Marriage as a Transactional Space for Status Negotiations

Shalini Prem

Hindu kinship networks in Indian society are predominantly organised following the rules of gotras (clan-groups) and territorial exogamy while simultaneously upholding the bounds of caste endogamy – customary obligation to marry within one’s own caste or subcaste group- to maintain caste purity.[1] In India, socially acceptable marriages are usually heterosexual ones within the bounds of caste endogamy. Claude Lévi-Strauss reveals the heteronormativity of kinship systems when he postulates that the ‘exchange of women’ between men is crucial for the existence of kinship systems.[2] It is this construct that Gayle Rubin calls “an implicit theory of sex oppression”.[3] Radcliffe Brown and Daryll Forde summed up marriage, in its essence, to be a rearrangement of social structure.[4] An arranged marriage is a union of two social groups intending to derive different benefits out of the said union. Consequently, pragmatic matrimonial choices override individual autonomy in spousal selection; for the maintenance of caste hierarchies as well as the derivation of maximum benefit out of the social association. Mauss proposed that gift-giving is significant for it expresses as well as creates a social link between the parties to the exchange.[5] Following the doctrine of kanyadaan, the bride-givers give away their daughters, as brides, to the bride-receivers, consequently using women in the construction of asymmetrical exchange networks. The bride is used as a conduit to link the two social groups together with the two social units playing the role of a bride-giver and bride-receiver respectively. Marriages on an exclusive asymmetrical basis, however, inevitably involve status inequalities with the bride-giver retaining a position inferior to that of the bride-receiver.[6] To overcome these inherent status inequalities, the bride-givers engage in hypergamous alliance formations involving the practice of dowry.[7] Alternatively, they exchange brides between kin groups or their lineages within a sufficiently short time span such that these exchanges are remembered.[8] Therefore, marriage becomes a transactional space for status negotiations between unequal social groups with women playing the role of both the object being transacted as well the vessel transferring the dowry property.

Claude Lévi-Strauss in The Elementary Structures of Kinship proposed the ‘generalized exchange’ system where a woman is seen as the ‘supreme gift’ that binds two groups in a transactional space. This generalized exchange system involves one lineage giving away a woman to another lineage with the faith of eventual compensation, as bride-receivers, from some third lineage. This ‘exchange of women’ was based off two conditions, namely the universal prohibition of incest and the principle of reciprocity (recognition of a series of mutual obligations arising between those giving and receiving gifts).

In Woman as Tribute, Woman as Flower: Images of “Woman” in Weddings in North and South India, Pauline Kolenda analyses the marriage rituals and ceremonies of north Indian Rajputs of Khalapur and south Indian Nattati Nadars of Kanyakumari. The author concludes that the two castes are examples of a modified generalized exchange system with the cultural imageries of the Rajput and Nadar brides being a tribute and flower respectively.

In The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex, Gayle Rubin borrows from Lévi-Strauss in saying that kinship systems are socio-cultural categories and statuses that are not genetically or biologically formulated. It is the exchange of women – women transferred from one group to another as gifts- as postulated by Lévi-Strauss that Rubin refers to as the ‘traffic of women’. The author also observed that kinship systems, in some circumstances, necessitate not mere heterosexuality but certain specific forms of heterosexuality (a product of sexual division of labour in kinship systems), for instance cross-cousin sexual among castes where cross-cousin marriage is mandatory.

In Status relations in South Asian marriage alliances: Toward a general theory, Murray Milner, Jr. through the ‘general theory of status alliances’ attempted to explain the South Asian caste and kinship systems’ strong tendencies towards status homogeneity and caste endogamy as well as some of the most significant recessive tendencies toward status heterogeneity.

In Dowry in North India: Its Consequences for Women, Ursula Sharma examined the relationship between dowry payments and brides, arguing that an increase in the quantity of dowry payments made has qualitatively changed its significance for women in the marriage market.

In Dowry Practices and Gendered Space in Urban Patna/India, Chandramukhee and Stephanie Leder investigate how dowry payments create and sustain a gendered transactional space during marriage solemnization in urban Patna.

Through secondary analysis of ethnographic data, this paper examines the factors that influence the bride-receiving and bride-giving families towards the creation of a transactional space. An attempt will be made to understand the application of Milner’s recessive tendencies toward status heterogeneity by analysing the Rajput and Nadar communities from Pauline Kolenda’s work. This paper will also examine the role of the bride, the existence of dowry, and the relationship between the two within this transactional space.

According to Milner, the ‘General Theory of Status Alliances’, “ predicts that when bases of status independent of other forms of power become institutionalised, the dominant tendencies will be toward status homogeneity, but that there will be significant recessive tendencies toward exchanging status for other resources toward status heterogeneity.[9] Social associations are a key source for the creation and maintenance of status.[10] Social associations with those of higher status tend to increase one’s own status while associations with those of lower status tend to reduce one’s own status.[11] Consequently, people with lower status usually attempt to associate more with higher status people while the latter attempts to limit their associations with the former. These strong contradictory interests, according to Milner, “tend to result in social associations between those who are roughly equal in status, that is, with a strong tendency toward status homogeneity.[12] However, social groups constantly attempt to translate economic resources into status and vice versa.[13] An example being marriage payments like dowry that are made by the bride-givers to the bride-receivers at the time of marriage, in exchange for intimate association with those of higher status.

In many caste systems, the bride-givers are considered to be inherently inferior due to patrilineal and patrilocal practices, as well as the doctrine of kanyadaan.[14] The doctrine of kanyadaan – it requires the bride to be gifted away to a superior and accept nothing in return – is also considered to be the source of hypergamy and provides the cultural rationale for asymmetrical exchanges in marriage alliance formation.[15] According to Louis Dumont, while acceptable marriages may include primary marriages, secondary marriages, as well as concubinage, each of these subsequent relationships brings with it significantly lesser prestige and status.[16] Analogously, among the Kashmiri Pandits, marriages that conform to the orthodox kanyadaan model was considered to contribute most to the status of the involved parties (assuming all other factors are constant).[17] Similarly, when the bride-receivers accept the bride, dowry and other ritual, explicit, and unidirectional gifts and prestation made by the inferior bride-givers, the latter implicitly acquire certain status while the former translates the economic resources acquired into status. This is what Milner refers to as ‘recessive tendencies towards asymmetrical alliances in a hypergamous system’; with the inferiority of the bride-givers being the tipping factor which makes these recessive tendencies toward a systematic departure from status homogeneity more prominent.[18]

One of the responses of the bride-givers to overcome their inferior positions is to engage in a hypergamous relationship – a characteristic of the generalized exchange system- by marrying off their daughter to a groom from a higher status group (usually a higher caste group).[19] The Khalapur Rajputs, as Kolenda noted, adhere to the practices of patrilineality and patrilocality.[20] Further, they engaged in the practice of directional hypergamy for they only gave their daughters for marriage to the villages west or north-west of theirs and got wives only from villages south of theirs.[21] The inferiority of the bride-givers is evident from the fact that strict rules of subordination in terms of visiting the bride and gift-giving (one-directional between unequal partners) were imposed upon them.[22] Deriving from our earlier discussion, in such a patrilineal society -where the class/caste status follows from the husband’s status- intimate associations with those of a higher status through directional hypergamy will tend to increase the status of the bride-givers themselves.

Another response is for the two kin groups or their lineages to exchange brides in a sufficiently short time span such that these exchanges are remembered.[23] The Kanyakumari Nattati Nadars, as Kolenda observed, preferred cross-cousin marriages and their patrilineal organisation was not as strong as the Rajputs.[24] The Nadars claimed to be organised into exogamous patri-clans called intis.[25] As opposed to the directional hypergamy practiced by the Rajputs , these intis were not ordered into bride-givers and bride-receivers rather a pair of intis could exchange brides from one another.[26] Such cross-cousin marriages would result in a perpetual alliance system between the two lineages consequently maintaining a rough equality of statuses between them by switching their roles as bride-givers and bride-takers. The General Theory of Status Alliances suggests that the asymmetrical exchanges observed in the case of the Rajputs would be a characteristic of the doctrine of kanyadaan in Hindu culture where the groom is seen as a deity to be worshipped.[27] Therefore, it is the extent of restraint on counter-prestation, i.e., the rigour with which the doctrine of kanyadaan is followed, that determines whether the second response is possible; for, if followed rigorously, there would be a prohibition on “the possibility of relatively direct exchanges of women between lineages.”[28], as in the case of the Rajputs.

Marriages are often marked by religious rituals involving gift exchanges. Mauss theorized that the dominant force in social relationships is gift-giving and gift -receiving as it socially links the parties of an exchange.[29] In India, marriage can be seen as an important form of gift exchange. The inferiority of the bride-givers and the superiority of the bride-receivers entails a ritual of giving and receiving the gift of a virgin (the doctrine of kanyadaan); which then establishes the marriage alliance between the two social groups by creating a transactional space in which the virgin-bride is transacted away. This gift giving transaction between the two kin groups is elaborated and established through a series of women’s rituals. Among other rituals, the symbolic ending of the bride’s virginity, the arrival of the all-male party to take away the bride to a strange village, and the mother’s brother bringing the bhat ( gift made by mother’s brother to his sister right before her daughter’s wedding), among the Khalapur Rajputs, symbolise the bride being transferred from the control of her natal family to that of her marital kin as a tribute.[30] Further, the purifying ritual bath, fostering of fertility, and the gifting of sari by her maternal uncle (who has the right then to claim the girl for one of his sons) during the Nadar girl’s ‘blossoming’ ceremony create a transactional space through which the bride in the Nadar community (now in the keeping of her affines) is loaned out to her affinal kin after the wedding, as a flower, to be fertilized by the husband.[31] The transactional space created by marriage ceremonies through which ‘gifts’ circulate reveals that if women are the ones being transacted then it is men who do the transacting, placing women in a position where they are not able to “realize the benefits of their own circulation[32], while the men receive social power. With the ultimate result of gifting brides being the establishment of a kinship relationship. As Lévi-Strauss postulates, incest taboo was not a creation of biological necessity but one to encourage exogamy so as to create and sustain kinships through the rite of gift-giving.[33] For, if one were to get married to the women within his family, the rite of ‘gift-exchange’ (‘exchange of women’ as Lévi-Strauss postulates) would not arise.

Marriage alliance formation is a highly competitive space with affines fighting each other to find the most desirable kin groups. So, in addition to the gift of the virgin, the bride-givers also offer marriage payments called dowry – at ‘market value’ of the groom- to the bride-receiversDowry payments are made to the groom’s parents by the bride’s parents at the time of marriage and carries with it the explicit understanding that in its absence the said marriage would be void.[34] Bride-givers are forced to compete with each other to find a groom from a higher status group who would be willing to marry a daughter from a lower status group in a caste endogamous and patrilineal society. Consequently, the bride-givers engage in dowry competitiveness to see who can pay the maximum amount of dowry in the marriage market; making dowry an essential practice in hypergamous societies for status enhancement of the bride-givers.[35] Therefore, while the practice of hypergamy and inferiority of the bride-givers maintains marriage payments like dowry, the amount of dowry demanded by the bride-receivers would to a great extent depend on the disparity in status between the bride-givers and bride-receivers.

In a hypergamous society, marriage is used as an instrument by the bride-receivers for wealth accumulation through dowry practices.[36] These economic resources are then transformed into status and prestige to compensate for the status lost through intimate association with the inferior bride-givers. The dowry amount depends upon factors including the physical characteristics of the bride, whether she is of ‘marriageable age’, i.e., between 18-25, and proof of the groom’s potency.[37] Due to the notion of paraya dhan (daughters in the custody of the natal families to be transferred to its owners [read: marital kin] when claimed), daughters are seen as financial burdens on their families; who are to be given away to another family by paying a huge amount as dowry. Ursula Sharma argues that “the quantitative increase in the amount of dowry given has led to a qualitative change in its significance for women” for the value of the woman is determined by the amount of dowry her family is capable of paying in a culture of competitive hypergamy.[38] Natal families usually do not invest in their daughter’s education (usually because of the financial burden that dowry is already considered to impose), consequently depriving them of the opportunity to earn their own social statuses and value.[39] This makes marriage the principal source of economic and social security for brides, which consequently provides another reason for bride-receivers to demand exorbitant amounts of dowry from the bride-givers. This is further amplified if the grooms having good jobs capable of providing for their brides are limited in the marriage market.[40] For instance, vegetable farming being the ancestral occupation among the Kushwaha has resulted in a scarcity of desirable grooms in terms of jobs, leading to dowry inflation.[41] Therefore, marriage payments like dowry create a transactional space in which both the bride-givers and bride-receivers interact with each other to negotiate and transact wealth.

Dowry is not women’s wealth but wealth transacted through women. Women’s ability to control the dowry is dependent upon kinship practices such as the prevalence of in-village post-marital residence and close-kin marriages.[42] For instance, the cross-cousin marriage practice among the Kanyakumari Nattati Nadars mostly adhere to patrilocal residence qualified by intra-village marriage.[43] During marriage, the Nadars gift their daughters with money or property in the form of sidanam which is usually owned by the bride herself and not the groom.[44] Consequently, the bride and groom, after marriage , may also move closer to the property owned by the bride.[45] As opposed to the Rajputs who follow village exogamy and have been reported to have commonly engaged in the practice of receiving and giving dowry.[46] By marrying women off to strangers in other villages, the woman is divested of control over their lives in their natal communities: if they cannot access the land then they cannot control the land. Usually, dowry payment also involves the daughter forfeiting her claim to inheritance which she legally can claim under the Hindu Succession Act, 1956. One of the reasons for this is because the daughters are made to believe that it is their share of inheritance that is being transferred as dowry (as some sort of ‘pre-mortem inheritance’).[47] However, in most cases the dowry amount is not a fixed share rather it is determined by the marriage market.[48] Further, the dowry amount is paid to the husband’s kins in the form of a lateral transfer,[49] with the daughter merely acting as a vessel of transfer. Ursula Sharma beautifully summarises the relationship between brides, dowry, and status by stating that, “Dowry favours and is favoured by a cultural ethos in which brides can be viewed as objects to be passed from one social group to another, both as a means for the procreation of children and as vehicles for aspirations to social prestige[50].

Marriage rituals are not only an expression of but also the process through which unification of two social groups occurs with the formal transfer of the woman. As Leach observed, reciprocities arising out of kinship obligations are not merely ‘symbols of alliance’ as Lévi-Strauss postulates but also economic transactions.[51] Marriage alliance formation becomes a transactional space for status negotiations where women are used as instruments for upward mobility in the social hierarchy. The norms of hypergamy and the inferiority of the bride-givers draw the bride-givers into this transactional space with hopes to find a suitable groom. This transactional space, however, is not experienced the same way by the bride-givers, bride-receivers, and the brides themselves. In the process of status negotiations, the inherent inferiority of the bride-givers forces them to participate in this transactional space (triggering the recessive tendencies) involving huge financial payments while the bride-receivers impose their superiority and use the space for wealth accumulation. Additionally, if the demands of the bride-receivers are not met then it is the bride who has to deal with the consequences of either the marriage becoming void or the possibility of harassment in their marital homes. Further, the ‘asymmetry of gender’[52], where brides are the ‘transacted’ and men are the ‘transactors’, objectifies and constrains the agency of women, whose social status is dependent upon her natal family’s ability to pay dowry and her husband’s ability to provide for her. 

About the author

Shalini Prem is a third-year law student at Jindal Global Law School. 

Photo Source: The Quint  

  1. Reena Kukreja, Caste and Cross-region Marriages in Haryana, India: Experience of Dalit cross-region brides in Jat households, 52(2) MODERN ASIAN STUDIES 492, 493 (2018). 

  2. CLAUDE LÉVI-STRAUSS, THE ELEMENTARY STRUCTURES OF KINSHIP (James Harle Bell et al. trans., Beacon Press 1969). 

  3. Gayle Rubin, The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex, in TOWARD AN ANTHROPOLOGY OF WOMEN 157, 171 (Rayna R. Reiter ed. 1975). 


  5. MARCEL MAUSS, THE GIFT (W.D. Halls trans., 1990). 

  6. Edmund Leach, Asymmetric Marriage Rules, Status Difference, and Direct Reciprocity: Comments on an Alleged Fallacy, 17 SOUTHWESTERN JOURNAL OF ANTHROPOLOGY 343, 346 (1961). 

  7. Murray Milner, Jr., Status Relations in South Asian Marriage Alliances: Toward a General Theory, 22(2) SAGE JOURNALS 145, 148 (1988). 

  8. Id. 

  9. Id. at 147. 

  10. Id. at 146. 

  11. Id

  12. Id. 

  13. Id. at 147. 

  14. Id. at 148. 

  15. Id. at 149-150. 

  16. LOUIS DUMONT, HOMO HIERARCHICUS: THE CASTE SYSTEM AND ITS IMPLICATIONS 114-116 (Mark Sainsbury et al. trans., 1980). 

  17. Milner, Jr., supra note 7, at 158. 

  18. Id. at 148. 

  19. Id

  20. Paulin Kolenda, Woman as Tribute, Woman as Flower: Images of “Woman” in Weddings in North and South India, 11 AMERICAN ETHNOLOGIST 98, 113 (1984). 

  21. Id. at 101. 

  22. Id

  23. Milner, Jr., supra note 7. 

  24. Kolenda, supra note 20, at 103. 

  25. Id

  26. Id. 

  27. Milner, Jr., supra note 7, at 150. 

  28. Id

  29. MAUSS, supra note 5. 

  30. Kolenda, supra note 20, at 107, 109, 114. 

  31. Id

  32. Rubin, supra note 3, at 174. 

  33. LÉVI-STRAUSS, supra note 2. 

  34. Chandramukhee & Stephanie Leder, Dowry Practices and Gendered Space in Urban Patna/India, 42 GENDER FORUM 54, 54 (2013). 

  35. Id. at 60. 

  36. Id. at 56. 

  37. Id. at 59-60. 

  38. Ursula Sharma, Dowry in North India: its Consequences for Women, in FAMILY, KINSHIP AND MARRIAGE IN INDIA 341, 352 (Patricia Uberoi ed., 1993). 

  39. Chandramukhee & Stephanie Leder, supra note 34, at 61. 

  40. Id. at 59. 

  41. Id

  42. BINA AGARWAL, A FIELD OF ONE’S OWN 482 (1994). 

  43. Kolenda, supra note 20, at 103. 

  44. Kolenda, supra note 20, at 108. 

  45. Kolenda, supra note 20, at 108, 111. 

  46. Kolenda, supra note 20, at 108. 

  47. Sharma, supra note 38, at 351. 

  48. Id. at 351- 352. 

  49. Id. at 352. 

  50. Id. at 355. 


  52. Rubin, supra note 3, at 183. 

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