On March 26 and 27, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in two cases challenging the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. In Hollingsworth v. Perry, they will consider the constitutionality of the definition as enshrined in the California state constitution by voters in that state when they adopted “Proposition 8” in 2008 (effectively reversing the decision of the California Supreme Court to impose same-sex “marriage” earlier that year). In Windsor v. United States, they will consider the constitutionality of the same definition of marriage being adopted for all purposes under federal law through the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

In anticipation of those oral arguments, I am running a series of blog posts with questions and answers related to the issue. Today, we look sociological and anthropological definitions of what marriage is, across all times and cultures.

If marriage is not just about the law, or companionship, or a sexual relationship—what is marriage, then?

Some aspects of marriage—particular rituals and traditions surrounding it, and particularly the roles played by the wife and the husband—have been subject to variation and change in different times and places. However, until the political correctness of the last decade or two pushed it underground, there was a virtually universal consensus that a male-female union was not an optional aspect of marriage, but was essential to it. Following are some statements on marriage from key scholars through the years that reinforce this:

“Marriage is generally used as a term for a social institution… Marriage always implies the right to sexual intercourse: society holds such intercourse allowable in the case of husband and wife… At the same time, marriage is something more than a regulated sexual relation… It is the husband’s duty…to support his wife and children… That the functions of the husband and father in the family are not merely of the sexual and procreative kind, but involve the duty of protecting the wife and children, is testified by an array of facts. . . . 

Edward Westermarck, The History of Human Marriage, Vol. I, (New York: The Allerton Book Company, 1922), p. 26, 46, 27.


“The family is a social group characterized by common residence, economic cooperation, and reproduction. It includes adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted, of the sexually cohabiting adults. The family is to be distinguished from marriage, which is a complex of customs centering upon the relationship between a sexually associating pair of adults within the family.”

“Three distinct types of family organization emerge from our survey of 250 representative human societies. The first and most basic, called herewith the nuclear family, consists typically of a married man and woman and their offspring, although in individual cases one or more additional persons may reside with them.

George Peter Murdock (Yale anthropologist), Social Structure, (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1949), p. 1-2.


 “The family….is based on marriage, which is defined as a union between a man and a woman such that children borne by the woman are recognized as the legitimate offspring of both partners.”

A Committee of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Notes and Queries on Anthropology, 6th ed. (London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1951) p. 71.


“Thus seen, marriage is a contractual union of a man and a woman and involves sexual privilege, economic cooperation, cohabitation, the production of children, and responsibility for the children’s care, socialization, and education. If the marriage is fruitful, the resulting social unit is a nuclear or elementary family. Marriage is thus the social transaction that establishes a nuclear family. Other definitions of marriage – variously phrased as a union of a man and woman in which they are the jural father and mother of the children born to the woman or in which the woman’s children are regarded as their legitimate offspring imply the same thing: marriage establishes the jural basis for a group consisting of a man, a woman, and their children…”

Ward Hunt Goodenough, Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures at the Universityof Rochester, Description and Comparison in Cultural Anthropology, (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co., 1970), p. 4.


“All known human societies recognize the existence of the sexual pair-bond and give it formal sanction in the form of marriage. With only a handful of exceptions presently to be examined, married pairs are not only expected to copulate with each other, but to cooperate in the raising of offspring and to extend to each other material help. …[M]arriage is nevertheless the cultural codification of a biological program. Marriage is the socially sanctioned pair-bond for the avowed social purpose of procreation.”

Pierre L. van den Berghe, Human Family Systems: An Evolutionary View, (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1979, 1990) pp. 45, 46.


“Marriage is a relationship within which a group socially approves and encourages sexual intercourse and the birth of children… Marriage is not usually a transaction confined to the bride and groom. It extends beyond them, to include members of their own families or kin group.”


Suzanne G. Frayser, Varieties of Sexual Experience: An Anthropological Perspective on Human Sexuality, (New Haven, Conn: Human Relations Area Files Press, 1985), p. 248, 269.


“The universality of kinship terminologies provides a further case of cultural reflection or recognition of cultural fact. A kinship terminology is that linguistic domain (discrete set of terms) found among every people, in which domain most or all terms are translatable by the terms required for sexual reproduction, or combinations of them: father, mother, son, daughter…Marriage – which is distinct from procreation, per se – so regularly impinges on kinship terminologies that it is usually counted as one of the two fundamental building blocks of kinship. Accordingly, the father and mother of an individual are normally husband and wife.”

Donald Brown, anthropologist, Human Universals, (Boston: McGraw Hill, 1991), p. 93.


“In an overwhelming majority of human societies, marriage is the mechanism which provides for the legitimation of children and defines their status in relationship to the conjugal family and the wider kin group.”

Alan Barnard, “Rules and Prohibitions: The Form and Content of Human Kinship,” in Companion Encyclopedia of Anthropology, ed. Tim Ingold (London: Routledge, 1994),


“Because heterosexuality is directly related to both reproduction and survival, and because it involves much more than copulation, every human society has had to promote it actively (although some have also allowed homosexuality in specific circumstances). And marriage is the major way of doing so. It has always required a massive cultural effort involving myths or theologies, rituals, rewards, privileges, and so on. Heterosexuality is always fostered as a cultural norm, in other words, not merely allowed as one “lifestyle choice” among many. Some norms vary greatly from one society to another, to be sure, but others—-along with the very existence of norms—-are universal. So deeply embedded in consciousness are these that few people are actually aware of them. The result, in any case, is a “privileged” status for heterosexuality. Postmodernists are not wrong in identifying it as such, but they are wrong in assuming that any society can do without it. Not surprisingly, comparative research reveals a pattern: Marriage has universal or nearly universal features and variable ones.

“Its universal features include the fact that marriage (a) encourages procreation under specific conditions; (b) recognizes the interdependence of men and women; (c) defines eligible partners; (d) is supported by authority and incentives; (e) has a public dimension; and (f) provides mutual support not only between men and women but also between them and children. Its nearly universal features are (a) an emphasis on durable relationships between biological parents; (b) mutual affection and companionship; (c) family (or political) alliances; and (d) an intergenerational cycle (reciprocity between young and old). These features assume the distinctive contributions of both sexes, transmit knowledge from one generation to another, and create not only “vertical” links between the generations but also “horizontal” ones between allied families or communities.

 . . .

“We conclude that every society needs a public heterosexual culture, specifically marriage, to foster five things: (a) the birth and rearing of children (at least to the extent necessary for demographic continuity) in culturally approved ways; (b) the bonding between men and women in order to provide an appropriate setting for maturing children and to ensure the cooperation of men and women for the common good; (c) the bonding between men and children so that men are likely to become active participants in family life; (d) some healthy form of masculine identity—-that is, an identity based on at least one distinctive, necessary, and publicly valued contribution to society (responsible fatherhood being one obvious example); and (e) the transformation of adolescents into sexually responsible adults.”

Katherine K. Young and Paul Nathanson [note: Nathanson is himself openly homosexual], Marriage a la mode: Answering the Advocates of Gay Marriage, 2003

[Note: Most of the quotations here are drawn from a compilation by Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family:

Glenn T. Stanton, Differing Definitions of Marriage and Family: Comparing and Contrasting Those Offered by Emerging Same-Sex Marriage Advocates and Classic Anthropologists, Focus on the Family,March 10, 2008]