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Anthropology: Marriage and Polygamy

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The question of marriage and whether people should marry has long been a discussion explored in anthropological circles. Whilst there has been a very robust discussion surrounding marriage, a concrete definition of marriage does not exist. The reason for this is that the institution has changed and morphed in relation to the epoch of history and the culture within which marriage exists. Different cultures and different eras of history have had different views of marriage and what it means. The debate within anthropological circles has also related to whether or not marriage is universal amongst human societies. 

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The differences in understanding what marriage is makes it a challenge to come up with a universal definition of marriage. For the purposes of this paper, marriage will take on many definitions. Combining all those different definitions, marriage is, “a legal contract, a religious covenant or a social union which can occur between a man and a woman, two men, two women, a man and multiple women (polygyny), and a woman and multiple men (polyandry)” (Dartmouth 2019). The stated definition of marriage was selected since it seems to encompass modern times by acknowledging that in contemporary times, marriage may occur between multiple partners of more than one gender.

Marriage has occurred in all eras of history and in every culture. While there are a number of texts that document the types of marriage that existed within a particular era, some of them have been lost to time. Lambert (2018) notes that one of the most prominent texts that recorded marriage is the Christian Bible. In the Old Testament, there is the mention of several counts of polygyny where a man had many wives. The most famous of the men was King Solomon who was lauded as the wisest man to have ever lived (Lambert 2018). Lambert (2018) continues to note that during ancient times marriages were usually arranged. A family wanted to join another family through marriage to give the family power, prestige, and access to resources, and the beginning of marriage was signalled by a wedding which was mostly a celebration of the two people who had been joined through marriage.

There are many types of marriages. As such, only the most common as detailed by anthropological texts will be elaborated. The most common type of marriage is monogamy. Jackson (2015) notes that the basic definition of monogamy would have been that marriage is between one woman and one man. However, given the changing times, the concept of monogamy has expounded to include a union between one man and another man or a union between one woman and another woman (Cooney 2018). The basic premise of monogamy is that an individual can only have one given spouse at any given time. Should one have the desire to marry another spouse, then they will have to divorce the first spouse, or they can do so if the other spouse is dead. Under those two circumstances, an individual may marry another spouse. 

The other type of marriage that is not common in the West but has been recorded in Africa is polygamy. Polygamy is a situation where an individual has more than one spouse (Jackson 2015). There are two types of polygamy, one of polygyny and polyandry. Anderson (2000) notes that polygyny is a type of marriage in which a man has more than one wife. This is the most common form of polygamy, and it is usually seen in African communities (Jackson 2015). The other type of polygamy is polyandry, and it involves a woman having more than one husband (Starkweather 2010). The practice of polyandry was common in areas of India and Tibet and some communities in Africa (Jackson 2015).

The other types of marriages listed below are not common, but they have existed or exist in some parts of the world. There are group marriages which as the name implies is a marriage between a group of men and a group of women (Bisin and Verdier 2000). In the group, no single individual is considered to be the mate of a particular individual, they are all married to each other, and t they all encompass the same sets of obligations (Ingiabuna 2012). 

There is levirate marriage in which a man marries his late brother’s widow, and he must support her as if she was his wife from the beginning (Jackson 2015). Jackson (2015) also notes that a key reason for the existence of levirate marriages is that it occurs to perpetuate the line of the deceased brother more so if he died without having procreated. Children born of the levirate marriage will be considered to be children of the late brother. There is also widow inheritance which defers from the levirate marriage in the sense that the widow decides which one of her kin she is willing to live with as her husband (Charles 2008). While there is a plethora of marriages, the ones listed above are the ones that have been most noted in a number of anthropological texts.

In relation to marriage, there are some key concepts that have been defined by anthropologists, with two of those being bride wealth and bride service. While those two concepts have mostly been abandoned in the West, they are alive and well in a number of African and nonindustrial societies. Ogbu (1978) notes that bride wealth, commonly referred to as dowry in some African communities is the resources paid to the bride’s family for the hand of their daughter. While one might argue that the whole concept commodifies women, one would be viewing the concept through the lens of ethnocentric ideology rather than exploring it in its proper context. 

The bride wealth was seen as a means through which the bride’s family was compensated for the “loss” of their daughter (Ogbu 1978). As the concept implies, it was usually the man who gave the bride wealth, though in some Indian communities it is the girl’s family that gives the wealth. The bride wealth also served an important purpose since it ensured that the children who were born to the woman became members of the husband’s descent group (Dartmouth 2019). 

Additionally, in African society giving bride wealth meant that the woman was now under the protection of the husband and to symbolize it, she took up his surname (Ogbu 1978). The concept of bride service also revolves around the notion of compensating the bride’s family. Dartmouth (2019) notes that among the San community in the southern part of Africa, a new couple will live near the bride’s family and the man will hunt and provide for the bride’s family during the first year. This is a means of compensating the brides’ family while at the same time it is a way of tying a couple into the overall network of the individuals whom they are now responsible for. Both concepts, bride wealth and bride service, are seen as a means of compensating the bride’s family for the loss of their daughter, while at the same time joining the two families together.

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