Who Marries Whom?
The question ‘‘Who marries whom?’’ refers to patterns of partner choice. The tendency to marry (or enter a long term relationship such as cohabitation) a person who belongs to the same social group or who is similar with regard to certain characteristics is also known as homo gamy. Since Weber argued that connubium (i.e., marriage) is one of the indicators of status group closure, homogamy has become a key object of study in order to highlight properties of the social structure. Sociologists have traditionally been interested in three individual characteristics that can be important in the choice of a partner: race/ethnicity, religion, and socioeconomic resources. Studying patterns of partner choice is important because it allows us to evaluate the degree of openness of the boundaries of different ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic groups. The more frequent marriage between subjects who differ with respect to the characteristics of the group, the more open the group is said to be. Substantively, the likelihood of ethnic intermarriages has been interpreted as an indicator of the level of integration and social cohesion between different ethnic groups. Religious intermarriages reflect the strength of different religions in conditioning individual life choices. Finally, socioeconomic homogamy is related to the openness of the system of social stratification and affects the overall level of social inequality. In fact, in a society with the maximum level of socioeconomic homogamy, all men with a high educational level and occupational class would marry women with a high educational level and occupational class. Conversely, in a society with a minimum level of socioeconomic homogamy, men with a high educational level and occupational class would marry women with a low educational level and occupational class, and the other way around. If one assumes that the social position of a couple results from the combination of both of their resources, then inequality among couples will be highest in the society with a maximum level of homogamy, and lowest in the society with a minimum level.
Theories that aim to explain patterns of partner choice focus on three factors: individual preferences, control over partner choice by third parties (in particular, parents and relatives), and the structural availability of partners with given characteristics. According to modernization theory, for instance, the transformation from agrarian to industrial society also implies a change in the institution of marriage. It is argued that, with the advent of industrial society, the family loses its traditional economic functions and becomes fundamentally an emotional unit that cares for the integration and socialization of new members of the society. The shift to industrial society has also brought about a generalized improvement in standards of living and has been paralleled by the development of a welfare state that protects citizens against health, old age, and income loss risks. Therefore, the parents’ need to control their offspring’s marriage in order to safeguard the family economic assets and their own wellbeing when elderly has decreased. Parallel to the transformation in the institution of the family and marriage, other changes such as the diffusion of mass media, the process of urbanization, and geographical and social mobility increase the opportunities for subjects of various social groups and with different socio economic resources to come into contact. In sum, modernization theory suggests that control over marriage by third parties (i.e., parents) has diminished, while the opportunities to meet people with characteristics different from one’s own have increased. Thus, socioeconomic homogamy should decline over time.
In opposition to this hypothesis drawn from modernization theory, the theory of the educational system as a marriage market argues that increased participation in education segments the marriage market and favors educational homogamy for two reasons. First, by remaining in the education system for a longer time, subjects spend a larger part of their life course in a homogeneous environment with regard to education. Second, a longer amount of time spent in education also implies postponing marriage until school/university is completed. If marriage takes place just after leaving the educational system, it is likely to occur with a partner one met at school/university and, thus, with the same level of education and a similar occupation. In sum, participation in the educational system segments the network of actual and potential acquaintances and limits the opportunities to meet potential partners with different levels of socioeconomic resources.
Other theories have focused on the mechanism underlying the formation of individual preferences for a partner with given characteristics. For instance, it has been argued that the tendency to marry someone from the same ethnic or religious group or with the same level of economic resources reflects individual preferences for cultural similarity. According to this theory, people prefer a partner who shares the same values, opinions, and tastes because this increases the possibility of mutual understanding, reinforces one’s worldview, and augments the possibility of spending leisure time together. On the other hand, recent theories about social mobility and educational inequality suggest that in their mobility strategies, with choice of a partner being one of them, individuals aim to avoid downward social mobility. With the increase in the number of dual earner couples, both partners’ social positions have become increasingly important for defining the couple’s wellbeing and social position. Thus, in the search for a partner, people would aim to marry someone who has at least the same level of social resources as they do.
The comparative analysis of ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic homogamy and of its changes over time involves several methodological complications. This is because, independent of individual preferences, the level of homogamy is affected by the marginal distributions of the characteristics under analysis in the populations of potential partners. First of all, the level of homogamy is negatively correlated with the degree of heterogeneity of a population with respect to the characteristic under analysis. For instance, if one considers two religious groups, the number of homogamous couples will tend to be lower in a society where each of the two religions accounts for 50 percent of the population than in a society where a religious group accounts for 90 percent of the population. Moreover, a second difficulty has to do with differences in the distributions of potential partners with respect to the characteristics under analysis. The larger the imbalance in the two distributions, the lower the level of homogamy. For example, educational homo gamy will tend to be lower in a society where 30 percent of the women and 10 percent of the men have a university education than in a society where 20 percent of both men and women have a university education. In order to deal with this type of problem associated with the marginal distributions of the characteristics under investigation, empirical research on homogamy has largely borrowed both conceptual distinctions and statistical methods from social mobility studies.
In addition, empirical research on homo gamy has traditionally focused only on married couples and has excluded singles from the analysis. In recent years, changes in living arrangements have made this approach increasingly inadequate. There is, therefore, a manifest need to develop more comprehensive theoretical frameworks and analytical models in order to account for the overall process of searching for a partner, which might include the option of remaining single as one of its outcomes. Accordingly, the unit of analysis has shifted from the couple to the individual. Attempts have been made to investigate how individual preferences, third party control, and structural availability of partners with certain characteristics affect an individual’s outcome in the marriage market. One should note, however, that by focusing on individuals one gets a one sided view of the process of partner choice, since it obviously takes two to form a couple. Ideally, one should simultaneously consider the parallel process of searching for a partner in both groups of potential partners.
Although it has long been recognized that patterns of partner choice offer key sociological insights, the mentioned methodological problems have made it difficult to get conclusive results on trends in patterns of partner choice over time and among countries. Still, one might predict that, given the substantive interest in the consequences of ethnic and religious homo gamy for social cohesion and of socioeconomic homogamy for income inequality, the question ‘‘Who marries whom?’’ will remain at the core of the research agenda on social structure in the coming years.
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