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