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Marriage is important to the individuals concerned, the others to whom they are connected, and to the society within which the marriage is recognized. Marriage will not necessarily be important in the same way across different societies or to the different individuals within these societies. Recognizing this qualification, the list here outlines some of the key ways in which sociologists have described the importance of marriage:
- Marriage is seen as a key element within a wider set of family relationships. It establishes links between different families and over different generations.
- Marriage is seen as a key element in the life course. It is seen as an important transition in the lives of individuals and of those to whom they are connected.
- Marriage is seen as a key element in the social ordering of gender and sexuality. This is the most widespread understanding of marriage (one man, one woman) and reaffirms distinctions between men and women and the dominant importance of heterosexuality.
- Marriage is seen as a key element in the wider social structure. This is because the parties involved in a marriage are not just gendered and sexualized individuals but have class, ethnic, religious, and other differently based identities.
- Marriage is important as an element in the mobilization of patterns of care and social support.
- Marriage is important in the formation of personal and social identity.
These are in addition to the key function which links marriage and parenthood and which sees marriage in terms of the production, legitimizing, and social placement of children. Research into marriage may be classified under two headings: the comparative and historical, and the study of its internal dynamics. The first considers how marriage differs between different societies or different historical periods and how it has changed over time. Earlier comparative research into marriage explored different marriage systems and the ways in which these were linked to wider aspects of social structure such as the division of societies into classes or castes, or the distribution of property. The emphasis was often a strongly functional one considering the part that a particular marriage system (polygyny, polyandry, arranged, and so on) played within the wider social structure. Comparative research might also be linked to a wider theory of social evolution, speculating on the ways in which marriage patterns and the wider social order together change over time.
More narrowly, attempts have been made to analyze changes in marriage in Britain, the United States, and other Anglophone societies together with much of western and northern Europe. Sometimes this might be expressed simply as a decline” of marriage, as increasing numbers of people do not go through a formal marriage ceremony, have children outside wedlock, or divorce. Further, with the partial recognition of cohabiting and non-heterosexual partnerships, the privileged status of heterosexual marriage seems to be less secure.
Notions of the decline of marriage may be countered by showing that marriage continues to be an important, if frequently delayed, transition in the life course and pointing to the increasing demands for the recognition of gay and lesbian marriages. The issue here is one of change rather than decline, with researchers often accounting for these changes in terms of a broad historical process of individualization.” The emphasis here is on the ways in which individuals are increasingly called upon to shape their own relational biographies with little reference to the expectations of others or previously established patterns of behavior. This may sometimes be seen as the extension of democratic ideals into intimate relationships.
Yet another formulation is in terms of a long-term shift in marriage from institution to relationship. Marriage may be seen as moving from a social context where it was clearly embedded in a wider network of familial and kinship ties and obligations and where it constituted the major legitimate adult identity. As marriage becomes more of a relationship, there is greater emphasis on individual choice and the needs and satisfactions of the participants. Choice here includes the possibility of choosing not to get married.
Turning to the more internal” aspects of marriage, we can look at gender divisions and questions of identity. It is widely believed that marriages have become more equal in terms of gender; the very idea of a relationship suggests some degree of mutuality and equality between the partners. At the same time, there has been a considerable body of research exploring gendered inequalities and differences within marriage. These include unequal participation in household and parental tasks; differences in the management of money within the home; and differences in patterns of paid employment and leisure activities outside the home. The sources of these persisting differences include men’s and women’s differential labor market participation and earning power; the persistence of deeply held assumptions about the nature of men and women; and inequalities in power within the household, including physical power and the potential for violence. Some have argued that we should consider the different balances between love” and power” within marriage.
- Beck, U. & Beck-Gernsheim, E. (1995) The Normal Chaos of Love. Polity Press, Cambridge.
- Therborn, G. (2004) Between Sex and Power: Family in the World, 1900-2000. Routledge, London.