Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Comparative Patterns of Interracial Marriage: Structural Opportunities, Third-Party Factors, and Temporal Change in Immigrant Societies

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Comparative Patterns of Interracial Marriage: Structural Opportunities, Third-Party Factors, and Temporal Change in Immigrant Societies

Article excerpt


Patterns of mate selection exhibit remarkable cross-cultural and sub-cultural variation (see Hamon and Ingoldsby, 2003; Qian, 1997). The specific nature of the contact between groups in each society creates unique patterns of inequality, segregation, group identification, hostilities, and racial tension. These in turn affect the contact that members of groups have with members of other groups and the degree of contact influences intermarriage rates.

Kalmijn (1998) classifies the factors that affect inter-group marriage into two general characteristics: opportunity structures and "third-party" influences. Individual preferences operate within these broader parameters. His first category, opportunity structures, includes segregation, geographical isolation, and local marriage markets (the opportunity to meet through education, work, and places of informal socializing). Under the second factor he includes group identification, group sanctions (against inter-group marriage), and religion.

We use this general framework to examine intermarriage in six different contexts: the United States, Hawaii as a special case within the United States, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and Xinjiang Province in the Peoples Republic of China. Each context is distinguished by its separate history of immigration, racial composition, and racial subjugation. We provide a rationale later in the paper for these particular countries. Each context varies, sometimes dramatically, along the dimensions discussed by Kalmijn.

General social trends that promote individual human rights and racial equality may also increase the chances for social contact between groups. These trends, combined with modernization, challenge traditional values and weaken ethnic boundaries (Inglehart and Baker, 2000). Thus, younger generations in immigrant societies generally are more likely than older generations to be involved in interracial marriages.

In sum, we draw on Kalmijn's general perspective to assess the amount of opportunity structures that are present in each societal context. We also assess the impact of third parties on proscriptions of inter-group marriage. We then use census data to examine how structural groups may actually be perceived as a racial threat (see Bobo, 1983; Bobo and Kluegel, 1993; Quillian, 1996;Taylor, 1998).


Inter-group marriage is often viewed as the last barrier to racial integration. Marriage publicly and legally formalizes an intimate relationship between partners, and between parents and children. Presumably those who marry interracially do not see the race of their partner as a boundary limiting interpersonal interaction though others often do. Further, the presence of mixed race couples and their children may blur racial boundaries. Patterns of intermarriage thus provide an assessment of the strength of barriers against inter-group intimate contact.

All of the contexts we examine are characterized by racial and ethnic segregation, but the degree of isolation varies greatly. Structural elements of society, Kalmijn (1998) argues, can either reduce or increase the opportunities for individuals to meet and mate. Kalmijn emphases the associations that occur through three structural arrangements: education, work, and the informal socializing that occurs outside of these formal contexts.

The probabilities of marriage are further impacted by the second general factor reviewed by Kalmijn, the influence of "third parties." Kalmijn specifically mentions group identification and group sanctions. These influences are related to the structural factors, but Kalmijn makes the analytical distinction between these two general factors.

An example of the strength of these third-party influences is the early research on intergroup marriage (conducted primarily in the United States) that focused on interracial marriage as a proxy for acceptance of other groups (e.g., Merton, 1941 ; Gordon, 1964). …

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