Marriage Systems

Marriage is a ubiquitous feature of human kinship and social organization and its development assumed a critical role in the history of social institutions. According to many anthropologists, the regulation of sexual relationships may in itself have formed the basis of all human social orders. Several widely occurring functions of marriage can be associated with notable behavioural universals:
  1. parental responsibility for long term infant nurturing and education,
  2. social regulation of sexual competition,
  3. organization of gendered divisions of labour,
  4. assignment of individuals to social groups and statuses, and
  5. the formation of intergroup alliances and exchanges.
Yet in spite of these general features, different cultures have developed a fascinating diversity of regulations and customs concerning prohibitions and preferences for marriage partners as well as expectations between spouses and in-laws. Prominent variations, such as arranged marriages, polygamy, and same-sexed unions provide a rich ethnographic record for speculating about why societies differ. They also challenge our tolerance of different moral conventions at the most basic level

© Brian Schwimmer
University of Manitoba
Created September 1996
Last updated: Septermber 2003