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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Marriages: A conservative or progressive force

The institution of marriage or pairing has the potential to be a great progressive force in society. Other than being an avenue to churn the gene pool, it can also even out differences in social rank, economic power, casteist and racial origin. But of course, this is only if such marriages or coupling happens between two people who are rather different in these aspects. In such cases, marriages can result in immediate dissolution of the stigma faced by the lesser privileged of the two. For instance, while affirmative actions have a rather slow effect on removing racial or caste based disparities, inter-racial and inter-caste marriages would work very fast if adopted on a large scale.

However, marriages have played exactly the opposite role. The institution has become the greatest source of conservatism around the world ensuring that socio-economic status, racial makeup, occupational backgrounds, casteist makeup and the resultant disparities, stigmas and attitudes remain as strong as ever. Only 2% of marriages in the UK are inter-racial while the same number for the US stands at 6% (even though it has increased by seven times over the level of 1970s). In India, especially for the middle class, marriages are designed to bring together very similar profiles, ones falling at the intersection of the same caste, religion, linguistic group, economic strata, educational background and skin color. Such has been the effect of such closed group marriages in India that mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome tests on local population show significant genetic disparities between caste groups, an astounding outcome given that the underlying socio-religious system is only 2500-3000 years old. Such rigidity to seek out similarities while pairing up makes one wonder if incest taboo would have been a reality if not for the obvious biological consequences. While Hindi films of the 80s were typically about a poor person marrying a richer one, social attitudes in India are so hardened that a white-collared worker marrying a domestic help would be first and foremost seen as a scandal. Of course, exceptions exist and I know of a few communists who have married someone from lower economic strata as a matter of both love and principle.

An interesting phenomenon can be seen in the US where the so called most eligible African American males are marrying outside their race which is forcing the African American women to “marry down” with lesser privileged males from their race. Coincidentally, African Americans have witnessed immense improvement in living conditions over the recent years (Significant differences with whites exist and other factors probably played greater role).

So, can one socially engineer marriages between people coming from disparate backgrounds? During most of human history, such marriages or pairings have been a result of oppressive human activities such as enslavement after war or through instinctive decisions of kings to marry commoners. In modern times, some survivors of the Pol Pot regime reported being forced to marry the person sitting next in randomly assorted town hall meetings. On a much smaller scale, members of the Saudi royal family often do marry outside the clan and the group has expanded to 5000 members sharing reportedly 40% of the annual budget of the Saudi government.

Governments have typically forbid inter-racial marriages as in apartheid South Africa or Jim Crow’s America. But few governments have tried benevolent methods of say economic incentives to encourage inter-group pairings. One may argue that such state interventions will take away the emotions underlying the institution of marriage. But aren’t those emotions being already overwhelmed by emotionless considerations such as caste, religion, economic status, race and skin color?

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Jules Viernes