Marriage Rituals as Reinforcers of Role Transitions: An Analysis of Weddings in the Netherlands

By Kalmijn, Matthijs | Journal of Marriage and Family, August 2004 | Go to article overview

Marriage Rituals as Reinforcers of Role Transitions: An Analysis of Weddings in the Netherlands


Kalmijn, Matthijs, Journal of Marriage and Family


Using a nationally representative survey of married couples (N = 572) in The Netherlands, I analyze three characteristics of the contemporary western marriage ceremony: (a) whether couples give a wedding party, (b) whether couples have their marriage consecrated in church, and (c) whether couples go away on a honeymoon. Hypotheses are developed arguing that marriage ceremonies reinforce role transitions in two complementary ways: They reduce uncertainty about the new roles that people will occupy, and they provide approval for norm-guided behavior. Multivariate analyses support the hypotheses. Elaborate marriage ceremonies are more common among couples for whom the transition to marriage is more drastic, and traditional values in the social context of the couple go hand in hand with a more elaborate marriage ceremony.

Key Words: cohabitation, life course transitions, marriage, rituals, social roles.

An important characteristic of role transitions is that they are generally accompanied by rituals, so-called rites of passage (e.g., Hogan, 2000; Van Gennep, 1960). The wedding is a classic example. The wedding is more than simply the expression of happiness that newlyweds and their families feel about the marriage; it also serves to socialize the bride and groom into their new roles as married persons. By celebrating the marriage in an elaborate fashion, newlyweds are helped to define their new identity; they obtain information on how to act in the new role, obtain approval from the social network in which they are embedded, and reduce the uncertainty they may feel about the new step they have taken. In short, the wedding, like other rites of passage, acts as a role reinforcer.

In the social sciences, wedding customs have mainly been studied by anthropologists. Ever since Radcliffe-Brown's well-known account of rites of passage among the Andaman islanders (1964), anthropologists have studied wedding ceremonies in various non-Western societies (De Coppet, 1992; Munn, 1973; Turner, 1969; Young, 1965). Research on the much less dramatic Western wedding ceremony is scarce, however. Rich accounts exist of wedding customs in Western societies (for Dutch examples, see De Jager, 1981; Dekker, 1978), but these abstain from analyzing wedding customs in relation to sociological concepts. An important exception comes from Whyte (1990), who studied marriages in the Detroit area. Whyte constructed a measure of how elaborate weddings are, using information on a series of rituals, and showed, among other things, that elaborate ceremonies are associated with higher class positions and with religiosity, suggesting that social norms play an important role in the marriage ritual.

In this article, I present a new sociological analysis of contemporary Western marriage rituals. Using nationally representative survey data from The Netherlands, I examined the prevalence and correlates of three wedding customs: the wedding celebration or party, the church wedding, and the honeymoon. From a sociological point of view, these three customs represent important dimensions of the marriage ritual. The nature of the wedding party reflects the degree to which the social circles of the bride and groom are involved in the marriage transition. The church wedding says something about the involvement of cultural institutions in the marriage transition. The honeymoon, finally, symbolizes the departure of the children from the two families of origin and is a way for the couple to present itself to an unknown outside world as married.

The first goal of this article is to describe trends in the way couples celebrate their wedding day. The importance of this question lies in the demographic changes of recent decades. More and more couples live together unmarried, there has been a sharp rise in the divorce rate, and people are marrying at later ages (Cherlin, 1992). These trends are often viewed as manifestations of individualization and secularization, two processes thought to have diminished the traditional value of marriage both in Europe (Lesthaeghe, 1983) and in the United States (Bumpass, 1990; Cherlin; Inglehait, 1997). …

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