Using the textbook Anthropology: What does it mean to be human? there were two readings on marriage for Intro-to-Anthropology 2018:

  • Lavenda and Schultz chapter 14, “Where Do Our Relatives Come From?” (references below are to the 4th edition)
  • Alice Dreger, “When Taking Multiple Husbands Makes Sense” in The Atlantic (2013).

These materials were for Intro to Anthropology 2018. For an update, see the 2021 Marriage is a social process.

The Nuclear Family

When we examine typical US kinship charts, we expect to see a number of “neolocal monagamous families” (Lavenda & Schultz, 447) or what is called the nuclear family. While there are certainly many examples of nuclear families all over the world, we tend to see and portray the nuclear family as universal. Even in the United States, as Lavenda and Schultz point out, “in 2013, only about one half of North American children under the age of 18” lived in a nuclear family (447). When looked at cross-culturally and historically, the neolocal monogamous family seems to be something that arose in a historically particular time and place rather than a natural or universal kinship and marriage convention.

Monogamy & Polygamy

Monogamy, or being married to one person, probably characterizes the majority of marriages in most societies. Monogamous marriages promise “until death do us part,” although such patterns are uncertain. “Today, some observers suggest that we practice serial monogamy; we may be married to several different people but only one at a time” (Lavenda & Schultz, 444).

Forms of polygamy such as polygyny (Lavenda & Schultz, 444) have also been considered natural and in some cases highly valued. Although polygyny has been widely studied and commented upon, polyandry is usually seen as one of the rarest forms of marriage. “Polyandry is the rarest of the three marriage forms” (Lavenda & Schultz, 444). The classic cases of polyandry are in highland Nepal.

However, Alice Dreger’s article “When Taking Multiple Husbands Makes Sense” argues that polyandrous practices are much more widespread than some anthropological depictions:

Indeed, according to Starkweather and Hames, anthropologists have documented social systems for polyandrous unions “among foragers in a wide variety of environments ranging from the Arctic to the tropics, and to the desert.” Recognizing that at least half these groups are hunter-gatherer societies, the authors conclude that, if those groups are similar to our ancestors–as we may reasonably suspect–then “it is probable that polyandry has a deep human history.”


Lavenda and Schultz discuss “prototypical marriage” (441) but then dive into what we might consider stranger customs of “Woman Marriage” and “Ghost Marriage” (441-42). These customs become less exotic when we realize that marriage has often been about organizing resources and political alliance (Lavenda & Schultz, 445-46). The idea that romantic love should be the basis for marriage is a relatively recent notion.

Endogamy & Exogamy

In the United States, people tend to believe that romantic love is the ideal basis for marriage. We also believe that “love conquers all” and thus brings a freedom and exogamy to our romantic and marriage choices. But statistically, a vast majority of US marriages are endogamous by social class. How does that happen? Evidence suggests that in addition to social stratification by zip code, the educational system helps guide choices to be endogamous within social class.

Anthropology on Kinship

In wrapping up these reflections on kinship, marriage, gender, sex, and sexuality, a number of points stand out:

  • Kinship must be made, even if it is born.
  • If marriage were just a way to organize our “natural” sex drives, then they would look the same. But check out gender and sexuality.
  • Marriage is best thought of as a “social process that unfolds over time” (Lavenda & Schultz, 442).
  • Kinship reveals a dazzling array of what people do: it is not pre-set by biology, it is not just an overlay on universal categories, and it is not a staged development from primitive to modern.

However, we should also be aware of kinship and marriage as a potential home for inequality, which was the subject of the next class.

Masai Women

In class we watched Masai Women and these questions were the possible basis for Disqus comments below:

  1. What kinship system do you observe (descent, locality, marriage patterns)?
  2. What do women say about marriage? What would you expect them to say?
  3. What do women say about female circumcision?
  4. Video jacket calls this a “completely male dominated society” and that the film presents them “from the view of its women, who are rendered powerless by the confines of their culture.” Do you agree? Are there any powerful women in this society?

Again, this final question paved the way for the final class on Inequality.

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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