Posts Tagged ‘social anthropology’

On Hypergamy

©Tessa Valo, 2007

Abstract: The aim of this brief article is to discuss the extent to which marriage can be conceived of and serve as a strategy how to achieve a higher status within a given social hierarchy. We will examine this topic through examples from several, in some respects radically different, social systems – from the nineteenth-century Cuba, traditional Hindu caste system, the social organization of Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea to the twentieth-century Italy. We will argue that though marriage can, in some cases, serve as an effective strategy how to achieve a higher status, it must always be accompanied by other salient factors relative to the respective social system – thus it can not serve as a mean how to achieve this aim alone, but must always – to definite extent – go hand in hand with other culturally approved ways which lead to this goal.

The classical descent theorists conceptualized marriage as a recognized relationship that has, as such, the potential to create legitimate heirs and successors and thus assure the continuity of the given social order as well as of their own selves (Yanagisako & Collier 1996:235). This aspect of marriage will turn out as a crucial one in our discussion of different marriage strategies; the moment of perpetuation of the given social order and hierarchy and of ones position within it is always present, hypergamy – i.e. the practice of selecting a spouse with a higher social status than oneself – might be thus seen from this perspective rather as an exception to the rule (which, in a sense, strengthens it).

Our first example will take us to the nineteenth-century Cuba, where hypergamy in a form of interracial marriage, though not common, functioned as an effective mean how to climb up the social ladder. The social position of an individual in the nineteenth-century Cuba was first and foremost determined by his or her family origin – where African origin generally implied slavery and low status – but personal achievement could, to some extent, alter the ascriptive status (Martinez-Alier 1989). The social hierarchy in Cuba had a class rather than racial nature, though class was associated and expressed in racial terms[1] (the whiter the higher status and the other way round). Choosing physical appearance as a criterion to classify the society hierarchically was comprehensible in a system where slavery, i.e. low status, was associated with a dark skin color, and this criterion would work perfectly well if interracial marriages/cohabitation (together with immigration of Chinese and American Indians) would not occur and thus would not produce ambiguous uncategorizable cases. The intraracial marriage was, according to the official policy, an ideal; ethnic groups or rather groups of people sharing the same/similar phenotype and/or skin color were conceived as the basic endogamic units, where the hereditary principle determined their membership and perpetuation (Ibid. 134). Thus group exogamy as a rule took the form of hypergamy – either in a form of marriage or hypergamous free unions. What made the hypergamous (interracial) marriages and unions possible to occur was the fact that “consensus as to the legitimacy of the ‘fundamental’ nature of the social order was absent” (Ibid. 138) together with a certain idea of social mobility and first and foremost with the penetration of the primarily Christian notion of equality into the secular ideology. Hypergamous marriage, which meant social advancement for the inferior woman and most importantly for her offspring and no automatic loss of status on the part of the white man, was facilitated by the absence of generally approved and legitimized rigid social structure and hierarchy. The hypergamous marriage thus meant equality, though it was still an exception – here we can clearly see that marriage generally served (and serves) as a mean of reproduction and perpetuation of the already existing social hierarchy even though ways how to advance through marriage might be found especially in a situation of the emergence of ‘ambiguous cases’ which could undermine the legitimacy of the official vision of the social structure.

Now we will look closer at another example coming from the traditional Hindu society and its caste system as it is described by Dumont (1980). Dumont analyzes the hierarchical caste system and – importantly for our example – focuses on the deviations from the endogamic rule (which is understood more as an implication of hierarchy than as an independent principle), showing that these deviations (hypergamy) rather than disruption of the integrity of the social system, partake on its very spirit. He describes a practice of hypergamy encountered in north India, where there exists a slight status difference between spouses, an inferiority of wife’s family in relation to the husband’s, which is considered normal and does not even effect the offspring’s status (Dumont 1980:116; cf. Davis 1941; Khare 1972). The significant difference between the caste system, as described by Dumont, and the above presented example from the nineteenth-century Cuba lies in the fact that an Indian is ‘born into a caste and dies in it’ (though sub-castes can slightly modify their collective status). But what is more “in northern India, hypergamous marriage being the rule, it meant hierarchy carried into the most intimate spheres of the system” (Martinez-Alier 1989:139). Marriage thus again has the primary function of reproduction of the given social order and though hypergamy occurs, its function is in its consequences rather precisely the opposite than we would wait – it is an institutionalized part of the given social system.

Now we will have a closer look at a radically different social hierarchical system and at if there exists a possibility how to advance on the social ladder through marriage, namely that of Trobrianders of the Papua New Guinea. We will first focus our attention on the system of the social hierarchy of Trobrianders, especially on the chieftainship and the crucial role of yams (not only in relation to marriage). In the Trobriand system “a person’s right to sit higher than the rest comes from his birth and the authority brought by his ancestors”, but “how many people will actually sit under him comes from the authority he himself is able to summon” (Weiner 1987:103). Thus a person can have legitimacy, but even though he can lack power, therefore “every person, including chiefs, must work to develop power in their relationships with others” (Ibid. 103). The power of a Trobriand chief is highly localized and covers his own hamlet and other villages and hamlets only through individual matrilineages to which he is connected through his women or the same place of origin of the ancestors; the chief is thus in a need to expand this primary network and to seek support with hamlet leaders in different villages. Power is in the Trobriand society tightly connected with economy (or rather economic status) and economy means yams and yams can be highly effectively acquired through marriage, i.e. through yams produced for women by her matrilineal kin. Chief’s full yam house not only symbolizes that he is powerful but also assesses his strength and his success in the continual negotiations of his status and relations mainly with his kin as well as non-kin. Thus when there are good harvests chief can expand his wealth and in such way also his power, he can be generous and distribute yams as a payment for villagers’ work which in turn gives more glance to his status. As we have seen, chiefs have the privilege to be polygynous; this enables them to acquire more yams, thus more wealth and power than a common man could ever dream about. “Even if a hamlet leader is very strong and has five or six men making gardens for him, in addition to his wife’s yams, his accumulation is limited when compared to what a chief can expect” (Ibid. 106). Thus in this system “women that chiefs marry assume a role of great consequence in their political careers” (Ibid. 106), or rather – it is not only women but women and her matrilineal kinsmen that play the crucial role, since it is the alliances which are the most important and whose strength is expressed in the quantity and even quality of yams in chief’s yam house. Marriages are thus one way how to expand the chiefs network of allies and probably the most effective on which other means (derived from the amount of yams gathered) rest. The social hierarchy of Trobrianders thus rests on a combination of ascribed and achieved statuses; as a member of a given ascribed status one has definite rights and privileges which one must respect but on the other hand has also the possibility to improve ones standing through work in the yam gardens and possibly through profitable marriage. But even though a slight social mobility is possible through one’s activity, radical change in status is practically excluded, because for the first the rights and privileges ascribed to each status group themselves prevent the occurrence of such mobility by favouring the chiefs and leaders so that the commoner can never outdo them on the basis of his work and for the second, that the social relations expressed in and also dependent on the yam production and thus also wealth must be continually negotiated and reaffirmed (not less because of the perishable quality of yams). Even here we can see that marriage primarily serves as a mean of reproduction of the given social hierarchy; though for the women (and consequently also their kin) who marry the chief, this can mean an upward change in their status, this practice in its consequences only strengthens the social hierarchy, the social division and maintains the already existing social order.

Our last example comes from the twentieth-century Italy and its ‘bourgeois class’ of family firm owners in the district of Como (Yanagisako 2002). Before we proceed to the role marriage can play in this social system, we will first have a look at how firms are reproduced and under what conditions the upward social mobility can occur. Understandably all family firm owners aspire to move up the Como industrial hierarchy and even a high degree of upward mobility in the local systems of such firms is reported. The goal of reproduction and upward movement depends on successful transmission of the firm to the next generation and on the effective accumulation and reinvestment of the capital. The social hierarchy of the Como bourgeoisie is by no means rigid and impervious; it is the other way round. The character of the class is rather temporal (Yanagisako 2002:99). Though the class (especially the upper class) could be reproduced through marriage (in case of marrying out of the daughters of the family firm owners[2]), the main weight rested on the shoulders of the nuclear family and specifically its sons, who were trained to reproduce the social status and even to move the family up on the social ladder. But what is more, in the upper fraction of the Como bourgeoisie “strict boundaries are drawn between the family and in-laws, who are sometimes even excluded from holding shares in the firm […] sons-in-law and daughters-in-law, no matter how accomplished or skilled, are not considered viable candidates for firm management” (Ibid. 176). Here sentiments such as fear and distrust to in-laws that are conceived as having no personal attachment or bond established to the family firm and can thus represent a potential threat to the firm and its emergence, come into play. Marriage can not serve (at least for upper fraction of bourgeoisie) as an effective strategy of acquiring of a higher social status since that/it is dependent on considerably different factors such as capital accumulation and effective marketing strategies and development.

We have peeped into four different hierarchical social systems and looked at the possibility of marriage as a mean how to achieve a higher social status. In Cuba this strategy, though not broadly diffused, was effective, which was made possible by the non-rigidity and no generally shared legitimacy of the social hierarchical system. In the Hindu traditional society hypergamy, on the other hand, in fact strengthened and became a part of the given hierarchy and had no real consequences for the social status of the offspring. In Papua New Guinea marriage (and in case of the chief marriages) could serve the purpose of acquiring a higher social status but only within the limits given by the ascribed statuses. In the case of upper fraction of Como bourgeoisie advancement through profitable marriage alliances was for the family firms and their families not possible. We can thus conclude together with Bourdieu that

marriage strategies as such must not be seen in the abstract, unrelated to inheritance strategies, fertility strategies and even pedagogical strategies. In other words they must be seen as one element in the entire system of biological, cultural and social reproduction by which every group endeavors to pass on to the next generation the full measure of power and privilege it has itself inherited (Bourdieu 2002:558)


Bourdieu, Pierre. 2002. Pierre Bourdieu on Marriage Strategies. Population and Development Review. 28(3):549-558.

Davis, Kingsley. 1941. Intermarriage in Caste Societies. American Anthropologist. 43(3):376-395.

Dumont, Louis. 1980. Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications. The University of Chicago Press.

Holy, Ladislav. 1996. Anthropological Perspectives on Kinship. London: Pluto Press.

Khare, R. S. 1972. Hierarchy and Hypergamy: Some Interrelated Aspects among the Kanya-Kubja Brahmans. American Anthropologist. 74(3):611-628.

Leach, E. R. 1961. Rethinking Anthropology. London School of Economics Monographs on Social Anthropology. No. 22. London: Athlone Press.

Martinez-Alier, Verena. 1989. Marriage, Class and Colour in Nineteenth-Century Cuba: A Study of Racial Attitudes and Sexual Values in a Slave Society. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Rosaldo, Michelle Z. 1974. Woman, Culture and Society: A Theoretical Overview. In: Rosaldo, M. & Lamphere, L. (eds.). Woman, Culture and Society. Stanford University Press. pp.17-42.

Weiner, Annette B. 1987. The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea. Thomson Wadsworth.

Yanagisako, Sylvia J., Collier Jane F. 1996. Comments on “Until Death Do Us Part”. American Ethnologist. 23(2):235-236.

Comaroff, J. 1992. Of Totemism and Ethnicity. In: Comaroff, John & Comaroff, Jean (eds.). Ethnography and the Historical Imagination. Westview Press. Pp. 49-67.

Yanagisako, Sylvia Junko. 2002. Producing Culture and Capital: Family Firms in Italy. Princeton University Press.

[1] This may be paralleled with Comaroff’s statement about ethnicity: “The origins of ethnic groups and consciousness may lie in the structuring of inequality. But, once objectified as a ‘principle’ by which the division of labor is organized, ethnicity assumes the autonomous character of a prime mover in the unequal destinies of persons and populations. To wit, just as working class black Americans do not view their blackness as a function of their class position, but their class position as a function of their blackness” (Comaroff 1992:59).

[2] But it must be noted that here it comes just to reproduction of social status as such on the offspring, with no relation to the reproduction of firm and ‘family’ social status which is here crucial, since the woman becomes a part of the family of her husband and thus looses the relation to her own family of orientation.

Read Full Post »