Chapter 14 (333-351): Sex, Marriage, and Family


Culture shapes human reproduction and fertility (the rate of population growth from the numbers of births and deaths). Cultural beliefs and practices can affect ideas of beauty, attraction, marriage, pregnancy and child rearing. The rules governing how, when, and with whom an individual can engage in sexual activity are highly patterned by culture. As the usual outcome of sexual activity is the production of children, all societies have certain rules that regulate sexual relations. And because sexual activity has the potential to be highly divisive in society, and, for much of the world, it also has economic functions, including access to the labor of offspring, it makes sense that there are well-established rules about it.


As marriage is culturally constructed, there are a variety of different forms of marriage practiced around the world, but it does exist in all cultures. There are two main categories of marriage.


While Western notions of romance often paint marriage as a process where people are free to marry whomever they choose, there are a variety of marriage arrangements and rules about who may marry whom. In some cases, the marriage of the two individuals might be incidental to the formation of alliances between two families. Thus, arranging marriages is not as uncommon as some might like to consider. There are generally two categories of rules for selecting spouses, rules of exclusion and rules of inclusion.


The formalization of many marriages cross-culturally is usually marked by some type of economic gift or exchange. These gifts and exchanges serve to underline that to much of the rest of the world, marriage is an economic and political transaction. By marrying, a family loses a member of their household and thus their labor and help with their economic activities, as well as the labor and help of all of their potential offspring. Most marriages involve gift giving between partners, families and friends. There are three major forms of marital exchanges.


After marriage in extended family cultures, it is often expected that the wife or husband, possibly both, will move to a new household to establish their family unit. The three most common patterns of residence possible after marriage occurs are:


As marriage is a cultural practice, so too is divorce. Because marriage is often an economic matter, divorce arrangements can vary in degrees of complexity. Depending on the culture, grounds for divorce may range from sterility or impotence to infidelity or domestic violence. Divorce can range in difficulty from Western style court actions to the simple form of placing a cheating husband’s belongings on the stoop to indicate to the village that he is no longer welcome. A concern that some have expressed in Western societies is the increasing prevalence of divorce. However, others have noted that in many societies, both Western and non-Western, marriage is not central to family life. Many cultures have a prevalence of couples that cohabitate (live together) and raise children, but have never married.


Just as there are a variety of ways to define marriage, there are numerous variations of families and households. Due to this variation, the anthropological definitions of family and household are unavoidably broad. Our book defines a family as two or more people related by blood, marriage or adoption. In contrast, a household is a domestic group where members may or may not be related by kinship, who live together and share economic responsibilities. However, most households consist of family members. When studying how human groups arrange their family and household life, anthropologists usually use the categories of nuclear and extended family.


Attempts at defining marriage, family, and household by one definition are problematic to say the least. As seen in this chapter, there are a variety of ways that people will organize, marry, and form households in cross-cultural perspective. Given the growth in immigration, the blending of cultures and families, and the emergence of new reproductive technologies, it is likely that further challenges to traditional notions of family and marriage are likely to occur.