Intermarriage is the marriage between spouses of different races or different ethnicities and is therefore either inter-racial or interethnic. Marriage between a white and a black is an inter-racial marriage, while a marriage between a Japanese and a Chinese is an interethnic marriage. The difference between race and ethnicity, however, is not always clear. Interethnic marriages have a much longer history than do interracial marriages in the United States. Even in early colonial times, European immigrants of different nationalities and religions intermarried. Inter-racial marriages, on the other hand, have faced higher social stigma and legal restrictions that did not end until after the mid-20th century.
In scholarly writings, intermarriage can also refer to a union between spouses of different social characteristics. For example, a marriage between an educated person and an uneducated person might be called an educational intermarriage, regardless of the couple’s race or ethnicity. References to such intermarriages, however, are rather limited.
Similar to intramarriages, intermarriages occur for reasons such as romantic attractions and status matching between partners, but intermarriages are associated with higher probabilities of divorce than intramarriages, due to the greater social barriers the intermarried couples often have to face. Studies of marital happiness also yielded evidence that intermarried couples tend to report lower levels of marital satisfaction.
U.S. intermarriages have steadily increased in the past few decades, growing from 0.7 percent of all marriages in 1970 to 5.4 percent in 2000, while the actual number of such marriages rose by tenfold in the same period. The Census Bureau reports that the most common type of intermarriage occurs between whites and Asians.
Why do people marry out of their racial or ethnic groups? Sociological theories on intermarriage basically fall into two categories: availability and choice. Availability of potential marriage partners speaks to the structural constraints that either promote or limit intermarriages. The most important structural constraints are the number of racial or ethnic groups in the marriage market and the relative sizes and internal sex ratios of these groups. More groups potentially lead to more intermarriages, whereas group sizes inversely affect intermarriage rates. Because intermarriage involves spouses from two groups, the same number of such marriages dictates different rates between large groups and small groups, with the latter inevitably carrying higher rates. Imbalanced sex ratios of the marriageable population within a group, on the other hand, will “force” the extra men or women to outmarry. Many immigrant groups in the United States initially experienced severe sex ratio imbalances as a result of gender-specific immigration. For these groups, intermarriage rates often differed by gender.
The second category of theories that explain intermarriage focuses on choices for mates, mostly status exchange between couples. The increased intermarriages in the United States in recent decades coincided with higher educational achievements of many minorities and their participation in the labor force with whites of comparable socioeconomic status. Both the educational institutions and the workplace provide opportunities for inter-racial and interethnic interactions between people of similar statuses, thus promoting intermarriages. Rising intermarriages, in turn, reduce stigma against intergroup relations and make intermarriages a more accepted choice. Besides similar socioeconomic status, cultural preference is another consideration of mate selection, with people choosing mates with similar traditions, religions, and other cultural practices. This tendency explains selective intermarriage within large ethnic circles, such as pan-Asian, pan-Hispanic, and pan-Pacific Islanders. For example, Asians of different nationalities tend to intermarry more often than they marry non-Asians.
Choice is, of course, not independent of availability, and the two interact to affect a racial group’s interracial or interethnic marriage rates. High concentration of a minority group may provide higher availability of within-group mates, in addition to promoting close-knit cultural settings that strengthen ingroup solidarity that might work against intergroup relations. Asian Americans, for example, are highly concentrated on the West Coast, especially in California, where Asian intermarriage rates are lower than in other states, after controlling for social status.
Choice by gender and race also seems to occur in the inter-racial marriage market. White-black intermarriages are more likely between white women and black men, while white-Asian intermarriages tend to be between white men and Asian women, although the reverse patterns have slowly increased in recent decades.
Intermarriage serves as an indicator of a minority group, especially an immigrant group, integrating or assimilating into the mainstream society, especially through intermarriage with whites. Outmarriage rates by themselves, however, may not indicate how likely a group will be to outmarry, because group size affects these rates. Through the use of complicated statistical models, sociologists can measure tendencies of endogamy (ingroup marriage) and exogamy (out-group marriage) by controlling for group size and other factors. Such studies often find that whites are less endogamous than most minorities. That is, minorities actually have a stronger tendency to keep their members in within-group marriages.
- Heaton, Tim B. and Stan T. Albrecht. 1996. “The Changing Pattern of Interracial Marriage.” Social Biology 43:203-17.
- Kalmijn, Matthijs. 1998. “Intermarriage and Homogamy: Causes, Patterns, and Trends.” Annual Review of Sociology 24:395-421.
- Lee, Sharon M. and Barry Edmonston. 2005. “New Marriages, New Families: U.S. Racial and Hispanic Intermarriage.” Population Bulletin 60:2.
- Qian, Zhenchao and Daniel T. Lichter. 2001. “Measuring Marital Assimilation: Intermarriage among Natives and Immigrants.” Social Science Research 30(June):289-312.
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