost all a function of changes that have happened over the last several thousand years they may be thought of as exceptional even if common for a long time. We’ll get back to this idea later, in another blog post.

The other way is to think of marriage not as the framework for a couple to have babies and thus reproduce, but for society to organize, obligate, educate and control it’s ascending members and thus reproduce itself writ large.

How this might work will of course vary across societies. Here, I’ll just suggest a laundry list of ways in which the whole marriage thing could be incorporated into the way society perpetuates itself by maintaining categories, relationships between groups or categories of people, and so on. Obviously, “society” itself is not a thing that can reproduce or that has goals or motivations or even mechanisms of the kind that would be needed to do these things. But a given society has groups of individuals with larger than average amounts of power. These individuals and groups can try to make and enforce rules and these can be instituted through cultural practices, marriage being a key one.

  • Who gets to marry whom. The reasons to restrict marriage are myriad and may relate to ethnocentrism or racism, caste, society, and so on.

  • Who gets the children. Generally, the parents have the children in their care, but if there is a unilineal society (and/or “clans” or something along those lines) girls born to married couples may become social capital for exchange or alliance formation with other groups. Sons, on the other hand …. well, “sons are guns” as the saying goes. And, depending on the economy of production, children may variously grow up to be workers.

  • Exchange, concentration, or redistribution of wealth. In American society today, a “typical” “middle class” wedding will cost tens and tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of people get to eat. In other systems, households accumulate bride payments or wealth, or a new couple is set up with a start-up fund. This is all very complicated when looking across cultures, but there are a lot of cases where money or valuable goods exchange hands. Who gets it, how much in relation to the average household economy, who pays, and what happens when you don’t pay varies a lot.

  • Who owns property … and how it is redistributed and used is often linked to marriage. Sometimes, the system of marriage (and who marries whom) is determined mainly by the ownership of property. In one famous system, a marriage is always directly linked to a piece of property and there are just so many pieces of property. Nobody gets married outside of those land-linked arrangements.

  • Lineage maintenance and development. A lineage, usually a patrilineage, is an organizing corporate entity in many societies. Royal lines and houses, clans based on lineality, and so forth are the elemental units that fight, form alliances, or engage in joint ventures often at the expense of a third lineage. Marriage in such systems has to be between lineages, and which lineages are intermarried in a given union is often determined by elders, who make rules, or simply tell people whom they must marry.

  • Religion and heteronormative values. In some societies, people are forced to marry within one religion, so one individual may need to convert; those getting married may be required to promise on pain of eternal damnation to raise their children in that religion. Individuals can only be married if certain “family values” critera are met, for example, only if they are both heterosexual. Other “family values” may be imposed on those being married, often inculcated into the arrangement with required pre-marital counseling sessions or agreements. Sometimes, powerful conservative members of these societies try to impose these and other rules using governmental force or constitutional means.

I wonder which societies do that last one?

This is part of a series of posts on Marriage. To see the full list click HERE.

Photo of Umm Bororo Wedding, Eastern Sudan, by Vit Hassan

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8 thoughts on “Marriage is a tool society uses to reproduce

  1. Along with other practical reasons like needing a partner to be a spouse for health insurance or immigration reasons.

  2. Marriage is about property and property rights. When it started, wives and children were property. It also determined the inheritance of property – children of marriage were entitled to inheritance or dower; bastard children were not. The system kept property rights in order within the tribe or clan.

  3. Martha, the things you refer to here are indeed parts of traditional, and thus, older cultures, but those things are human inventions of the last several thousand years or less in most places. The evidence suggests that marriage existed before the “middle range,” peasant, and caste based societies you refer to.

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