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Definition: polygamy from Philip's Encyclopedia

Marriage in which more than one spouse is permitted. The term is more often used to denote polygyny (several wives) than polyandry (several husbands). Polygamy is legal in some nations.


Summary Article: Polygamy from Encyclopedia of Human Relationships

Institutionalized mating relationships are found in three primary forms. Monogamy is the marriage of one person with another person of the opposite sex or the same sex. Polygyny consists of the marriage of one man with two or more women, whereas polyandry entails the marriage of one woman with two or more men. Polygamy includes both polyandry and polygyny. Cenogamy is the name given to a group marriage in which any male or female may have sexual relations with any other female or male in the group. Although practiced by a few small experimental communities, such an arrangement has never received institutional status in a culture as a whole. Other polyamorous relationships, such as the union of three or more men, three or more women, and two or more men with two or more women, may occur, but lack names and recognition as social institutions. This entry describes the prevalence of polygamy, determinants of polygyny, the impact of polygyny on women and children, and the determinants of polyandry.

Prevalence of Polygamy

Current Western governments recognize only monogamy, but that is not the case worldwide. Among the 1,231 societies in the Ethnographic Atlas Codebook, 186 (15 percent) were monogamous, 453 (37 percent) had occasional polygyny, 588 (48 percent) had more frequent polygyny, and 10 (less than 1 percent) had polyandry.

The foregoing does not mean that 85 percent of the world's population supports polygamy. Many polygamous societies are small, underdeveloped cultures. Nonetheless, polygyny is considered to be a legitimate form of marriage in Algeria, Benin, Chad, Congo, Gabon, Ghana, Kuwait, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Togo, and Tanzania, as well as among the Bedouin-Arabs in Israel and Xhosa in South Africa.

The prevalence of polygyny also does not mean that a male may choose any female as an additional wife. In many polygamous societies, the first spouse must consent to the choice of a second spouse. Fifteen percent of societies in which multiple wives were common also emphasized sororal polygyny, limiting the male to his wife's sisters, such as Native American Sioux and the Zulus of Africa. At other times, an additional spouse is obligatory. In 69 percent of polygynous societies, a man was expected to marry the widow of his brother and to raise the nephews and nieces as his own. In 62 percent of polygynous societies, the cowives live in separate dwellings.

The original religious teaching of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) encouraged men to have at least three wives. Polygyny is illegal in the United States, and the LDS church hierarchy banned the practice of plural marriage in 1890 as part of Utah's application for statehood. Nonetheless, polygyny continues to be practiced in some fundamentalist LDS sects, primarily located in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

Islam permits polygyny with up to four wives. Some Muslim immigrants in the United States from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia bring multiple wives with them during the immigration process, concealing the females' identity as sisters or daughters. Other Muslim men take a second, third, or fourth wife in Islamic religious ceremonies that are not recognized by civil law, leaving the later wives and children in jeopardy in matters of health care, social security, and inheritance.

Determinants of Polygyny

Because polygyny is so widespread, it is difficult to identify variables that consistently predict its acceptance. Among societies that permit polygyny, however, it is practiced more frequently in some cultures than others in terms of the percent of females involved in polygynous unions. More females tend to be involved in polygynous unions and fewer in monogamous unions meaning-wise, but it seems clearer in harsh environmental circumstances, including tropical climates with a higher level of infectious disease and in societies with a lower ratio of eligible males to females, including due to the loss of males in warfare. It also is more frequently practiced in cultures that have greater income inequality, including concentration of a large amount of wealth and arable land in few hands, and delayed age of marriage for males due to the need to accumulate resources in order to marry. Such environmental conditions seem to accentuate the natural selection tendency for the strong and fit to reproduce more than the weak and poorly adapted.

Although some aspects of a harsh environment occur naturally, it should be emphasized that the concentration of wealth and land-holdings occurs only when social norms and structures emphasize individual acquisition rather than communal sharing. The determinants of such norm variations are unclear. Regardless, females in such harsh physical and social environments may be forced to choose between marriage to a healthy and wealthy male who can support multiple wives, a poorer or sicklier male, or no marriage at all. Further suggesting that polygyny is an institution associated with reduced female options are findings that it is practiced more intensely in societies with a low rate of female literacy and little exposure to mass media.

Impact of Polygyny on Women

Information on the impact of polygyny on women is mixed. In polygynous societies, such as among fundamentalist Mormons and Islamic groups, women often have little access to education or careers and may be restricted from owning property or exercising overt political power. Some report jealousy due to their husband sleeping with other women and resentment when dominated by their husbands' earlier wives. In some polygynous subcultures, girls younger than the age of consent in the larger society have been forced into marriages against their will, providing de facto support for rape.

Some women in polygynous societies have expressed dissatisfaction because of their lack of personal funds, transportation, and saleable skills, which creates formidable barriers to divorce. A woman who leaves a polygynous marriage may be ostracized and shunned by the polygynous community, creating strong obstacles to her seeing her children again if she did not retain custody.

Other women in polygynous communities express satisfaction with their lives. They report pride in being linked to a prosperous husband, they enjoy their close relationships with their sister wives, and they benefit from sharing household work and child care. These women also report feeling that they wield considerable influence in the management of domestic activities and in the welfare of the community.

Impact of Polygyny on Children

Children born in a polygynous family may benefit from receiving the genes of successful fathers and in living in the household that such men can provide. The children also may benefit from having multiple role models and receiving the warmth, affection, and care of several mother figures.

At the same time, polygynous marriages are more likely than are monogamous marriages to have spousal conflict, tension, and jealousy. There also is more father absence if the wives live in separate houses, and there may be financial stress if the number of children borne by multiple wives is not paralleled by increased income. There are reports of adolescent males being ejected from polygynous compounds in the United States to reduce competition for the adolescent females. Lacking education or skills for dealing with the outside world, these unfortunates are known as the “lost boys of polygamy.”

Some studies have documented the negative effects of polygynous marital structure on the developmental outcomes of children, whereas others have not found evidence that polygyny

places children at risk for adverse cognitive, educational, or mental health consequences compared with children from monogamous families. Disentangling such conflicting results may require knowledge of the religion, economy, and social structure of polygamous cultures, including whether the cowives are sisters or live in separate dwellings. In societies in which polygyny is highly valued in the religion and is a sign of high status, the children of polygynous marriages may thrive. However, when polygyny is stigmatized or an indicator of impoverishment, then children of polygynous marriages may fare less well. Similarly, societies that emphasize communal rather than individual values and involve the extended family in childrearing may buffer the impact of the stressors associated with polygynous marriage, especially on older children who typically spend less time in the home.

Determinants of Polyandry

The marriage of one female with two or more males occurs in less than a dozen cultures, including the Toda of south India, the Nyinba of northwest Tibet, the Pahari of Nepal, the Marquesans of Polynesia, and the Kaingang and the Shirishana of Brazil. The Toda practice fraternal polyandry, in which two brothers marry a woman. Not only are both males related to the offspring, but they have an incentive to work cooperatively on land that stays undivided in the family. Among the Marquesans and Kaingang, by contrast, two males who are not closely related marry one woman.

Polyandry is not an institution in which successful women maintain harems of attractive men. Instead, polyandry tends to occur in cultures with weak economies, in which individual men tend to be poor and have difficulty supporting wives on their own, and women tend to be marginalized and have minimal opportunity to contribute to family subsistence. In such situations, it often takes two men and a woman to make ends meet. The Shirishana are not characterized by poverty, but the society consists of only a few hundred people who live by hunting and horticulture in the more remote regions of Brazil, and they have unstable sex ratios. Because of the relationship between polyandry and economic and demographic instability, it is difficult to determine the impact of polyandry on women and children, although issues of jealousy and marital conflict have been reported.

To the majority of the world's people, who were brought up within the norm of monogamy, the institution of polygamy may seem exotic and can elicit a reflexive response of ethnocentric disdain. But polygamous institutions appear to have been adaptive in some past and present ecologies and may be so in the future. For example, because of a cultural preference for sons, countries such as China have seen examples of selective abortion and infanticide over the past quarter century used to increase the ratio of males to females. Institutionalization of polyandry could help alleviate the looming wife shortage in such countries.

See also

Alternative Relationship Lifestyles, Marriage, Historical and Cross-Cultural Trends, Marriage Markets, Parenting, Sex Ratio

Further Readings
  • Altman, I., & Ginat, J. (1996). Polygamous families in contemporary society. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Barber, N. Explaining cross-national differences in polygyny intensity: Resource-defense, sex ratio, and infectious diseases. Cross-Cultural Research: The Journal of Comparative Social Science 42 ((2)) : 103-117., 2008, May.
  • Bennion, J. (1998). Women of principle. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Cassidy, M. L.; Lee, G. R. The study of polyandry: A critique and synthesis. Journal of Comparative Family Studies 20 : 1-11., 1989.
  • Elbedour, S.; Onwuegbuzie, O. J.; Caridine, C.; Abu-Saad, H. The effect of polygamous marital structure on behavioral, emotional, and academic adjustment in children: A comprehensive review of the literature. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review 5 : 255-271., 2002.
  • Ember, M.; Ember, C. R.; Low, B. S. Comparing explanations of polygyny. Cross-Cultural Research 41 : 428-440., 2007, November.
  • Gray, J. P. Ethnographic atlas codebook. World Cultures 10 : 86-136., 1998.
  • Cunningham, Michael R.
    Copyright © 2009 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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