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How Can We Define Marriage?

Did you know that in the world of Wikipedia the word “marriage” is classified as a “contentious issue?” The page has been protected, on and off, for the last four years for excessive levels of vandalism and edit-warring. I found this out for myself a few years ago when I was misquoted on the page and had to ask the editors to make a correction.

Disagreement over the universal definition of marriage didn’t await the arrival of an open-content encyclopedia, or even the onset of the same-sex marriage debate. Sociologists and anthropologists have been debating this topic for over half a century.

Economists like to talk about marriage, but how can we do that if we can’t be clear what, exactly, we are talking about? Finding a universal definition of marriage, though, has proven to be difficult.

If you don’t believe me, try the following exercise: Take a piece of paper and write down what you think is the definition of marriage.  Take your time, I can wait…

Okay. So with your definition of marriage, ask yourself this question:  If two people are in a relationship and some of the characteristics that you have said define marriage are not present, then are they married or not married?  You might then ask a different question: Is everyone who as in a relationship that has these characteristics, in fact, married? Or are their examples of non-marital relationships that also fit the definition?

So, for example, in 1951 the Royal Anthropological Institute of Britain defined marriage as “the union between a man and a woman such that children born to the woman are the recognized legitimate offspring of both partners.”

Leaving aside the modern recognition of same-sex marriages, does this definition of marriage fit all instances in which a society might traditionally recognize a couple as married?

How about the women in some West African societies that are married to another woman as a “female husband” and were children born in that relationship are considered the heirs of that female husband? Or the traditional practice of marriage in Tibet where one woman is married to two or more brothers? Or marriage in societies that believe in “partible” paternity, the belief that children are biologically related to all the men the woman has had sex with during her pregnancy? Clearly the concept of marriage in these societies falls outside of this definition.

The famous anthropologist George Murdock defined marriage as “a universal institution that involves a man and a woman living together, engaging in sexual activity, and cooperating economically.”

But what of societies where men and women do not live together when married? Societies like the Ashanti of Ghana or the Minangkabau of Indonesia where men continue to live with their mothers and sisters after marriage? Or Gururumba couples in New Guinea who sleep in separate houses and work separate plots of land. Or even the lower class men and women in 18th century who often spent many years apart in domestic servitude.

There are even marriages in which the couple does not economically cooperate, like the African Society the Yoruba who do not pool economic resources or even raise their children together.

Anthropologist Suzanne Frayser defines marriage as “a relationship within which a society socially approves and encourages sexual intercourse and the birth of children”. Edmund Leach says “marriage is a “set of legal rules” that govern how goods, titles, and social status “are handed down from generation to generation.” 

Brooks Kaiser (my friend and co-author) says marriage is “The actions and gestures made at the individual and community level that result in the contractual arrangements that define family and kinship structure for society.”

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I think the bottom line is that there no universal definition of marriage and that marriage, traditionally, has been defined at the social level.  It is this fact that creates conflict in societies that encourage individualism and where men and women (and men and men, and women and women) choose to define their own relationships as marriage contrary to the kinship structure defined in society in which they live. Perhaps the future of marriage in these societies is marriage defined at the individual or family level.

Maybe this is what Shakespeare meant when he said (in Sonnet  116):

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments.


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