Anthropologists have long recognized that marriage exists cross-culturally. Even though all human groups across the globe practice some type of marriage, there is a great deal of variation to be found in its meaning and form. One central way marriage varies from one culture to another pertains to whether or not explicit marital economic transactions are required between the kinship groups of the bride and groom. In approximately 75% of all societies known to anthropologists, there is one or another explicit form of economic exchange surrounding marriage. The most notable of these include bride service, where a man works for a specified time for his bride’s family; exchange of females, where a man is expected to offer one of his “sisters” (or other female relative) as a marital partner to his new brother-in-law; dowry, where a woman’s family bequeaths a reserve of money and goods directly to their daughter in order to ensure her and her children’s future security; and bride price. Some of these exchanges occur before marriage, while others begin or continue for a specified amount of time after the marriage.
Bride price, also referred to as “bride wealth,” is the most common of these, occurring in approximately 44% of all societies that have explicit forms of marital economic transactions. Bride price is a gift of money or goods given by the groom and his family to the bride’s family. A few of the most common gifts cross-culturally include items such as tools, cloth, livestock, and food. Contents of this gift are not everywhere the same and ultimately consist of items that the group deems socially and economically valuable. For example, cattle are fundamental to the subsistence of the Kuria of Tanzania, as with many peoples in diverse regions in Africa, and so comprise a great part of the bride price gift. Similarly, the Sebei of Uganda traditionally paid bride price with cattle but also included clothing, cash, and consumables, such as beer and tobacco. In Papua New Guinea, however, arm shells, pigs, and yams were highly prized as bride price gifts. Bride price payments of the Hausa of the Maradi region of Niger include cowry shells, as these are associated with female fertility and good luck. In recent years, cash or money has increasingly supplemented, and in some cases entirely replaced, traditional gift items in many societies.
Not only do the specific types of gifts vary, but the expected monetary value also differs from society to society and even from one family to the next. The Kikuyu of Nairobi, for example, pay bride prices ranging from the equivalent of $25 to as high as $2,500 (U. S. dollars). In some societies, a man and his family are expected to pay the bride price either before or immediately after marriage, while in others, the payment is made over several years.
Bride price affects men and women differently, as it reinforces their distinct marital rights and responsibilities. While it may appear that the bride price payment reduces a woman’s status to that of chattel, it is more accurate to view this transaction as compensation made by the groom’s family to the bride’s family for the loss of her labor as well as the right to her children. Therefore, bride price is also referred to as progeny price. In most societies where bride price is practiced, children are highly valued for their economic contributions to the family. Therefore, a married woman will often be expected to have as many children as possible. Among some groups, however, such as in Papua New Guinea, the groom’s family may still be required to pay a bride price even if no child is born to the couple. The couple may then adopt children from other family members, such as cousins. One way that women may be negatively impacted by this practice pertains to their freedom to terminate the marriage. A woman’s family may block her attempts to leave an unhappy marriage if they are unable to repay the bride price to the groom’s kin. On the part of a man and his marital obligations, payment of the bride price is a testament to his ability to access resources and, therefore, to care for the bride and their future children. If he cannot secure the bride price, he likely will be unable to marry.
We might ask where and why we see this practice, which differs so dramatically from our own Western marital customs. Bride price is found in several areas throughout the world but is most common in Africa. Societies with bride price tend to practice horticulture as opposed to other types of economic production, such as intensive agriculture or industrial production. In horticultural societies, women contribute significantly to subsistence, generally more than do men. The norm of compensating the bride’s family for her loss of labor is particularly fitting in such a context. Another characteristic of societies with bride price is that most reckon kinship patrilineally (i.e., descent is passed on through men’s line only) and exhibit patrilocal residence patterns (i.e., upon marriage, a woman moves to live with her husband and his kin group). A woman and her children are, in a sense, permanently transferred to the groom’s kin group. Now that she will contribute solely to the subsistence of the groom’s family in addition to producing children that will be members of his kin group rather than hers, it is understandable why there is an expectation that his kinship group compensate her kinship group for her loss.
Bride price also serves to unite kin groups to one another in an expansive network of relationships. Not only are the bride and groom’s kinship groups united by the economic exchange, but the members of the groom’s kinship group act collectively to acquire the payment. The groom, in turn, will later act with his kin group to secure bride payments for his other male kin. The money that a bride’s family receives from their daughter’s marriage will most likely be spent on finding a bride for her brothers and, in turn, uniting the family to yet another kinship group.
- Cooper, B. M. (1995). Women’s worth and wedding gift exchange in Maradi, Niger, 1907-89. Journal of African History 36, 121-141.
- Goody, J., & Tambiah, S. J. (1973). Bridewealth and dowry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Kuper, A. (1982). Wives for cattle: Bridewealth and marriage in Southern Africa. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.