Anthropology Marriage
Nancy E. Levine
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0016


The anthropological study of marriage has undergone a series of transformations over the past 150 years, as have individuals’ expectations for their own marriages in societies around the world. The models that anthropologists have developed for describing marriage cross-culturally continue to mirror the preoccupations of their own times and their own lives. The early Victorians sought data on exotic marriages from peoples on the frontiers of colonial expansion, which they judged against a universal model of human progress. They gave marriage primacy in understanding human society, as they idealized domesticity in their own lives. In some ways, this mirroring of self and other and projecting cultural preoccupations onto the study of other places has never changed. For the first generation of field-based anthropologists, a key goal was empirical data gathering. The guiding paradigms of the day led many to stress the ways in which the marriages of the societies they were studying were grounded in timeless, traditional structures and guided by conformity to normative rules and obligations. Later, when feminism became influential in Western society, anthropologists turned to studies of how gender systems affected marital relationships elsewhere. This succession of novel paradigms has been valuable in prompting new research. It also has contributed to new publications that have offered richer, more fully contextualized understandings of the most intimate and most fraught of human relationships. Over the years as well, anthropologists have debated what lies at the very core of marriage as an institution and as a relationship, whether it is economic sharing, sexual access, childbearing and parenthood, or reproductive success. They also have debated whether marriage is best described in terms of sentiment and subjectivity, social or mental structures, or transactions and strategic choice. This guide proceeds historically from the earliest approaches in the study of marriage to the most recently published. It also is organized according to the major topics that have informed that study, including how marriage is linked to other aspects of social structure, the role of alliance in integrating society, explanations of cousin marriages, the special case of polyandry, the reasons advanced for societies in which marriage is the exception or individuals avoid marriage, the economic factors implicated in variations in marital practice, how gender inequality influences marital relationships, and how new understandings of personal goals for marriage, including gay marriage, have come to define identity in the modern world.

General Overviews

This section includes introductions to and overviews of the sprawling fields of kinship studies and marriage systems around the world, as well as edited collections that were created to meet the needs of scholars and students. Edited collections became particularly popular in the 1960s and 1970s; they provided a way of accessing significant scholarship on anthropological topics, prior to the advent of photocopiers and before the Internet was even imagined. The two edited collections cited here are the best of the genre. Bohannan and Middleton 1968 and Goody 1971 include the leading articles of the day, many of which have become classics in the field. Textbooks developed for teaching on marriage have changed in response to changing disciplinary trends. The widely read text Fox 1967 focuses on marriage alliance (see also Alliance Theory), and it manages to negotiate the technical aspects of this topic in a clear and direct way. Stone 2014 examines kinship and marriage from the perspective of gender systems (see also Marriage and Gender). Only one text focuses exclusively on marriage, and that is Mair 1971. A scholarly work, it includes a thoughtful commentary on past theorists’ coverage of classic case materials. Stockard 2002 provides abridged summaries of four case studies that illustrate the great diversity found in marriage cross-culturally. Among the most important theoretically oriented overviews is Fortes 1969. This is a landmark text that traces the history and development of kinship theory from Lewis Henry Morgan through the mid-20th century, primarily from the perspective of British traditions of scholarship. Godelier 2011 is the most recent major scholarly overview. It incorporates a history of the development of kinship theory through the date of publication, together with an analysis of transformations in Western European kinship practice in the late 20th century, and some thoughts about the future of marriage around the world.

  • Bohannan, Paul, and John Middleton. 1968. Marriage, family, and residence. Garden City, NY: Natural History.

    This edited work includes a strong collection of the leading articles of the day relating to marriage practices, with attention paid to incest, exogamy, problems in defining marriage, polyandry, residence, and the rights transferred in marriage, as well as alliance and various forms of cousin marriage.

  • Fortes, Meyer. 1969. Kinship and the social order. Chicago: Aldine.

    This book covers a wide array of topics and provides rich ethnographic illustrations from the author’s research on Ashanti. Two principal arguments are that kinship relations and institutions must be understood as balanced between familial and politico-jural domains, and that kinship is fundamental and autonomous, not a by-product of material factors.

  • Fox, Robin. 1967. Kinship and marriage: An anthropological perspective. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

    This textbook, still in print, has brought kinship studies to a wide audience. It references cultural ecology and evolutionary theory in explaining kinship practices and synthesizes descent and alliance paradigms. It employs clear and careful writing and illustrations to explain the logic of elementary and complex systems of marriage.

  • Godelier, Maurice. 2011. The metamorphoses of kinship. Translated by Nora Scott. London: Verso.

    First published in French in 2004, this major work chronicles the author’s difficulties in studying kinship in the field, reevaluates Lévi-Strauss’s theoretical contributions, proposes a new model for understanding human sexuality, discusses evidence for transformations in systems of classifying relatives, and speculates about changes to come for marriage and family.

  • Goody, Jack, ed. 1971. Kinship. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

    This regionally and topically balanced collection of anthropological and historical articles covers marriage transactions, joking relationships, forms of marriage, and family types. British social anthropology and the then-new alliance theory are particularly well represented in this book.

  • Mair, Lucy. 1971. Marriage. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

    The only anthropological textbook devoted to the topic of marriage and long out of print, this book provides a scholar’s take on virtually every well-studied dimension of marital practice. Using an essay-like format, the book authoritatively surveys the topics, approaches, and leading case studies produced through the 1960s.

  • Stockard, Janice E. 2002. Marriage in culture: Practice and meaning across diverse societies. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt.

    This college text abridges scholarly works to present a four-case comparison between an egalitarian foraging society, premodern, patriarchal China, a matrilineal Native American group, and polyandrous ethnic Tibetans. The author highlights contrasts between these societies to show how productive systems and postmarital residence can affect the relative status of spouses.

  • Stone, Linda. 2014. Kinship and gender: An introduction. 5th ed. Boulder, CO: Westview.

    The leading textbook for college-level teaching, it incorporates detailed case studies to show how descent, inheritance, and postmarital residence affect spousal relationships. A chapter dedicated to marriage examines relationships between spouses in monogamy and polygyny, strategies of marriage alliance, and the intersections with gender systems (pp. 175–205).

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