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This lesson will seek to explain the concept of marriage as an economic transaction. In doing so, it will define the concepts of bride price, bride service, gift exchange, and dowries, which are used around the globe.

Economic Transactions in Marriage

For today’s lesson on how marriage is often arranged through economic transactions, like bride price and dowry, I’ll use a little story from my past.As a young woman, I traveled with about 30 other young people to the heart of Africa. As we backpacked our way into the center of our first destination village, we were met by a local man. Walking up to us in an ominous way, he pointed at a few of us girls and said in very broken English, ‘My son needs a bride. I’ll give you two cows and a goat for one of them!’Before we could all run all the way back to the U.

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S., our English guide saved us by breaking into gales of laughter and smacking the huge man on the back. Obviously, the two of them were old friends, and this was a joke they liked to play on newcomers. Unfortunately, it became an instant source of teasing, as the boys in our group threatened to sell us off every time we entered a new village.However, after spending a few months among these rather wonderful people, we did learn there was some truth in these jests, that we had entered into a culture where marriage was not governed by love, but by economic trade.

Since I’m guessing this topic is as new to most of you as it was to me, today’s lesson will focus on the economic aspects of marriage found around the globe, specifically in the forms of bride price, bride service, exchange, and dowry.

Bride Price

Since the joke our African friend played was a great example of bride price, we’ll start with it. Bride price, as the name implies, is a gift of money or goods given from a groom and his family to the family of the bride.In very Western terms, it’s sort of the price tag placed on the bride, and in most cases, the price is rather substantial. However, anyone who wants her is going to have to pay it. Whether it be in the form of land, livestock, or crops, a price is paid for the right to take a female in marriage.

Of all the different ways that marriages are arranged through what we’d call sort of business deals, bride price is the most common.

Bride Service

Leaving bride price, we now switch to bride service. Bride service is when a groom works for the family of the bride in exchange for the right to marry her. In other words, while bride price sees the groom and his family giving something for the bride, bride service sees the groom actually working to pay for the bride. As the second most common form of economic transactions governing marriage, probably the most famous example of bride service is the biblical story of Jacob and Rachel, in which Jacob worked 14 years to pay for his bride.

Gift Exchange

Next we come to marriage governed by gift exchange. Again, as the name pretty much gives away, gift exchange occurs when the families of the bride and groom exchange gifts of equal value. Not just seen as payments to one another, anthropologists assert the employment of gift exchange acts as a means for the two families to create a bond.

Very, very odd to our Western minds, one form of gift exchange is female exchange, in which the family of the groom trades one of its women for the bride. Although pretty rare, this is still seen in parts of Africa, as well as the interior of Brazil.

Dowry

Our last form of economic exchange in marriage is a dowry.

With this word probably being familiar to many of us, a dowry is a transfer of goods or money from the bride’s family to the bride, which she will then bring into the marriage.Although this sounds a bit like what we’d call just a wedding gift, it goes much, much deeper than this. In most societies, dowries are given in order to make the girl in question look more appealing to would-be suitors. To really, really Westernize it, it’s almost like bait on a hook.

After all, who wouldn’t want to marry a girl who’s bringing land, tools, and even money into the marriage! Way before the days of pre-nups, dowries were very common in medieval times as families worked to marry their girls off to the most eligible of men!

Lesson Summary

Around the globe, there are many different forms of economic transactions that play a part in the decision to marry.First, there is bride price, a gift of money or goods given from a groom and his family to the family of the bride. Bride price is the most common form of economic transaction used in marriage.Similar to bride price, there is bride service, when a groom works for the family of the bride in exchange for the right to marry her. This is the second most common form of economic transaction used in marriage.

There is also gift exchange, occurring when the families of the bride and groom exchange gifts of equal value. As a rare form of exchange, there is also female exchange, in which the family of the groom trades one of its women for the bride.Last, there is the use of dowry, a transfer of goods or money from the bride’s family to the bride. Often used to entice a young man and his family to agree to marriage, dowries were very common in medieval times.

Learning Outcomes

Once you’ve finished with this lesson, you will have the ability to:

  • Describe four forms of economic transactions in marriage customs
  • Identify some geographic locations where these customs play a role in marriage

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