Arranged Marriage: Change or Persistence? Illustrative Cases of Nigerians in the USA

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

It is a common practice for marriages in traditional settings (1) to be arranged whether these settings are in Africa or China. The same, however, may not be true of marriages in urban settings even in Africa and of marriages involving Africans in the Diaspora. Yet, standard textbooks on marriage and family routinely list Africa as an example of societies where marriages are arranged. Even African and Africanist scholars often cavalierly refer to the system as arranged despite the tremendous changes, social and physical, that would render strict arrangement quite impracticable. The widely publicized annual wife-takings involving teenage girls that a certain southern African potentate conducts, his most recent was his 14th wife-taking, (2) seem to give credence to this image of traditional African marriages.

Relative to arranged marriage practices elsewhere, like China, the sociological literature on arranged marriage practices in Africa is quite thin. These writings are, however, united by a common observation that both in the public's perception of it and in actual incidence, the practice is declining (3) as parents and families increasingly either accommodate the views of the individuals involved or entirely cede the mate selection decision to these individuals, an observation that makes marriage in these societies progressively akin to their counterpart in Western societies. The convergence view of marriage, theoretically nestled in modernization theory, has attracted considerable intellectual criticism. The empirical observation, with regard to the practice in African societies, is not without its share of criticisms either. Its major drawback is its monolithic view of traditional African marriages as arranged and the condensing of these marriages to a single element: the exclusion of the individuals to be married from the mate selection decision. This specific practice, arrangement, has come to identify these marriages.

The eponymous identification of these marriages with the practice whereby parents/families assign their children/members in marriage appears to have impeded examination of these marriages beyond mate selection, elevating to the level of validity, the erroneous assumption that all marriages in traditional Africa are arranged and that these marriages are entirely about mate selection. This article attempts to contribute to our knowledge of marriage in traditional Africa in two ways. One, it uses the marriage system of the Okrikans to reveal the coexistence of arranged and non-arranged marriages, each administered by and organized around different institutional structures, with differential implication for family membership, inheritance and other important issues. Second, we propose that arranged marriages in African societies have three features that distinguish them from love-based marriages. The pivot is the control the family exercises over the marriage transactions. From this flows the second feature namely the exclusion of the partners from the mate selection decision. The third is the widespread view that marriage first and foremost links families rather than just the two individuals. The second has been widely discussed and its studies provide the empirical basis for the change view of arranged marriage. In contrast, the status of the first in the workings of arranged marriage has attracted quite limited intellectual scrutiny, if any. Using three cases taken from a snowball sample of couples from Nigeria living in the northeast of the United States, this article attempts to illustrate each of the three features of arranged marriage vis-a-vis the issue of change. This differentiated treatment of the practice enables us to suggest a dynamic in which the observed change co-exists with persistence. In other words, while the change in mate selection practice supports the convergence view of marriages, the persistence and even resistance to change observed with the others bespeak divergence, gesturing a somewhat more complex dynamic for the practice than the convergence view suggests, and points to a somewhat contentious interchange between immigrants and their homeland. …

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