A cross cultural perspective of polygyny Essay

This essay has a total of 3308 words and 15 pages.

A cross cultural perspective of polygyny



A Cross Cultural Perspective of Polygyny



As an institution, polygyny, the social arrangement that permits a man to have more than
one wife at the same time, exists in all parts of the world. From our present knowledge,
there are very few primitive tribes in which a man is not allowed to enter into more than
one union. In fact, ethologists now believe that only one to two percent of all species
may be monogamous (Tucker). None of the simian species are strictly monogamous; our
closest relatives, the chimpanzees, practice a form of group marriage. Among the 849
human societies examined by the anthropologist Murdock (1957), 75% practiced polygyny.
Many peoples have been said to be monogamous, but it is difficult to infer from the data
at our disposal whether monogamy is the prevalent practice, the moral ideal, or an
institution safeguarded by sanctions (Malinowski 1962).

Historically, polygyny was a feature of the ancient Hebrews, the traditional Chinese, and
the nineteenth-century Mormons in the United States, but the modern practice of polygyny
is concentrated in Africa, the Middle East, India, Thailand, and Indonesia. The extent to
which men are able to acquire multiple wives depends on many factors, including the
economic prosperity of the man’s family, the prevailing bride price, the differential
availability of marriageable females, the need and desire for additional offspring, and
the availability of productive roles for subsequent wives. Even in societies that permit
polygyny, the conditions of life for the masses make monogamy the most common form of
marriage.

The two variations of polygyny are sororal (the cowives are sisters) and nonsororal (the
cowives are not sisters). Some societies also observe the custom of levirate, making it
compulsory for a man to marry his brother’s widow. It must be remembered that any form of
polygyny is never practiced throughout the entire community: there cannot exist a
community in which every man would have several wives because this would entail a huge
surplus of females over males (Malinowski 1962). Another important point is that in
reality it is not so much a form of marriage fundamentally distinct from monogamy as
rather a multiple monogamy. It is always in fact the repetition of marriage contract,
entered individually with each wife, establishing an individual relationship between the
man and each of his consorts (Benson 1971).

Where each wife has her separate household and the husband visits them in turn, polygynous
marriage resembles very closely a temporarily interrupted monogamy. In such cases, there
is a series of individual marriages in which domestic arrangements, economics, parenthood,
as well as legal and religious elements do not seriously encroach on each other. The
polygyny with separate households is more universally prevalent. Among the great majority
of the Bantu and Hamitic peoples of Africa, where the number of wives, especially in the
case of chiefs, is often considerable, each wife commonly occupies a separate hut with her
children, and manages an independent household with well-defined legal and economic rights
(Pasternak 1976). Where, on the other hand, as among many N. American tribes, two or more
wives share the same household, polygyny affects the institution of matrimonial life much
more deeply. Unlike wives in many other African groups who live in their own huts, Ijaw
wives have apartments within one large structure and our brought into much more frequent
contact with their co-wives (Rosaldo 1974).

Various theories have been advanced to explain the cultural endorsement of polygyny. One
of the earliest explanations was based on the notion that men have a greater disposition
for variety in sexual partners than do women (Tucker). Many ethologists believe that
there is a sociobiological imperative for men to have as many sexual partners as possible
(Sayers). While this theory is of historical interest, there exists no empirical support
for the greater sex drive of the male, nor is there any reason to expect the male sex
drive to vary from one culture to another. Women are just as naturally interested in sex,
perhaps even more so. Women can be multi- orgasmic and have a much broader range of
sexual stimulation than men. Non-monogamy is reproductively savvy for males in order to
spread their genes, and for females in order to improve the hardiness and genetic variety
of their offspring (Benson).

It has also been suggested that polygyny as a marriage form evolved in response to lengthy
postpartum sex taboos because polygyny provides a legitimate sexual outlet for the husband
during this period of taboo (Whiting). Whiting discovered that societies dependent on
root and tree crops (presumably low protein societies) are more likely to have a long
postpartum sex taboo, and there did seem to be a statistical association between the
presence of this taboo and a preference for polygyny. While men may seek other sexual
relationships during the period of a long postpartum taboo, it is not clear why polygyny
is the only possible solution to the problem, since the legitimation of sex does not
depend exclusively on marriage. The problem could be alleviated by extra-marital
alliances or masturbation.

The existence of a low sex ratio, a scarcity of men in relation to women, has also been
offered as an explanation for the origin of this practice (Pasternak 1976). Polygyny
maximizes the opportunities for females to marry in a society in which adult males are in
short supply. The fact that the sex ratio at the same time of young adulthood is
numerically balanced in some societies suggests that while a sex ratio imbalance may
contribute to the development of polygyny in special cases, it is an incomplete
explanation for the existence of polygyny in the majority of societies in the world. For
example, plural marriage developed among the Mormons in Utah when, as in most of the
western states of the United States, there was an excess of males.

The theory that has stimulated the most empirical investigation links the existence of
polygyny to the productive value of the woman. According to this theory, the occurrence
of polygyny is positively related to the extent to which women contribute to the
subsistence bases of their respective societies (Pasternak 1976).

However, further research suggests that the relationship between women’s economic
contribution and marriage form is more complex and that there exists a curvilinear
relationship between women’s productive value and the existence of polygyny (Rosaldo
1974). Polygyny has been found to be a feature of economic systems where potential female
contribution to subsistence is high (such as in gathering and agricultural economies). In
many African communities, the chief derives his wealth from the plurality of his wives,
who by means of the produce of their agricultural labor enable him to exercise the lavish
hospitality upon which so much of his power rests. The practice has also been found in
economic systems, however, where potential female contribution is low (such as hunting and
fishing economies). It has been suggested that multiple wives are valued in the first
instance, for economic reasons, while in the latter instance, they are valued for
reproductive reasons in that the taking of multiple wives maximizes the potential to
produce sons, who in turn make an economic contribution (Malinowski 1962).

A multitude of wives, however, may increase not only a man’s wealth but also his social
importance, reputation and authority, apart from the influence of the number of his
children. Hence, we find in many Bantu communities of Africa that the desire to have many
wives is one of the leading motives in the life of every man; while the fact that in many
Melanesian and Polynesian communities, polygyny is a prerogative and therefore the chief
testifies to the social prestige attaching to it (Priso). Politically or socially
stratified divisions within a society also favor the emergence of polygyny, since economic
rights to women can be acquired, and since marriages can be used to create political
alliances between unequal groups (Rosaldo).

While polygyny tends to be viewed by Western cultures as an instrument for the domination
of women by men, the degree of autonomy experienced by women in polygynous unions varies
within and among cultures. The degree of autonomy of each cowife is influenced by the
availability of opportunities outside of the home, the degree to which she maintains
contact with her family of origin, the availability of gainful employment, the degree of
importance attached to the children she has produced, and her life cycle state. Benefits
for the wives also include the sharing of economic and domestic responsibilities, the
freedom that derives from living apart from the constant supervision of a husband, and the
diminished pressure for constant sexual accessibility. For example in many African
polygynous societies women gain economic autonomy through trading. Trading not only gives
de facto independence from the husband’s authority (and may ease tensions between
cowives), but also brings women together in extra-domestic cooperative groups such as
trading associations (Benson 1971). Paradoxically, polygyny becomes attractive to both
parties. For instance, in Africa a man who controls much land may marry several wives to
work for him. Since he is providing only about half of their income, even a man of modest
means can take several wives. In addition, women find polygyny helps lighten their work
burden. In many cases, the first wife takes the initiative in suggesting that a second
wife, who can take over the most tiresome jobs in the household, should be procured.

In the traditional African setting, marriage is a matter of considerable importance. It
is through marriage that the constituent elements of society reproduce themselves and that
groups and individuals further a complex strategy. Women play a crucial role in this
process, since they gather and control other women as wives and companions for brothers,
sons, and husbands. A husband chooses his first wife with care, since she is responsible
for training all subsequent wives and organizing them, older children, clients, wards,
and, in the past slaves, into an agricultural work force. The senior wife is responsible
for producing the agricultural wealth of the household, and if her warrior husband is
absent or preoccupied for long periods of time, it is she who often functions as the
effective head of household. Even though a husband may marry younger, more beautiful
wives, he continues to regard his “big wife” with great respect and consideration
(Rosaldo). In Mende, the head wife in a large polygynous household is given much
religious as well as economic power. She organizes the agricultural work force, and
stores and markets economic surpluses. Because of these roles, Mende head wives are seen
as authority figures, and occasionally a chief’s head wife will succeed him in office even
though she resides virilocally in his chiefdom and has no genealogical right to rule in
the village of his kin (Tucker).

Jealousy, while not an inevitable consequence of polygyny, is reported in many polygynous
societies. Tension is common when women are competing for goods and services from the
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