To What Extent Can Marriage Be Considered a Universal Aspect of Human Societies?

1737 words (7 pages) Essay in Sociology

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Marriage is defined in the Dictionary as, “the legally or formally recognized union of two people as partners in a personal relationship”. However, there are many other definitions of marriage, varying across different cultures and religions. According to Knox (1990, p288), “Marriage in the United States is a legal relationship between a woman and man that provides for the transfer of property and the obligation of the spouses to nurture and support any children they may have.” Different sociological theorists also have different definitions of marriage. Three key sociological theorists are Kathleen Gough, Edmund Leach and Claude Levi-Strauss. This essay will explore those definitions and will then determine the extent in which marriage can be considered a universal aspect of human societies.

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Regardless of how masculine a society is, males need females. In some societies, male’s sisters have this role and in other societies male’s wives do. Marriage patterns develops as a result of influences of the society and culture (Knox). The main reason for marriage is to create and raise offspring. Romance is not commonly regarded as an important factor for marriage. Marriage is often seen as a relationship between groups not individuals as it is commonly arranged by kin groups rather than husband and wife (Eriksen 1995). However, this differs across different cultures and religions, as well as time periods.

Kathleen Gough defines marriage as “a relationship established between a woman and one or more other persons, which provides a child born to the woman under circumstances not prohibited by the rules of relationship, is accorded full birth-status rights common to normal members of his society or social stratum.” (Gough 1968 cited in Bohannan and Middleton). In some cultures, sexual rights, financial rights, or rights in children are not obtained from marriage. One example of this is the Nayar. Kathleen Gough studied marriage between the Nayar. The Nayar are the people of the Malabar coast in southern India. Gough found that young girls married numerous men during a ceremony. Afterwards, they went home without their husbands and were brought up by the females in their family (Court 1999). The marriage was then broken off after a few days and the woman was allowed to pursue other men (Eriksen 1995). Gough also found that the Nayar household was centred around females, with the grandmother heading the household. Men did not live with their brides, they became ‘visiting husbands’ instead. Polyandry, having more than one husband at a time, was practised among the Nayar. This was due to males frequently being away at war and because of their low life expectancy (Court 1999). Gough found that the Nayar did not have a conventional husband role. Men had no rights in their children. They only had rights in their nephews and nieces (Gough 1959 cited in Eriksen 1995). Marriage between the Nayar can be described as ‘matrilineal’ and also ‘matrifocal’ (Eriken 1995). Gough decided that rights of sexual access could not be included in the definition of marriage. She limited the meaning of marriage to parenthood of a female’s offspring. It could be said that Gough’s meaning of marriage is limiting. Marriage does mean parenthood, but it has other meanings too.

Edmund Leach argued that Gough’s definition of marriage was too restrictive in terms of offspring. Leach (1955) argued that there is not one definition of marriage applicable to all cultures. Leach felt that marriage should be viewed in the different rights it serves. He proposed ten rights associated with marriage. These rights include:

  1. “To establish a legal father of a woman’s children.
  2. To establish a legal mother of a man’s children.
  3. To give the husband a monopoly in the wife’s sexuality.
  4. To give the wife a monopoly in the husband’s sexuality.
  5. To give the husband partial or monopolistic rights to the wife’s domestic and other labour services.
  6. To give the wife partial or monopolistic rights to the husband’s domestic and other labour services.
  7. To give the husband partial or total control over property belonging or potentially accruing to the wife.
  8. To give the wife partial or total control over property belonging or potentially accruing to the husband.
  9. To establish a joint fund of property – a partnership – for the benefit of the children of the marriage.
  10. To establish a socially significant ‘relationship of affinity’ between the husband and his wife’s brothers.”

Leach’s definition of marriage is much broader than Gough’s. Marriage has many rights and responsibilities, it is not limited to one meaning. Marriage includes rights in sexual access, property and family. Although, Leach’s definition of marriage is broader than Gough’s, it is still limited. It can be argued that marriage includes rights in more categories than Leach proposed.

Claude Levi-Strauss proposed the Alliance theory and the exchange of women. The Alliance theory is based on the incest taboo. Human societies do not allow sexual relationships between people who are closely related. There is no legal law against it, but social norms prohibit it. Incest taboo allows for social groups to get bigger (Eriksen 1995). Levi-Strauss argued that bonds between groups are established and maintained because of women. Stability is accomplished through passing women from one group to another. When a female is presented to a male out with the family circle, the giver is then allowed a female from that group. Levi-Strauss argued that men divide the women surrounding them into two mutually exclusive categories, ‘wives’ and ‘sisters’, and that only the ‘wives’ are seen as possible sexual partners (Eriksen 1995). Exogamy is marriage which occurs between two people of different groups. In contrast, Endogamy is marriage which occurs between two people of the same group. Some societies allow their members to marry their relatives, however, they do not allow them to marry their closest relatives (Eriksen 1995). For example, marriage between cousins. Levi-Strauss’ theory on marriage is relevant to the present day as most people would not even consider marrying a relative as society prohibits us to do so. However, in most modern societies, women are not exchanged. Exogamy is practiced more than Endogamy.

In conclusion, marriage can be considered a universal aspect of society to a small extent. This is because different types of marriage, across different cultures and religions, are very different from one another. Marriage is only universal as there is something that we can call marriage in all societies. Marriage as a multicultural phenomenon does not exist. However, some form of marriage exists within all societies.


  • COURT, C., 1999. Introduction to Sociology. Revised Edition. Britain: Tudor Business Publishing Limited.
  • ERIKEN, T.H. 1995. Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology. London: PLUTO PRESS.
  • GOUGH, K., 1968. The Nayars and the definition of marriage. In Paul Bohannan and John Middleton, eds., Marriage, Family and Residence. New York: The Natural History Press.
  • KNOX, D., 1990. Living Sociology. America: WEST PUBLISHING COMPANY.


MacDonaldization, proposed by George Ritzer, is a sociological theory based off Max Weber’s theories of bureaucracy and rationality. MacDonaldization is the process of rationalisation. MacDonaldization finds the most efficient method for completing each task and then deems all other methods inefficient and discarded. This results in efficient methods that can be accomplished the same way every time to result in the desired outcome. Ritzer’s theory has four dimensions which are, efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control. Efficiency relates to tasks being finished in the most productive way. Calculability concerns quantity over quality. Predictability relates to ensuring that results are the always the same. Finally, control relates to replacing humans with technology. Ritzer argues that when our lives become MacDonaldized, the result is usually irrational. It can be argued that over-rationalising a process caused irrationality.

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An example of MacDonaldization in our social world is seen in most businesses. Automated systems are now used in most factories to make products. This is because new machinery produces products at a much quicker rate than a human workforce and ensures that all products are identical. Replacing people with technology reduces the margin for human error and results in tasks being completed with ease and much faster. However, this has resulted in thousands of people losing jobs, increasing the overall unemployment rate. As well as this, it costs a lot of money to make, buy and maintain machinery.

Another example of MacDonaldization in our social world is supermarkets.

Ritzer argues that if attempting to be very efficient, calculable, predictable and controlling results in irrationality, then can we be more rational if we attempt to be inefficient, uncalculable, unpredictable and uncontrolled?

An example of a seemingly irrational behaviour that turns out to be rational is shopping in Supermarkets. Most of the population do their shopping in chain supermarkets as they think it is more rational than shopping in local shops. They may find it inconvenient to have to go to several local shops instead of one big supermarket. However, by shopping at local shops, you will be able to find fresher foods which are better for your health. It may seem irrational paying more money for locally sourced foods, however, it reduces fuel consumption so is better for the environment. Also, buying local foods, helps support your community. So, although it seems more rational to shop at big Supermarkets as it may be less time consuming and cheaper, it is in fact quite irrational as it is bad for the environment and takes away from the local community.

In conclusion, trying to be as rational as we can, can actually lead to irrational results. Therefore, trying to be extremely efficient, calculable, predictable and controlling may not be the most rational way of doing things. So, although the idea of being purposely irrational may seem irrational, it may actually be more rational than it seems. For example, walking to work instead of driving or getting public transport. This may take longer but it is better for the environment and a person’s mental and physical health.

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