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Universality of Marriage

Marriage is a social institution existing in all societies but the characteristics vary from culture to culture. Several anthropologists have made an effort to define marriage universally, but none of them have been able to satisfactorily include all of its variations in a single definition.

Universality of Marriage - Anthropology

Different definitions of Marriage

  • The concept of legitimacy was central to the definition of marriage put out by early thinkers like Malinowski and Brown. According to Malinowski, a lawful marriage is one that grants the woman’s husband social recognition and the father of her children social recognition. The question of “What marriage was?” was not addressed by this definition, which placed emphasis on legitimacy.
  • The first anthropological definition of marriage was published in Notes and Queries (1951), which stated that marriage is a union between a man and woman that ensures the children they have are acknowledged as the legal children of both parents.
  • The question arises: What about the human being makes marriage such a ubiquitous social institution in spite of all the restrictions it imposes?

Need for existence of marriage in human society

1. To check chaos that may result because of sexual competition

  • The following characteristics distinguish humans from other animals –
    • Female humans are capable of mating throughout the year (animal female oestrous cycle is seasonally regulated).
    • Sexual dimorphism, which restricts mating in animals, is less pronounced in people.
    • In humans, a male’s physical dominance can be resisted by numerical advantage or the use of the mind, although this is not possible in animals.
  • If any of these characteristics are left unchecked, they may produce ferocious sexual competition and create anarchy.
  •  In this case, marriage acts as an institution with a crucial role in controlling mating. This does not mean that only married couples mate. It implies that marriage enables structured mating between partners who are designated by culture.

2. To provide for mother – newborn combination

  • Lower apes gave rise to bipedal man. Changes in limb shape, facial features, and brain size resulted from this process of evolution.
  • Animal newborn have nearly fully developed brains at birth and can stand up in a matter of minutes or hours. Yet, as brain size increases in humans, there comes a time when giving birth to a child with a fully grown brain may be catastrophic for both the mother and the child.
  • The teeth sprout a few months after birth whereas the brain reaches its maximum developmental potential soon before physiological maturation.
  • Because of this, a baby’s early years of existence necessitate the mother’s constant protection, which leaves the mother severely handicapped after giving birth.
  • This necessitated the association of a male who could take care of the mother-child combination.
  • As a result, marriage provides a stable organisation that includes both men and women, ensuring proper security and satisfaction of personal needs such as affection, status, and companionship for both mother and child.

3. To help in the regulation of lines of descent

  • The use of descent as a way for one person to claim rights, obligations, privileges, or status in regard to another person (Britannica, 2011).
  • Descent has a special impact when succession, inheritance, or residence rights follow kinship lines.
Need for Existence of Marriage - Anthropology
Universality of Marriage


Although there may have been some other options, man chose to establish this organisation. Marriage institution must be a universal aspect of human civilization since these two needs—reducing sexual competition and sustaining the mother-child combination—have been acknowledged by all human communities.

The notions of marriage can alter and adapt, much like any social structures. The idea of marriage is changing significantly in urban settings as socioeconomic opportunities alter and new chances arise for both men and women.

See Also

Arrange MarriageBride WealthCommon-Law Marriage
Cousin MarriageEndogamyExogamy
Group MarriageHypogamyLevirate Marriage
Love MarriageMarriage ExchangesMonogamy
Marriage and MatingMarriage and FamilyOrigin of Marriage
PolygamyUniversality of MarriageFunctions of Marriage
Types of MarriagesSororate MarriageSocial Institutions
Marriage RegulationsConsanguineous MatingNon-Consanguineous Mating


1. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2023, February 3). Marriage. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/marriage . Accessed on 16 February 2023.

2. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2011, December 5). Descent. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/descent . Accessed on 16 February 2023.

3. Doshi S.L, Jain P.C. (2001). Social Anthropology. Rawat Publications; Jaipur, 2019.

4. Ember Carol, Ember Melvin, Peregrine Peter. (2015). Anthropology. Pearson Education; Noida, 2019.

5. Fussell, E. and Palloni, A. (2004), Persistent marriage regimes in changing times. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66: 1201-1213. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0022-2445.2004.00087.x . Accessed on 16 February 2023.

6. Hasty, J., Lewis, David G., & Snipes, M. M. (2022). Marriage and Families across cultures. An Introduction to Anthropology. OpenStax; Houston, 2022. https://openstax.org/books/introduction-anthropology/pages/11-4-marriage-and-families-across-cultures . Accessed on 16 February 2023

7. Mair Lucy. (1965). An Introduction to Social Anthropology. Oxford University Press; Oxford, 1972.

8. Why is Marriage Nearly Universal? https://revelpreview.pearson.com/epubs/pearson_ember/OPS/xhtml/ch19_sec_04.xhtml . Accessed on 16 February 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.

Articles: 18

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