Transforming Marriage

by Janet Carsten

30 Jan 2017

A new project on marriage that is just getting under way at the University of Edinburgh begins with a paradox. While social scientific and public discourse often emphasises the conservative and normative aspects of marriage, globally, institutions and expectations of marriage are undergoing profound change, provoking intense debate and anxiety. As the recent referendum on same-sex marriage in the Republic of Ireland - to take one example - demonstrates, marriage is both a window on wider changes, for example, global demographic shifts to smaller families, or new consumption patterns, but also a motor for change. Anxieties about the future of marriage as an institution refract wider instabilities in political, economic, and familial institutions. They signal the critical role of marriage in bringing together - and separating - intimate, personal, and familial life with wider state institutions.

Our new collaborative research, ‘A Global Anthropology of Transforming Marriage’ (AGATM) is funded by the European Research Council under its Advanced Grant scheme. It aims to overturn conventional understandings by viewing marriage as inherently transformative, and indeed at the heart of social and cultural change. But the research will also be part of an ethnographic tradition in anthropology in which the study of kinship and marriage has been central. It will investigate current transformations of marriage in two distinct senses. First, it will investigate ethographically new forms of marriage in quite different contexts in selected sites in Europe, N. America, Asia, and Africa. Second, it will subject ‘marriage’ to a theoretical critique, denaturalising assumptions about how we view this core institution, and reintegrating marriage into recent work in the anthropology of kinship.

A singular opportunity afforded by this ERC funding is in allowing several different case studies to proceed under a single analytical frame. While anthropologists have typically undertaken fieldwork as ‘lone researchers’ in the model of Malinowski, collaborative work not only has comparison explicitly built into it, it also provides us with an opportunity to conduct research in a different and more supportive spirit. The research will consist of five contrastive and complementary sub-projects on contemporary marriage practices located in widely different cultural and regional contexts:

  • Middle-class marriage in Malaysia where rapid development and rising educational attainment have led to an expanded middle class, new marital forms, delayed marriage and, in neighbouring Singapore, increasing rates of non-marriage for professional women.

  • Same-sex marriage in Virginia, US, a late capitalist case where tensions in definitions of marriage are articulated through legal and religious contestation, and where, unlike in northern Europe, the transformation of marriage has not been accompanied by extensive secularisation.

  • Marriage under conditions of economic austerity in Athens, Greece where ‘traditional’ forms of marriage have an unusual cultural resilience, but economic pressures and the collapse of the welfare state nevertheless exert an impact on its form and content. 

  • Marriage under the economic and social pressures caused by the HIV/Aids pandemic in Botswana.

  • Marriage in two rapidly transforming economic regions of China and Taiwan, which are culturally closely linked, but under contrastive political regimes.

These case studies – each investigated by one researcher - will be linked through the themes of care, property, and ritual forms, which will structure how we collect ethnographic data and its analysis.

We see marriage as transformative in three distinct senses. The first involves contemporary change in marriage practices and forms. These include demographic shifts, changes in ritual forms, new and emerging understandings of ideal partners, changes in gender roles, residential patterns, and the relative importance of ideas and practices of ‘choice’ versus ‘arrangement’. Second, we will explore how the state uses the regulation of marriage to initiate demographic or other forms of social change, and will be attentive to state interventions in marriage and their outcomes. Third, marriage is transformative at the personal and familial levels: envisaging and planning marriage involves imagining a future and requires changes to current familial relations and living arrangements. Beyond this, it often entails reproductive choices and decisions, and through ideas and practices of in-marriage and out-marriage, mixing and separation, sexuality, reproduction, and aging, it may encompass ideas about corporeal change.

Our comparative and ethnographic approach aims to reconceptualise the analysis of marriage by attending to its imaginative possibilities as well as its lived actualities. If marriage is not envisaged as a stable and unchanging set of rules to which behaviour and practices refer and accommodate, then this allows us to grasp the historical significance of kinship - not as simply providing a bedrock of security and stability in the midst of political or environmental flux, but instead as a crucial means of transforming human relationships.

The capacity to envision futurity and pastness, to think about the sources and consequences of relatedness, are crucial aspects of human kinship, and are critical to marriage. The imaginative work that marriage involves: initiating a ‘marital project’ through contemplating a shared future, planning marriage rituals, creating a home, the expectations of becoming parents, or of care in old age, considering past familial marriages, or those of one’s children or grandchildren in the future – all of these require thinking about relationships beyond the here and now. This imaginative work has ethical aspects, and may involve the contemplation of risk and entitlement, romance and obligation. Temporality thus provides a bridge between the practicalities of marriage and its imaginative possibilities. We aim to show how the process of envisaging relations beyond the present is enabled through material stuff, processes of care, and the effects of ritual. Temporality highlights the transformative potential of marriage within political and historical contexts, and may thus provide a route for the theoretical reframing of marriage in human kinship. 

Professor Janet Carsten is a Fellow of the British Academy and a Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at The University of Edinburgh. She received an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council in January 2017 to research ‘A Global Anthropology of Transforming Marriage’. 

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