Marriage in Africa: Simple Economics

Article excerpt

Drawing on significant anthropological literature, this article addresses a wide variety of questions related to marriage in Africa. The article argues that the institution of marriage can be understood as an economic phenomenon subject to a series of economic decisions.


It is springtime in Zimbabwe, when hearts turn to romance and pockets empty for "mora," the word for bride price in the local Shona language. ..Some people are requesting cellphones, second-hand cars or even canisters of gasoline, in this era of chronic fuel shortages and deepening poverty,, to sweeten the deal. ..Local newspapers report that some prominent families are charging thousands of dollars at a time when the average private-sector employee earns only about $1,800 a year.

1. Introduction

October 3, 200] 'Cattle Prices Are Up. So Is Buying a Bridge's Hand' Rachel L. Swains The New York Times

Marriage is like a groundnut: you have to crack it open to see what is inside. So goes an Akan proverb, and in this paper we apply the tools of economic analysis to crack open some of the puzzling questions regarding marriage. The application to marriage of these. tools is somewhat recent. Marriage is one of those institutions that for a long time defied economic analysis. Economics is a preeminently Western social science, and Western societies have had a dominant discourse that marriage should be based on romantic love. Marriage and .love were supposed to be irrational, and hence economics, with its presumption of rational 'evaluation of alternatives, seemed to have little to say. Becker's (1981) famous Treatise on the Family stands out as a landmark in the changing perceptions of the appropriateness of an economics of marriage. (1)

Despite the twenty years since the publication of Becker's work, economists have done little work on marriage in Africa, and so this paper relies heavily on work by anthropologists. Anthropology itself has had a strong economics focus when it comes to analyzing marriage; indeed much anthropological work on marriage feels very much like economics in its application of statistics to test the implications of models of individual behavior. This approach competes with an alternative 'symbolic' approach that sees marriage as a structured ritual where cultural discourses are negotiated. This alternative asserts that marriage, and payments such as bridewealth, are more like performances than like markets where people calculate and strategize. There is no doubt considerable truth in this assertion for many times and places. The brief news item from Sudan exemplifies how states sometimes attempt to turn marriage into political statement, in this case by linking polygyny with 'patriotic' outcomes. Both analytical points of view are worth exploring, and in fact may be thought of as the difference between assuming perfect competition and assuming strategic interaction in the political economy domain. The 'material' approach treats individuals as 'price-takers', bargaining for the best deal within a set structure. The symbolic approach treats individuals as having considerable power over others, with every marriage act laden with meaning that affects other people's preferences and decisions.

A wide variety of questions regarding marriage are. amenable to economic analysis. Consider, for example, the forms of marriage. Why do some societies prohibit polygyny? Why prohibit same-sex marriage? Why do some villages mandate that residents marry partners from other villages? In explaining bans on certain forms of marriage, varied and changing moral standards regarding sexuality are often more relevant than economics, but there is still room for plausible explanations having economic foundations.

Another set of questions focuses. on the causes of changes in the incidence and terms of those marriage forms that are socially permitted or enforced, and the causes of cross-cultural variation in terms and incidence of marriages. …