Marriage and Family – A New Topical Summary for Explaining Human Culture

Bride holding flowers and rice thrown at wedding

A new topical summary on Marriage and Family is now available in Explaining Human Culture, our open access database that summarizes the results of over 1,000 cross-cultural studies. This EHC summary is co-authored by HRAF President Carol R. Ember and interns Benjamin Gonzalez and Daniel McCloskey.

The purpose of the topical summaries is to overview what we think we have learned about a particular topic from cross-cultural research, and to point out some of the things we do not yet know. It is our hope that these summaries will be useful for classroom use and will also stimulate further research to fill in the gaps in our knowledge.

The Marriage and Family summary can be downloaded as a PDF file or ePub (ebook). The summary provides more in depth information to supplement the Marriage and Family teaching exercise available on Teaching eHRAF. Here is an excerpt from the summary:

Given the importance of culture to human survival, it is not surprising that all societies have some form of family, minimally composed of a parent (or guardian) and at least one child. Almost all societies also have the custom of marriage, so a marriage partner is usually part of the basic family unit. Marriage is commonly defined as a socially approved sexual and economic union, presumed to be more or less permanent, and entails rights and obligations between the married couple and any children they might have (Ember and Ember 2019).

Cross-cultural research based on diverse worldwide samples of societies has concentrated on variation in the concepts of marriage and family, functions of marriage and family, social norms and familial expectations, the dissolution of marriage, and various forms of families and households.

Subjects covered in the EHC summary on Marriage and Family include:

  • Universality of Marriage
  • Social Recognition of Marriage
  • Marriage Transactions
  • Customs Regarding Whom One Can and Cannot Marry
  • Arranged Marriage or Individual Choice
  • Polygyny
  • Polyandry
  • Divorce
  • Family Households
  • Consequences of Marriage and Family Forms

We believe that this summary will add insights to important and popular topics which HRAF has previously featured regularly in homepage posts:

A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Childhood

An Anthropology of Dads: Exploring fatherhood in eHRAF

Home Truths: An Anthropology of House and Home

HRAF Research: Tightness and Looseness in Non-industrial Societies

Additionally, the Marriage and Family summary nicely complements several teaching activities:

Marriage and Family (Explaining Human Culture)

Marriage and Choice Workbook Activity

Marriage and Choice In-Class Activity

Short Paper on Basis of Marriage (OCM 581) and Arranging a Marriage (OCM 584)

The topics of marriage and family are prevalent across the academic curriculum in higher education and especially relevant in the social sciences including anthropology, sociology, psychology, economics, political science, human development, and family sciences. The EHC summary on marriage and family can be easily incorporated into course syllabi at colleges and universities teaching with the eHRAF databases.

Explaining Human Culture explores cross-cultural questions about human universals and differences on a wide variety of subjects. Topical summaries are now available in the following areas:

To review Marriage and Family summary and other topical summaries – or to search the database by documents, hypotheses, and variables – please visit Explaining Human Culture.


Ember, Carol R., and Melvin Ember. 2019. Cultural Anthropology. Pearson.