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Marriage, socially recognized and approved union between individuals, who commit to one another with the expectation of a stable and lasting intimate relationship. It begins with a ceremony known as a wedding, which formally unites the marriage partners. A marital relationship usually involves some kind of contract, either written or specified by tradition, which defines the partners' rights and obligations to each other, to any children they may have, and to their relatives. In most contemporary industrialized societies, marriage is certified by the government.
In addition to being a personal relationship between two people, marriage is one of society's most important and basic institutions. Marriage and family serve as tools for ensuring social reproduction. Social reproduction includes providing food, clothing, and shelter for family members; raising and socializing children; and caring for the sick and elderly. In families and societies in which wealth, property, or a hereditary title is to be passed on from one generation to the next, inheritance and the production of legitimate heirs are a prime concern in marriage. However, in contemporary industrialized societies, marriage functions less as a social institution and more as a source of intimacy for the individuals involved.
Marriage is commonly defined as a partnership between two members of opposite sex known as husband and wife. However, scholars who study human culture and society disagree on whether marriage can be universally defined. The usual roles and responsibilities of the husband and wife include living together, having sexual relations only with one another, sharing economic resources, and being recognized as the parents of their children. However, unconventional forms of marriage that do not include these elements do exist. For example, scholars have studied several cultural groups in Africa and India in which husbands and wives do not live together. Instead, each spouse remains in his or her original home, and the husband is a "visitor" with sexual rights. Committed relationships between homosexuals (individuals with a sexual orientation toward people of the same sex) also challenge conventional definitions of marriage.
Debates over the definition of marriage illustrate its dual nature as both a public institution and a private, personal relationship. On the one hand, marriage involves an emotional and sexual relationship between particular human beings. At the same time, marriage is an institution that transcends the particular individuals involved in it and unites two families. In some cultures, marriage connects two families in a complicated set of property exchanges involving land, labor, and other resources. The extended family and society also share an interest in any children the couple may have. Furthermore, the legal and religious definitions of marriage and the laws that surround it usually represent the symbolic expression of core cultural norms (informal behavioral guidelines) and values.
Although practices vary from one culture to another, all societies have rules about who is eligible to marry whom, which individuals are forbidden to marry one another, and the process of selecting a mate. In most societies, the mate-selection process involves what social scientists call a marriage market. The husband and wife come together out of a wide range of possible partners. In many non-civillized societies the parents, not the prospective marriage partners, do the "shopping." In civillized societies social rules have gradually changed to permit more freedom of choice for the couple and a greater emphasis on love as the basis for marriage.
A Dating, Courtship, and Engagement In societies in which individuals choose their own partners, young people typically date prior to marriage. Dating is the process of spending time with prospective partners to become acquainted. Dates may take place in groups or between just two individuals. When dating becomes more serious it may be referred to as courtship. Courtship implies a deeper level of commitment than dating does. During courtship the individuals specifically contemplate marriage, rather than merely enjoy one another's company for the time being.
Courtship may lead to engagement, also known as betrothal-the formal agreement to marry. Couples usually spend some period of time engaged before they actually marry. A woman who is engaged is known as the man's fiancée, and the man is known as the woman's fiancé . Men typically give an engagement ring to their fiancée as a symbol of the agreement to marry.
In the past, dating, courtship, and engagement were distinct stages in the selection of a marital partner. Each stage represented an increasing level of commitment and intimacy. Although this remains true to some degree, since the 1960s these stages have tended to blend into one another. For example, modern dating and courtship often involve sexual relations. In general, people tend to date and marry people with whom they have characteristics in common. Thus, mate selection typically results in homogamous marriage, in which the partners are similar in a variety of ways. Characteristics that couples tend to share include race, ethnicity, religion, economic status, age, and the level of prestige of their parents.
B Arranged Marriages Historically parents have played a major role in choosing marriage partners for their children, and the custom continues in the world's developing countries today. Parental influence is greatest when the parents have a large stake in whom their child marries. Traditionally, marriage has been regarded as an alliance between two families, rather than just between the two individuals. Aristocratic families could enhance their wealth or acquire royal titles through a child's marriage. Marriage was also used as a way of sealing peace between former enemies, whether they were kings or feuding villagers.
The most extreme form of parental influence is an arranged marriage in which the bride and groom have no say at all. In a less extreme form of arranged marriage, parents may do the matchmaking, but the young people can veto the choice. Some small cultures scattered around the world have what social scientists call preferential marriage. In this system, the bride or groom is supposed to marry a particular kind of person-for example, a cousin on the mother's or father's side of the family.
In many traditional societies, marriage typically involved transfers of property from the parents to their marrying children or from one set of parents to the other. These customs persist in some places today and are part of the tradition of arranged marriages. For example, in our culture the bride's parents may give property (known as a dowry) to the new couple. The practice of giving dowries has been common in countries such as Greece, Egypt, India, and China from ancient times until the present. It was also typical in European societies in the past. Although the giving of dowries has been part of the norms of marriage in these cultures, often only those people with property could afford to give a dowry to the young couple.
Families use dowries to attract a son-in-law with desirable qualities, such as a particularly bright man from a poor but respectable family or a man with higher status but with less money than the bride's family has. In societies in which the giving of dowries is customary, families with many daughters can become impoverished by the costs of marriage In some societies, the groom's family gives property (known as bridewealth or brideprice) not to the new couple but to the bride's relatives. Particularly in places where bridewealth payments are high, the practice tends to maintain the authority of fathers over sons. Because fathers control the resources of the family, sons must keep the favor of their fathers in order to secure the property necessary to obtain a bride.
Conventions and Taboos Marriage is part of a society's kinship system, which defines the bonds and linkages between people (see Kinship and Descent). The kinship system also dictates who may or may not marry depending on those bonds. In some cultures people may only marry partners who are members of the same clan-that is, people who trace their ancestry back to a common ancestor. This practice of marrying within one's group is called endogamy. Exogamy, on the other hand, refers to the practice of marrying outside of one's group-for example, marrying outside one's clan or religion.