Monday, September 5, 2011

The Inconsistent Significance of Marriage

Marriage plays different roles in cultures throughout the world over. For this topic, it seems appropriate to address the issue from an overarching view of the culture as a whole like Benedict does in Patterns of Culture as opposed to how marriage affects the individual like Schieffelin in Performance and the Cultural Construction of Reality. The logic behind this is that I want to ask questions while drawing comparisons and contrasts to the marriage rituals from the cultures of the Zuñi, Dobu, and Kwakiutl with that of American marriage rituals. Because marriage rituals is relative to the couple, their families, and the cultural heritage they share; it is more accurate to say that I am comparing and contrasting the three cultures described in her book with the idealized and often stereotypical concept of the “American marriage ritual”.

The image of an American marriage ritual is in the setting of church filled with family and friends. The groom stands at the altar which is at the front of the church and is accompanied by his best man, the priest/pastor, and other select few who make up the grooms portion of the wedding party. The bride and her portion of the wedding party make their way out in the oft long-awaited moment as the tune, “Here Comes the Bride” plays to signal her walk down the center aisle of the church. After a speech from the priest or pastor, the bride and groom exchange vows of love, endurance, and faithfulness who then recite the words, “With this ring, I thee wed” in an exchange of rings which are brought to them by a member of the party given the apt title of ring bearer. The religious official gives them new names pronouncing them, “Mister and Misses [first and last name of the groom]”. After all is said and done, the procession of the wedding party and all guests watching make their way to another location for a party in which food and drink is served as well as toasts of best wishes to the newly wedded couple primarily from the best man and close friends or family of the couple.

While there are many aspects of the American marriage ritual which could be analyzed, such as the expenses incurred to make such an ideal ceremony possible, it is not feasible to make an accurate evaluation of how much is spent on average without going beyond the scope of the readings assigned. It is noteworthy that the preparation and planning for such an event is considerable. Many months go into planning the wedding from invitations sent out to potential guests to catering for the wedding reception. Every detail is carefully thought-out and taken into account. Some couples and their families elect to hire an individual who specializes in coordinating all the aspects of the planning to relieve some of the stress which often ensues from trying to organize such a grandiose day. The emphasis is mainly placed on making the wedding “her day”, meaning that focus is on the bride and appealing to her fantasies of how the wedding should be. The groom also has input, but his contributions are not considered central to making the day of the wedding perfect.

In stark contrast, the Zuñi put a very small emphasis on their marriage rituals. The boy goes to the father of the girl whom he wishes to marry and awaits for the father to ask the boy about what he came for, and the boy replies that he is seeking his daughter, at which point the daughter is brought out to answer for herself. If she consents, her mother prepares a place for them to retire together. The bride washes her grooms’ hair and for four days brings her now mother-in-law a basket of fine corn flower. Nothing more is made of the event, which points to a larger underscore in Zuñi culture that they avoid expressions of strong emotion.

Divorce in Zuñi culture is about as equally lacking in ceremony. The wife need only to make it a point to attend ceremonial feasts, have a private meeting with a potential new husband, and then to leave her husbands’ few possessions outside of the house which effectively sends him back to live with his mother. Despite this, Benedict notes that marriages on the whole of Zuñi society last the majority of a lifetime (Patterns of Culture, 74-5).

In Dobu culture, a boy freely travels nightly from house to house having affairs with eligible women in a neighboring community. When he grows tired of moving from one to another, he begins to awake to late in the morning and thereby not avoiding being trapped by the soon-to-be mother-in-law as she blocks the door effectively preventing his escape. In view of the public, the couple sit upon a mat, presenting themselves as betrothed to the girl’s village community. The boy and his brothers then work for approximately a year preparing crops to present to the family of the girl. They consummate the marriage with with the wife and husband eating each others’ mothers’ cooking. From then on, the husband provides food for himself in his own garden and for his wife and children in her garden. Marriages do not necessarily end in divorce, but take a more form of passive-aggressive abuse towards each other’s property as a result of discovery of extra-marital affairs occur. Though conciliatory acts by the village community on behalf of their respective married member are made, it is usually only enough to keep the couple together in bitter discontent. The entire marriage ritual underscores the importance of food for the Dobu, as their environment is not conducive to agricultural productivity (Patterns of Culture, 130, 134-5, 140).

In Kwakiutl culture, marriage in almost strictly a business transaction. The boy makes his bid for the girl in an aggressive competition directly against the father for the right to marry his daughter. The more renown the father is, the more the boy must pay in order to acquire his bride. This hostility can sometimes lead to physical violence and even death. The groom is also forced to run a gauntlet of the father-in-law’s men whose sole purpose to inflict pain upon him. The father of the bride forces the family of groom to endure the blistering heat of the fire he stirs while be subjected to mockery and threats of death should the groom fail to acquire his daughter. If the groom is successful, he makes a final payment to retain the bride. The father of the bride then bestows upon the son-in-law all of his titles and wealth for the children his daughter will have. The father-in-law sends his payment down river, which is then sunk by the friends of the son-in-law, which in turn causes the father-in-law to pay with interest what he originally owed(Patterns of Culture, 203-5).

Divorce for the Kwakiutl comes in the form of dissatisfaction with the payments he has received to compensate for the children his wife has had. The father-in-law is then left with his daughter and grandchildren and not paid for the right to see the children. This type of dispute can result in a fiercely competitive form of material destruction. If the father-in-law is forced to destroy most or all of what is valuable to him, then the son-in-law has effectively dissolved the marriage and is free to move on to another woman who will bring him higher status through the wealth and titles that will pass to his children through his father-in-law (Patterns of Culture, 208).

Looking at these three cultures in comparison and contrast to the American marriage ritual, I have to wonder what the significance is that there are similarities between them all. For example, divorce in America may be high, but one of the common reasons for divorce is a spouse having an extra-marital affair. While the Dobu culture has no real escape clause for a disguntled spouse who has caught their partner having an affair, Americans can easily file paperwork and go their separate ways. The father of any children from a now broken-up marriage in America is expected to pay child-support, which mirrors somewhat similarly the payment a son-in-law must pay to see his children in the Kwakiutl. The Zuñi, as pointed out earlier, have rather relaxed attitudes towards marriage altogether, yet they do not have high divorce rates.

As someone with high regard for my cultural heritage of marriage rituals, I am forced to ask why it is that the divorce among those who share my heritage is so high. To hypothesize, I would call into question the significance of marriage in my culture. It should be noted that while there is a semblance of the American marriage ritual present in my culture, when I refer to my cultural heritage of marriage rituals they are somewhat more heavy on the emphasis of religious importance in the marriage. For the longest time, I was under the impression that casual marriage equated to casual divorce, but that is simply not true for the Zuñi. I can only underscore the significance of their anti-conflict stance in marriage as an explanation for the ability for their marriages to outlast marriages among the people I share a cultural heritage with. Until such a time as when I am empowered with the resources to conduct my own research, I may never be able to know for certain what it is about marriage rituals within my cultural heritage that could contribute to their failure.


Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture. New York City: Mariner, 2005. Print.

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