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Marriage is a universal institution but its forms differ in every society. One such form is Polygyny, which is one of the important kinds of polygamy where a man is married to several women at the same time.

What is Polygyny marriage in Anthropology

Polygyny is found in the societies in which the role of women is considered as child bearer and are involved mainly in socialisation.

Even though most societies (around 80%) allow polygyny, anthropological research (Murdoch 1981; White 1988) implies that only a small percentage of marriages are polygamous. Although polygyny has a long history, it has never been the majority experience or the accepted norm in any community. Ancient Hebrew society, classical Chinese culture, and Islam all embraced it. Many traditional African and Polynesian tribes have also accepted it.

What is Polygyny marriage in Anthropology
Fig: Polygyny representation

Features of Polygyny

  1. Hunter – gatherer
  2. Frequent wars
  3. Primitive Agriculture
  4. Horticulture
  5. High role of women in subsistence agriculture.

Examples and their reasons of Polygyny

  1. In African tribes and some Indian tribes such as Santhal, due to intensive agriculture more labour is needed in the field. More wives mean more children and consequently more labour. Thus, economic pragmatism has forced Africans to adopt polygyny.
  2. Among Nagas, having more wives is a status symbol. Hence, here heroism is responsible for polygyny.
  3. In pre-independent Bengal, practice of hypergamy resulted in polygyny.
  4. In Maria Gond, demand for more labour was provided in the form of many children by multiple wives.

Types of Polygyny

  1. Sororal polygyny: This sort of union involves co-wives who are sisters. Due to the perception that sisters are more supportive of one another and less argumentative than non-siblings, it is frequently the preferred form. At least 40 Native American nations throughout the 19th century practised sororal polygyny, where the oldest girl in the family marries first and her younger sisters join her as co-wives as they reach marriageable age.
  2. Non-sororal polygyny: It is a type of polygyny in which the co-wives are not sisters.

Advantages of Polygyny

  1. Women typically contribute significantly to the household’s wealth and can therefore materially profit from the labour of a second husband.
  2. Polygyny can be viewed as a solution to the “deficit” of males and the “surplus” of females in societies where male death rates are continuously higher than those of women.
  3. As members of a big (and naturally wealthy) household, co-wives and their kids may have socially enhanced status and prestige. The status of a co-wife may be preferable to that of a single woman in countries where there is no institutionalised role for single women.
  4. Polygyny can also be advantageous for the health of mothers and children. For instance, co-wives can frequently rely on one another to handle the most demanding home tasks during the postpartum recovery period.
  5. Polygyny also supports the once widespread belief that women will refrain from sexual activity for two or more years beginning in the last trimesters of pregnancy by providing possibilities for marital relations among the other members of the union. By encouraging optimal birth spacing, this practice helps mothers recover from the physical and psychological strains of pregnancy, breastfeeding, and caring for a small kid.
  6. Bride wealth restrictions can prevent some men from finding wives till later in life. In some cultures, males are expected to “buy” their wives by giving the bride’s family suitable and expensive gifts or working for them for extended periods of time. The groom’s family frequently collects bride fees, so he cannot get married until he has been submissive to their wishes, typically for a long time.

Disadvantages of Polygyny

  1. Sex envy and squabbles can be common in polygynous homes. Many communities give one wife, usually the first, seniority in order to reduce conflict.
  2. Customs that uphold the institution, limit polygyny to the sororal form, or—particularly in matrilineal cultures—support quick and painless divorce can also promote marital bliss.
  3. Monogamy is an option for some persons in most polygynous cultures. This is frequently justified as a means of avoiding marital conflict, the expense of sustaining multiple co-wives and a large number of kids, or as the result of a lack of available or willing women.

Female Position in Polygyny

In some cultures, males are expected to “buy” their wives by giving the bride’s family suitable and expensive gifts or working for them for extended periods of time. The groom’s family frequently collects bride fees, so he cannot get married until he has been submissive to their wishes, typically for a long time.

Co-wives could also go off against one another. Within polygynous households, there are instances of arguing and even violence that are harmful to the kids. When a younger, newer wife replaces the original one, the wives may compete for their husband’s attention. Children of different women may have varying statuses or even unclear ties, which can lead to incestuous circumstances. Tension between wives and their children rises when things are unclear.

Polygyny is the practice of having mistresses and concubines, whether wealthy men encourage it openly or in private. In rare situations, the guy may support the unofficial wife and his illegitimate children through another family (or families) he has with her.

Childrearing in Polygyny

Childrearing is a tremendous duty for parents, requiring a pair to spend all of their energy and complete dedication for many years. Expecting a man to properly parent children in more than one family, with many moms, is often unrealistic.


  1. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2023, February 28). Polygyny. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/polygyny-marriage . Accessed on 26 March 2023.
  2. Damtie, Y., Kefale, B., Yalew, M. et al. Multilevel analysis of determinants of polygyny among married men in Ethiopia. BMC Public Health 21, 1677 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-021-11701-z . Accessed on 26 March 2023.
  3. Ember, M., Ember, C. R., & Low, B. S. (2007). Comparing Explanations of Polygyny. Cross-Cultural Research, 41(4), 428–440. https://doi.org/10.1177/1069397107307672 . Accessed on 26 March 2023.
  4. Murdock, G.P. 1981. Atlas of World Cultures. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press. ISBN 0822934329 .
  5. White, D.R. 1988. Rethinking polygyny: Co-wives, codes, and cultural systems. Current Anthropology 29: 572.
  6. Zeitzen, M.K. (2023). Polygamy (Polygyny, Polyandry). In The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology, H. Callan (Ed.). https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118924396.wbiea1377. Accessed on 26 March 2023.
  7. Zheng, H. (2022, October 17). Polygyny. In Encyclopedia. https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/29553 . Accessed on 26 March 2023.
  8. https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Polygyny . Accessed on 26 March 2023.
Shefali Sharma Anthroholic
Shefali Sharma

Shefali Sharma is a Research Scholar in the Department of Anthropology at University of Rajasthan. She obtained a prestigious meritorious award by University of Rajasthan in 2022. She also holds qualifications such as UGC – NET. She is a writer by the day and reader by the night and has worked as a content writer for various websites.

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