EASA2016: Anthropological legacies and human futures

Rethinking marriage: exchange and emotion in comparative perspective
Location U6-23
Date and Start Time 23 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Julia Pauli (Hamburg University) email
  • Rijk van Dijk (Leiden University) email

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Short Abstract

The panel scrutinizes the dynamics of exchange and emotion in contemporary marriages, weddings and intimacies. We explore the relevance of marriage in an age of multiple intimate relationships and commitment uncertainties.

Long Abstract

One important legacy of anthropological theory is the comparative study of kinship and marriage. Influential research paradigms such as alliance theory were derived from the dynamics of marriage ties. The critique of structural-functionalist approaches to kinship in the 1970s and 1980s was followed by a decline of research on kinship and marriage. Since the 1990s, a revival under the rubric of 'New Kinship Studies' has taken place. Novel concepts such as 'relatedness' have been introduced. In-depth analyses of new reproductive technologies, divergent sexualities and a focus on the creation of filial ties are main concerns of this research. To put it a bit polemic, it seems that the study of kinship and marriage has moved from the exchange of wives to the exchange of babies. What can the 'New Kinship Studies' add to the contemporary study of marriage? How can other emerging fields, like the anthropologies of love, emotion, sexuality and consumption, be integrated into our rethinking of marriage? In times of multiple intimate relationships, including same-sex marriage, and increasing commitment-uncertainties, how important is marriage today? Taking exchange and emotion within marriage and intimacy as our starting point we ask contributors to also address the influence of other social transformations, e.g. global consumption trends, divergent sexualities and the life-styles of the emerging middle classes.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


The making and breaking of marriages: do 'New Kinship Studies' contribute to the understanding of affinity?

Authors: Bettina Beer (University of Lucerne)  email
Donald S Gardner (University of Luzern)  email

Short Abstract

Critiques of earlier anthropological studies of kinship focus on how kin relations are made or done. Yet older views distinguished between consanguineal and affinal relations partly in relation to such dimensions. This paper asks how newer views of kinship account for the specificities of marriage.

Long Abstract

This paper focuses on some of the theoretical dimensions of the panel's topic. Since Schneider's critique of the anthropological study of kinship and the emphasis of Janet Carsten and others on the making of relations, negotiations, fluidity and flexibility, individual choices and commitments have moved to the centre of the study of what 'kinship does'. We begin by pointing out that the anthropology of kinship has almost always seen marriage and structurally significant affinal relations as subject to strategic negotiation - to making and breaking. This leads us to ask what 'New Kinship Studies' implies for the understanding of marriage. In this reflexive mode, a further question arises about the general soundness of seeing negotiation and the making of relationships as characteristic of consanguinity as well as affinity. Reproductive relations, the organization of care and the definition of boundaries and social identities involve their own imperatives. For example, while 'alternative' types of marriage (such as same sex unions) are increasing in frequency, they still represent a small percentage of the total and tend not to reconfigure broader patterns of social organisation and the interactions these entail.

Unofficial relations what is their link to marriage in present-day urban China?

Author: Roberta Zavoretti (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology)  email

Short Abstract

On the basis of ethnographic material collected in the area of Jiangnan (China) the paper assesses the link between marriage and forms of relatedness that are often thought as antagonistic to it, like for example multiple partnerships.

Long Abstract

In present-day urban China, marriage is considered to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to consolidate one's material position and social prestige. Marriage is also the precondition for childbearing, and therefore an essential step to fulfil the demands of the intergenerational contract. At the same time, marriage is also heavily moralised as a fundamental milestone in a person's social growth, otherwise defined as zuo ren. Zuo ren denotes a process of self-cultivation that brings the individual to take full awareness of and responsibility for her most important social relations, in particular the ones within the family.

Unmarried and divorced people in China are under a strong social pressure to change their status, and marriage rates remain high compared to other countries in the region. People talking about marriage, however, recurrently mention the decline of proper morals that has emerged after the Open Door Reform; in their view, market-driven prosperity and competition have aggravated what they see as 'social problems' that were already present in Chinese society: pre-marital sex, adultery, concubinage and divorce. For many, the state bears responsibility for what they see as a moral crisis of marriage. In order to reconcile this apparent paradox, the paper draws on ethnographic examples in order to reconsider the link between marriage and the unofficial relations mentioned above, suggesting that they might not be antagonistic after all.

"In the mood for love": South Asian narratives of marriage, love, sexuality and betrayal

Author: Mara Matta (University of Rome 'La Sapienza')  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the new emotional cultures of South Asia, looking at narratives of marriage, love and sexuality as articulated in literature and cinema. It posits that films and novels open up new philoscapes where to project fantasies of hope and desire whilst indulging in “the mood for love”.

Long Abstract

Feelings can creep up just like that.

I thought I was in control.

(In the mood for love, Kar-wai Wong)

Among the multi-layered cultural formations that reflect (on) South Asia today, cinema and literature remain among the most interesting venues for exploring narratives of social history and issues of representation (Ahmed 1992; Sircar 1995). Films and literary writings can offer precious insights into the critical transformations and the subtle adjustments currently affecting discourses and practices of intimacy, love and marriage in post-colonial South Asia. Interrogating cinematic narratives and novels by Indian and Bangladeshi authors, this article investigates the emotional cultures of contemporary South Asia and postulates that these narrations reflect a deeply felt necessity to go beyond normative structures of kinship and accepted practices of "doing family" (Hudak and Giammattei 2014). Exploring sensitive subjects like extramarital relationships, homosexuality, mixed marriages and the possibility of unconventional choices in the spheres of love and intimacy, these films and novels open up new philoscapes where to project fantasies of hope and desire whilst indulging in "the mood for love".

Cited references

Ahmed, Akbar S., "Bombay Films: The Cinema as Metaphor for Indian Society and Politics", Modern Asian Studies, 26(2), 1992: 289-320.

Hudak, Jacqueline and Shawn V. Giammattei, "Doing Family: Decentering Heteronormativity in 'Marriage' and 'Family' Therapy", In: Thorana Nelson and Hinda Winawer (2014) Critical Topics in Family Therapy: AFTA Monograph Series Highlights: 105-118.

Sircar, Ajanta, "Of 'Metaphorical' Politics: Bombay Films and Indian Society", Modern Asian Studies, 29(2), 1995: 325-335.

Punishing the passionate: intimacy under surveillance and cross-border marriages in contemporary Malaysia

Author: Nurul Huda Mohd Razif (University of Cambridge)  email

Short Abstract

The influential Islamic bureaucracy in Malaysia heavily polices all forms of pre- or extra-conjugal intimacy between Muslims, forcing many to contract transjurisdictional cross-border marriages in Thailand. I explore the link between the state and intimacy, and states of intimacy under surveillance.

Long Abstract

The omnipresence of a highly influential Islamic bureaucracy makes being "intimate" — especially in the visible, physical sense of the word — a tricky business in contemporary Muslim-majority Malaysia. The Malaysian Islamic bureaucracy is very much involved in the moral policing of its Muslim subjects to ensure that their behaviour complies to the demands of "Islam". Under the watchful eye of the Islamic bureaucracy, any forms of pre- or extra-conjugal physical intimacy between Muslims, if discovered by the relevant religious authorities, are punishable by a heavy fine and/or brief imprisonment in the Shariah Court, thus placing Muslims under significant pressure to marry first before they may get physically intimate. However, many Malaysian couples find the bureaucratic process of contracting a legal, transparent marriage — both monogamous and polygamous — to be an extensive and possibly expensive one. The many obstacles to immediate marriage — for urgency is of utmost importance here, as anything can happen at any time — thus necessitates an alternative route to the normal state-sanctioned union: under such desperate circumstances, many Malaysian couples resort to transjurisdictional cross-border marriages in the predominantly-Muslim Southern Thailand. Through the lens of these transjurisdictional cross-border marriages, this paper will attempt to explore how through a state-run Islamic bureaucracy defines and enforces the boundaries of permissibility in intimacy, and how its Muslim subjects consequently navigate their way around the demands of the state in their pursuit and experience of intimacy.

Tokmeala, or marriage arrangements among Romanian Cortorari Gypsies: haggling over dowries and connecting to the dead

Author: Catalina Tesar (Museum of the Romanian Peasant)  email

Short Abstract

Cortorari (grand)parents whimsically arrange and dissolve their (grand)children’s marriages. The ritual of tokmeala communicates the conclusion of a marriage arrangement: it stages the haggling over the cash dowry, and dramatizes the creation of marital bonds among the living, by recourse to the dead.

Long Abstract

Marriages are of greatest concern to the Romanian Cortorari Gypsies. They pivot around the negotiation and rearrangement of kinship ties concomitantly with the flow of money in the form of cash dowry, and the circulation of ceremonial wealth (averea) in the form of some material items, chalices (taxtaja). Chalices are inherited along male lines from one's forebears. In matrimonial exchanges, entitlements to chalices are redistributed among the groom's and bride's sides. Living a meaningful life means here arranging the marriage of one's children and living through seeing one's children bringing forth children and arranging the latter's marriage. Marriages are processual; they start with the removal of the bride from her parents' house and her relocation into her spouse's parents' house, and they are made to endure through cohabitation and production of children.

Normally taking the form of exchange of daughters, marriages are arranged and dissolved whimsically by parents and grandparents for their (grand) children from early age, sometimes since the latter are in their foetus stage. A close look at the cultural elaboration of marriage arrangements through the ritual of tokmeala (haggling over, bargaining), which stages the negotiations of the cash dowry in relation to the value of the groom's chalice, proves the idiom of reciprocity to be defective in explaining the meanings marital practices take among Cortorari. I argue that tokmeala-s are emotional dramatizations of Cortorari notions of belonging which hinge on continuously creating marital bonds among the living, and connectedness with the dead (as previous possessors of chalices).

A marital modernity? Exploring new relational techniques in Botswana

Author: Rijk van Dijk (Leiden University)  email

Short Abstract

In Botswana new relational techniques including counseling, romance, testing and shared economic projects shape a marital break with the past. This paper explores how these techniques are informing a counter-cultural critique, voiced by members of the younger generation in the country in particular.

Long Abstract

While in the study of marital relations in Africa modern changes are often understood as permutations of an older marital history, this paper aims for a perspective in which the significance of discontinuities for the forming of relationships by a younger generation is taken as the paradigmatic point of departure. In Botswana, many are concerned with a re-thinking of the nature and quality of intimate relationships. This process is related to: a booming and blossoming economy, a rise of educated middle classes, an emergent fascination for a romantic and global styling of marriage and weddings, and a concern with techniques of the self that transpire in an increasing reliance on (professional, commercial or church-based) marital counseling. Combining a self-styling of relationships and an increasing control over the marital process, the younger generation manages to voice a counter-cultural critique, often focused on how the elderly generation perceives of certain marital ideologies and practices. Yet, more than 'just' a generational break, this paper explores how within the younger generation itself this (re-)forming of their relationships is leading to divergence. The discontinuities, which the new relational techniques are introducing, are thus multifaceted. The marital modernity addresses different contestations at the same time; the past and the present, the old and the young, the more- and the less-privileged, and the more or the less informed by the relational techniques that have become available. Based on empirical research, this divergence is at the heart of the paper's exploration of marital arrangements in Botswana today.

For all the wrong reasons: contesting marriage in Namibia

Author: Julia Pauli (Hamburg University)  email

Short Abstract

Despite very low divorce rates many Namibians view divorce as a main threat to marriage. Unraveling the tension between marriage and the perceived risk of divorce will provide insights into the continuous significance of marriage in times of neoliberalism and increasing commitment uncertainties.

Long Abstract

Marriage and divorce rates are both very low in Namibia. Many Namibians aspire to marry but are unable to afford the enormous wedding costs. The few who do marry often belong to the country's middle and upper classes. Their marriages are not always happy but they seldom end in divorce. In my paper I scrutinize why many of my married and unmarried interlocutors figure that divorce is a prominent threat to marriage. Why do people fear divorce when they hardly know anybody who got divorced? My interpretations are based on a long-term field project that I started in 2003 in rural Namibia and extended to urban Namibia in 2015. Repeatedly, people have explained to me that because couples are marrying 'for all the wrong reasons' the risk of divorce is so high. 'Appropriated' and 'unappropriated' reasons to marry are highly contested and can be contradictory. As such, they reflect the re-configurations and increasing plurality of broader moral, social and economic frameworks currently in flux throughout the country. This is especially pronounced in the tension between market oriented reasoning, that views marriage as an investment between two (business) partners, and kinship oriented approaches, that make the extended family a central part of achieving a suitable wedding and a fulfilled marriage. Unraveling what is being perceived as 'right' and 'wrong' reasons to marry will provide insights into the continuous significance of marriage in times of neoliberalism and increasing commitment uncertainties.

Whose future? Whose decision? Negotiating girls´ marriages between urban middle class households and rural relatives in Benin

Author: Erdmute Alber (University of Bayreuth)  email

Short Abstract

My paper focusses on the multiple and partly conflicting perspectives of rural and urban relatives on marriage decisions. It argues that the decision over the marriage of a girl does not only affect emotions of the involved bride and groom, but also emotions and perceptions of involved relatives.

Long Abstract

In the new literature on emerging middle classes and the respective changing life styles in Africa and elsewhere, there is little emphasis on the fact that the process of developing new urban life styles does also effect diverging life paths and future perspectives of close kin. Not only urban middle class households are developing new life standards, but also rural relatives. However, these standards as well as future visions and chances are heavily diverging. This creates new tensions and re-negotiations of the kinship relations that are also affecting marriage decisions.

On the basis of case studies from rural and urban Benin, my papers focusses on the multiple and partly conflicting perspectives of rural and urban relatives on marriage decisions. It argues that the decision over the marriage of a girl does not only affect emotions of the involved bride and groom, but also emotions and perceptions of involved relatives. From the perspective of urban people, rural relatives are often seen as "backwards" for not offering their girls urban perspectives in the future. At the same time, rural kin are arguing that they have to make sure proper rural marriages for their daughters and sons in order to fulfill the normative expectations of their environment. I explain the emotional and social dynamics of these negotiations about the "right" marriage of girls with a re-reading of Jennifer Johnson-Hanks´ concept of "vital conjunctures".

Love makes marriage cheap: emotions, sex and interest in the marriages of Africans with peripheral Europeans in the Netherlands

Author: Apostolos Andrikopoulos (University of Amsterdam)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines how interest, emotions and sexual pleasure are articulated in the marriages between legally precarious African migrants and citizens of the EU periphery that enabled the African spouses to lawfully reside in the Netherlands.

Long Abstract

In an era of restrictive immigration regimes, especially towards working-class labour migration, marriage remains one of the few channels to international mobility and migrant legality. Statistical data and ethnographic observations indicate a recent shift in the marital preferences of Nigerian and Ghanaian migrants in the Netherlands from Dutch citizens of African, Afro-Caribbean, and ethnic Dutch origin to non-Dutch EU citizens (e.g. Poland, Greece). This paper examines the marriages between legally precarious African migrants and citizens of the EU periphery that enabled the African spouses to lawfully reside in the Netherlands as family member of mobile Europeans. In a context of generous migration rights granted to spouses of EU citizens under the EU free movement provisions, the paper examines why African male migrants opt for peripheral European women rather than for other EU citizens, for example Germans, in the Netherlands. Studies of cross-border marriages have pointed out the power discrepancies within bi-national couples - usually between citizen men and migrant women. Based on ethnographic material collected in multi-sited fieldwork in the Netherlands, Ghana, and Greece, this paper looks closely how interest, emotions and sex are articulated in these marriages. It shows that African migrants in the Netherlands navigate the highly asymmetrical dynamic of mixed-status marriage by choosing, as partners, peripheral Europeans, who are EU citizens, but, as working class migrants, are in a similar structural position in Dutch society. Thus the exchange of resources, money, emotions and sexual pleasure between spouses has a more reciprocal character and create less strong dependency relations.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.