The Field of Eligible Spouses

All cultures rule that some close kin are ineligible as sexual partners or as marriage partners. The social norms pertaining to these are respectively the incest taboo and kin exogamy (Murdock, 1949). Beyond this, cultures may restrict eligibility of partners for marriage in various ways. Modern large-scale cultures often have further preferences that spouses be similar in age, race, social standing, education, religion, and the like. These generally are not necessarily absolute or legal restrictions, but they do result in individuals selecting spouses within their own social categories more often than if mate selection were purely random. The standard term for this statistical tendency is homogamy (Kalmijn, 1998). Homogamy occurs in part because of structural factors such as residential and age segregation in communities, but also because of individual preferences and group pressures. American culture, with its emphasis on love, holds a contradiction to widespread homogamy in the phrase "Searching the wide world over to find Mr (or Ms) Right." This expresses our value on personal freedom in mate choice and suggests that mate selection is an international process in which persons of radically different backgrounds often select each other as spouses. In reality, Americans mostly search within their own neighborhoods and communities, within their own education, social class, race, and age brackets, and within their own major religious denominations.

Some social theorists (Parsons, 1951) suggest that these mate selection preferences help maintain the structure of society. Since race and ethnic groups, social classes, religions, and age groups differ in their values and lifestyles, intermarriage would tend to weaken or dilute the values and lifestyles of these diverse social categories. Group differentiation and status structures are impossible without homogamous marriage. At the same time, for individual couples, marriage has been conceived as easier for mutual adjustment and more lasting when one marries a spouse with similar values, lifestyle, and the like.

Traditional, less diverse, cultures are often structured more along kinship lines with people being grouped into extended families, or even larger groups tracing descent from a common ancestor. Some of these cultures restrict the range of eligible spouses in a different way. They prefer, or in some cases require, that one marry a particular kind of cousin. Typically this is a cross-cousin. A cross-cousin is one to whom one is linked via a cross-sex sibling link in a previous generation. For first cousins, the cross-cousins are one's mother's brother's offspring, and one's father's sister's offspring. Even in societies with large clans tracing their membership through only one sex, these cousins are not covered by the incest taboo or the rule of exogamy, and hence are eligible to marry. The cousin marriage rule simply adds more pressure to marry into this category. Parenthetically, parallel cousins are the other type. For first cousins, they are the offspring of one's father's brothers and one's mother's sisters. Only a few cultures in the Middle East have had a preference for marrying parallel cousins.

What is cross-cousin marriage about? It helps perpetuate relationships among kin groups and thus stabilizes social structure. Two leaders in the anthropological study of kinship had different ideas about how marriage relates to social structure, and what a marriage does to social structure. The British anthropologist Radcliffe-Brown (1950, p. 43) asserted that marriage is a rearrangement of social structure. He had in mind that new links between families and kin groups are formed with each new marriage. Whereas two families may not have been well acquainted before a marriage, they now become in-laws, a new relationship for them, and enter into a lasting, if intermittent, bond. This view has much merit when we are thinking of individual families and the personal ties between them, but it leads us to think of marriage as destabilizing existing social structure.

However, the French anthropologist Levi-Strauss (1969) held the antithetical view. In an examination of cultures with cross-cousin marriage, he held that those groups use marriage to stabilize social structure rather than allowing marriage to change it. By having people marry the same type of cross-cousin generation after generation, new marriages do not always create new ties among kin groups, but may perpetuate existing alliances. Perhaps the most interesting use of marriage to stabilize social structure is called generalized exchange, in which a woman marries a person in the same kinship category as her father's sister's son, and a man marries into the category of his mother's brother's daughter. With this restriction on the field of eligible spouses, each kin group in the culture always receives wives from one set of kin groups, but gives its daughters as wives to a different group. In other words, one never gives and receives wives from the same group (see Levi-Strauss [1969] or Fox [1967] for details on how this and other patterns of marital exchange work). Levi-Strauss theorized that this type of marital exchange among groups not only helps perpetuate cooperation among kin groups, but also expands its scope. This perspective helps in understanding the implications of cross-cousin marriage for relations among the kin groups of some societies, but it can blind one to the real changes that occur in everyday interpersonal relationships when a new marriage is undertaken.

What cultures are likely to include close cousins from within the field of eligible spouses? The type of cousin marriage preferred in a society is related to the rule of descent. The type of cousin marriage called generalized exchange, for example, is more likely in cultures with patrilineal descent than with matrilineal kin groups based on female ancestors (Homans & Schneider, 1955). A common misperception is that the very simplest small-scale societies prefer or practice cousin marriage, but Ember (1975) has shown conclusively that this is incorrect. In a cross-cultural study, he found that marriage with a first cousin is more likely to be permitted in societies with a centralized political hierarchy more than in simpler uncentralized ones. Similarly, first-cousin marriage is more likely to be permitted in societies with some urban aggregations than in those with no settlements of over 5,000 population. Furthermore, for societies of medium scale (with populations between 1,000 and 25,000), recent extensive population loss is associated with norms permitting first-cousin marriage. This study suggests that cousin marriages may be allowed under two conditions. It may be allowed in larger-scale societies where it is less likely to occur by chance and where peaceful cooperative relations are well established. Second, close-cousin marriage may be allowed in very small, especially depopulated, societies in which too few spouses might otherwise be available. These findings fly in the face of Levi-Strauss's widely cited view of cross-cousin marriage as establishing peace and cooperation in small-scale societies. More research and some rethinking are needed to reconcile this issue.

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