Dowry

As in the bride wealth system, dowry payments entails a transfer of wealth, sometime a substantial amount, from one core social group to another. Dowries are sometimes considered to be a reverse form of bride wealth, since they are contributed by the bride’s family rather than the groom’s. However the assets transferred do not go to the affinal group per se, but are vested in the marriage itself and usually are inherited by the children that result. As such dowries are common in bilateral inheritance systems, although they have been regularly observed within Eurasian patrilineal systems (Goody). Daughters inherit a share of their father’s property, which they receive upon marriage rather than upon his death. The inheritance may be controlled by the daughter’s husband but is subsequently passed on to her children. Forms of dowry were common in Europe until the 19th century and are still important in the Islamic world. Quite a different transfer from a new bride’s family occurs in some East Indian cultures. Erroneously termed “dowries,” the institution is actually the reverse of a bride price, i.e., a “groom price”. A man’s wife’s family must pay a substantial sum to his parents, who may choose to utilize this investment on their own account, very often to finance the marriage of the groom’s sister.

Brideprice and dowry are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In some cultures both are practiced simultaneously. Among the Xhosa (a South African Bantu society), a girl’s father would receive a lobola payment from her new husband but would also be responsible for providing her with marriage cattle that would be vested in the new household formed. This arrangement had two implications. Unlike the standard arrangement it did not create an extensive chain of relationships among several groups, since the father was left with no stock to contract another marriage for himself or a son. Moreover, the gift to the new family relieved the father of any formal responsibilities for his daughter’s welfare after her marriage (Kuper 1982:36).

Another important system of marriage exchange entails a contribution of labour rather than valuable goods. In the institution of bride-service, a new husband is required to work for his father-in-law for a lengthy period of time as form of compensation for various conjugal rights. This arrangement is documented in the Bible in the life of Jacob, who contributes 14 years in order to marry Leah and Rachel. It is also present in one form or another in many contemporary cultures, such and the Yanomamo and the Ju/’hoansi. In both these cases, the practice is partially understandable in terms of the paucity of material items and accumulations that might form appropriate sources for marriage payment.

© Brian Schwimmer
University of Manitoba
Created: September 2003