Marriage in a Cross Cultural Context – Polygamy Around the World

Although the institution of marriage is a cultural universal, the specifics of what it looks like vary depending on the cultural context as well as various conditions within each population. In the western world marriage is typically a monogamous union between two individuals who have been tied together in love. When one begins to look outside of the individualistic cultural context that surrounds us here in the western world, the idea of marrying for love becomes a rarity. In many cases, marriage is not about uniting two individuals in love as much as it is about tying two families together, strengthening the bonds between tribes, or ensuring that resources are distributed in an approved way down the kinship line. Every culture has their own set of traditions and customs regarding marriage, each of which has functions and benefits that fit within the cultural context from which it came.

One of the first pieces of traditional western marriage that falls away as you begin to look at marriage in a cross cultural context is the concept of monogamy. Around the world monogamous marriages are the most culturally preferred type of union; however, approximately 80-85% of cultures practice some form of polygamy. Polygamous unions can take the shape of either polygyny, meaning many wives, or polyandry, meaning many husbands. A majority of polygamous cultures practice polygyny, but polyandrous unions are more common than anthropologists had previously believed.

The Maasai culture in Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania traditionally have polygynous marriages. These unions are typically arranged between the woman’s father and her future husband and involve a dowry, typically of goats or cows. The polygynous nature of these marriages is often perpetuated by the women. When the first wife requires more hands to assist in completing the work that needs to be done in taking care of the home, livestock, and children, she will request that her husband bring in another woman to be her co-wife. This type of polygyny benefits the women by providing them with more assistance in taking care of their duties as wives and provides them with companionship. Polygyny also benefits the man by giving him enough labour to take care of his livestock and home, as well as giving him more opportunities to father children.

Polyandry is a far less common form of marriage, previously thought to be practised only by a handful of tribes in the Tibetan Mountains. In 2012, anthropologists Katherine Starkweather and Raymond Hames co-authored a paper in which they discovered another 53 societies outside of the context of “classical polyandry” that practice variations on this type of union. Their discoveries suggest that polyandry should be examined from an evolutionary perspective, as many of the cultures that have social structures in place which allow for polyandrous unions are small, egalitarian hunter/gatherer societies, which suggests that polyandry may have deep roots in the story of human evolution.

The form of “classical polyandry” that is practised in Tibet is fraternal polyandry, in which all of the brothers in a family will marry one woman. This type of union is practised in order to keep parcels of agricultural land from being split up amongst the men in a family, as well as maintaining a strong family bond, as the brothers stay together over the course of their lives. In these unions the eldest brother will be in charge of the house and determine the use of resources. All brothers share the wife and any children that are born are considered to belong equally to all of them, so if one of the husbands leaves the family the children will remain at home.

The Inuit practice a form of polyandry in which the first husband will choose a second husband for his wife from within the group who will have the responsibility of taking care of his wife and protecting his property while he is away, this also ensures that if she becomes pregnant  the father will be someone who her husband has approved of. The Bari peoples of Venezuela believe in partible paternity, meaning that two men can be the socially recognized fathers of a child, even if they are not formally married to or cohabiting with the mother, this. In this culture, a child is significantly more likely to live past the age of 15 if it has two fathers. Polyandry often shows up in cultures which have a skewed sex ratio. In these cultures, although it is socially sanctioned for a woman to have multiple mates, it is often practised in order to ensure that the male’s property is protected and does not benefit the women economically or socially.

Examining marriage through a cross cultural lens paints a very different picture than the one that we see from a western perspective. In many cases, marriage serves the functions of protection of property and division of labour, as opposed to uniting individuals in a loving union. Looking at the institution of marriage around the world allows us to understand the various functions and benefits that have evolved into the institution as we know it today.


Dreger, A. (2013, February 1). When Taking Multiple Husbands Makes Sense. The Atlantic. Retrieved Oct.17, 2016, from taking-multiple-husbands-makes-sense/272726/

*Some information not cited here*


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