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University of Pittsburgh- Of the Commonwealth System of Higher Education

Dowry Systems in Complex Societies Author(s): Stevan Harrell and Sara A. Dickey Source: Ethnology, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Apr., 1985), pp. 105-120 Published by: University of Pittsburgh- Of the Commonwealth System of Higher Education

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DOWRY

 

SYSTEMS

 

IN

COMPLEX

 
 

SOCIETIES1

 

Stevan

Harrell

 
 

University

of

Washington

 

Sara

A. Dickey

 

University

of

California,

San Diego

A

puzzling

gap

exists

in

current

explanations

of

the

occurrence

of

dowry.

 

Dowry

has

been

regarded,

for

example,

as

one

type

of

marriage

transaction,

 

as

a form

of

diverging

 

devolution,

 

and

as

compensation

 

for

the

acquisition

of

a

so-called

nonproductive

 

woman.

None

of

the

descriptions

and

analyses that

we

have

encountered,

however,

fully

or

sufficiently

explains

why

dowry

occurs

where

and

when

it

does.

After

reviewing

other

 

writers'

views

of the

functions

 

of

dowry

we

will

offer

 

our

own

proposal.

 

We

define

dowry

as the

transfer

 

of

significant

amounts

of

goods

 

from

the

bride's

 

family

(or,

indirectly,

from

the

groom's

family

through

the

bride's

 

family)

to

a conjugal

 

fund

ofthe new

couple.2

This

sort

of

transaction

has

a rather

narrow

distribution

in

comparison with

 

other

forms

of

goods

that

are

exchanged

at

marriage.

 

Of

the

563

societies

listed

in

the

Atlas

of

World

Cultures

 

(Murdock

1981),

 

only

24?approximately

 

4 per

cent?have

this

form

of

marriage

trans?

action,

in

contrast

with

the

226

societies

that

give

bridewealth,

for example,

or

the

63

that

require

brideservice.

Yet,

as Goody

(1972,

1976)

has

pointed

 

out,

to

see

dowry

merely

as

an

aspect

of

marriage

transactions

is

misleading.

 

Dowry

is,

rather, one

 

form

of

"diverging

devolution,"

 

a type

of

property

inheritance

in

which

both

sons

and

daughters

inherit some

share of

the

parental

estate.

 

Dowry

is simply

 

that

mode

of

diverging

 

devolution

in

which

daughters

 

receive

their

shares

upon

marriage.

 
 

Diverging

 

devolution,

 

as

Goody

 

(1976:13)

has

demonstrated,

 

is

prevalent

primarily

 

in

the

highly

complex,

stratified

societies

of and

Europe

Asia.

Indeed,

if we

look

at

the

distribution

of

dowry

in

the

Atlas

of World

Cultures

sample,

we

find

that

sixteen

of

the

24

societies

listed

as giving

dowry are

also

listed

as

having

complex

 

stratification

 

into

social

classes

largely

reflecting

occupational

 

dif?

ferentiation

 

(Murdock

1981:101).

 

In

addition,

"in

surveying

the

major

Eurasian

civilizations,

all . . .

were

found

to

be

characterized

by

diverging

 

devolution"

 

(Goody

 

1976:21).

From

this

perspective,

then,

to

explain

the

incidence

 

of

dowry

is

simply

 

to explain

the

incidence

 

of

diverging

devolution

in

complex

societies.

This

Goody

 

has

done

convincingly

in

terms

of

the

greater

productivity

of

plough

agriculture

and

of

the consequent

social

stratification

and competition

 

over

wealth, all

of

which

produce

a tendency

to

retain

valuable

productive

 

resources

in

the

direct

family

line (Goody

 

1976:20).

 

105

 

106

Ethnology

 

Goody

has

demonstrated

 

the

association

 

between

dowry

and

social

stratiflca?

tion

in

two

ways:

by

a

series

of

statistical

 

tests

that

associate

 

dowry

and/or

diverging

 

devolution

with

other

factors

that

tend

to

occur

in

complex,

stratified

societies;

and

by

a group

of

descriptive

studies

that

place

diverging

 

devolution

in

the

context

of

a

whole

set

of

associated

 

social

institutions,

 

such

as

plough

agriculture,

 

complex

stratification,

homogamy

(marriage

with

someone

of

the

same

economic

 

level),

monogamy,

premarital

 

chastity,

and

separate

kin

terms

for

siblings.

 
 

As far

as

it

goes,

there seems

to

be

little

problem

with

Goody's

 

(1976)

assertion.

 

But

a question

remains.

If

all

major

civilizations

are

characterized

 

by

diverging

devolution,

there

is

still

considerable

variation

among

and

within

these

civilizations

 

as

to

whether

dowry

is

given,

 

and

in

the

size

and

content

 

of

the

dowry.

Why

do

we

find

that

in

some

societies,

and

in

 

some

communities

within

these

societies,

a daughter

gets

her

share

at

the

time

of

marriage,

while

in

others

she,

like

her

brothers, must

wait

until

her

parents

die

or

retire

to

be

able

to

claim

her

share?

We

are up

against the

dual

nature

 

of

dowry

here.

Dowry

is

not

simply

a

form

of

inheritance

by females

in

a

complex

society

concerned

with

lineal

transmission

 

of

property.

It

is

also

a form

of marriage

payment.

But

again,

it

is

not

simply

a form

of marriage

payment.

No

explanation

 

of

the

occurrence

of

dowry

or of

the

variation

in

its

size

and

importance

 

will

be

satisfactory

unless

it takes

 

into

account

both

aspects

of

dowry

as an

institution?that

 

it

transfers

wealth

to

a

daughter

and/or

her

marital

family,

and

that

it does

so

at

the

time

of

her

marriage.

The

problem

 

with

Goody's

(1976)

explanation

 

is

that

it is incomplete.

Goody has

failed

to distinguish

the

situations

in

which

families

in

complex societies

practice

inheritance

 

through

dowry from

those

in

which

both

sons

and

daughters

 

inherit

only on

the

death

or

retirement

 

of

their

parents.

 
 

The

difficulty

expands

when

we

take

into

consideration

not

only

the

presence

or

absence

of

some

goods

that

the

bride

takes

with

her

at

the

time

of

marriage

 

but

the

amount

and

value

of

such goods.

We

find

several

case

studies

of

communities

in

the

major

 

Eurasian

civilizations

in

which,

 

although

a

bride

may

bring

a

trousseau

 

or

other

small

portion

with her

at

the

time

of

marriage,

she

gets

nothing

else

(dowry

is

small,

and

makes

 

up

the

daughter's

entire

inheritance)

or

she

gains

a considerably

 

larger

portion,

 

often

including land

or

other

productive

property,

at

the

time

of

her

parents'

death

(dowry

 

is

small,

and

does

not

constitute

 

the

daughter's

 

entire

inheritance).

 
 

For

either

type

of

small-dowry

situation

 

we

find

cases

in

which

communities

 

with

small

dowries

can

be

contrasted

with

communities

 

in

the

same

society,

either

coexistent

 

or

separated

by

time,

and

characterized

by

large

dowries.

Cases

of

the

first

type

(a small

dowry

comprising

the

entire

inheritance)

include

 

the

villages

of

Edo

period

Japan

(Nakane

1967:153),

which

 

can

be

contrasted

 

to

the

villages

of

modern

Japan

 

(Smith

1978:193);

the

lineage

communities

of

rural

Serbia

in

the

nineteenth

 

century,

which can

be

contrasted

to

those

of

the

present

century

(Halpern

and

Halpern

1972:18);

and

the

communes

of

rural

Guangdong

 

prov?

ince

in

China

in

the

1970s,

as

contrasted

 

with

the

1930s

and

1940s,

when

dowry

was

much

larger

(Parish

and

Whyte

1978:181-88).

 

Bulgaria

 

in

the

twentieth

century

also

seems

to

have

followed

this

pattern

(Sanders

1949:55).

 
 

Cases

of

the

second

type

(a small

dowry

that

does

not

constitute

 

the

daughter's

entire

inheritance),

include

villages

in

most

ofthe

less

commercialized

mountain?

ous

regions of

Spain,

as

contrasted

with

wealthier

plains

villages

(Brandes

1975;

Pitt-Rivers

 

1961;

Freeman

1970;

Lison-Tolosana

1966),

and

certain

towns

in

Sicily

(Gower

 

Chapman

1961:97).

Clearly,

there

are

many

communities

 

in

complex,

stratified

societies

in which

dowry

payments

are

rather

insignificant,

and

to

show

that

the

hypothesis

that

dowry

can

be

explained

as

a way

to

transmit

part

of

the

inheritance

to daughters

 

in complex

societies

is

inadequate.

Not

only is

there

huge

variation

within

 

complex

societies

in

terms

of

the

size

of

the

dowry?

 
 

Dowry

Systems

in

Complex

 

Societies

107

varying

from

just

a

few

clothes

to

a major

part

of

a family's

 

estate?there

is

also

great

variation

 

in

the

time

at which

a daughter

receives

her

share

of

her

family's

inheritance.

 

A

satisfactory

 

explanation

will

take

both

kinds

of

variation

into

account.

 
 

Alternative

 

Explanations

 

of

Dowry

Systems

 
 

Goody

(1972,

 

1976),

 

of

course,

is

not

the

only theorist

who

 

has

tried

to explain

the

nature

and

occurrence

of

dowry.

Marvin

Harris

(1979:306)

has

stated:

This

institution

cannot

be understood

merely

as a mechanism

of property

devolution.

Men

pay

dowry

societies

on

behalf

of

the woman's

daughters, not

on

behalf

share of family property

of

sons;

is inferior

almost

everywhere to that of her brothers

in

peasant and usually consists

Eurasian

of

movable

wealth

 

instead

of

land.

It

is

therefore

incorrect

to

say

that

dowry

is

a

form

of

pre-mortem

inheritance;

in

many

instances

it

is

a form

of

female pre-mortem

disinheritance,

functioning

not to devolve

landed

property

but to consolidate

its control

 

among

the

senior

male

heirs.

 

In

many

Eurasian

 

peasant

 

societies,

such

as Thailand

(Keyes

 

1975;

Potter

1977),

much of

Greece

(Bernard

1976;

Allen

1976;

Casselberry

&

Valavanes

1976),

parts

of Spain

(Lison-Tolosana

 

1976)

and

France

(Le

Roy

Ladurie

1976),

and

in

the

Basque

 

country

 

(Douglass

1975),

however,

daughters'

 

shares

equal

or

on

occasion

 

even

exceed

 

those

of

their

brothers.

In

these

cases,

dowry

cannot

function

to

disinherit

 

the

female

in

the

sense

that

Harris

seems

to

claim.

And

even

in

cases

where

the

daughter's

share

is

less

than

that

received

by

her

brother

or

brothers

 

it

may

still

include

land

or

other

productive

property

or

goods

that

would

be

convertible

 

in

terms

of

cash

value

into productive

 

property.

Such,

for

example,

was

the

case in

much

of

Galicia

(Lison-Tolosana

 

1976),

in

Maronite

and

Shiite

villages

 

in

Lebanon

 

(Peters

1976),

in

central

Italy

in

the

early twentieth

century

(Silverman

 

1975),

and

in

recent

times

among

the

pastoral

Sarakatsani

of

northwestern

 

Greece

 

(Campbell

1964).

 

While a

few

counter-examples

do

not

necessarily

disprove

Harris's

(1979)

contention

 

that

dowry

operates

almost

everywhere

in

Eurasian

peasant

societies,

this

function

fails

 

to

account

 

for

the

incidence

of

dowry.

In

most

of

subsaharan

Africa,

the

woman

gets

very

little

or

nothing

from

her

 

natal

family

upon

her

marriage

 

and

ordinarily

nothing

later

on.

In contrast,

 

while

the

Eurasian

daughter's

 

share

 

is commonly

 

less

than

her

brother's,

and

often

excludes

productive

property,

 

she

nonetheless

receives

something.

 

The

problem

remains

as to

why

the complex

 

Eurasian

societies

settle

their daughters'

claims

by

giving

them

anything

at

all;

that

is,

why

does

it

take

some

kind

of

dowry

to

disinherit

them

getting

while

in African

societies

very little

any where

the daughters and nothing whatsoever

are

disinherited

in

most

from

the

societies?

beginning,

We

have

come

no further

 

than

Goody's

(1972,

1976)

original

assertion;

in

those

societies

in

which

a

family's

 

standing

is

determined

to

a

great

extent

by

the

wealth

it

controls,

that

family

must

be

able

to

pass

on that

wealth

 

to

all

of its

children

regardless

 

of

sex.

We

have

still

said

little

about

the

function

of

dowry

as

a

marriage

payment.

 
 

A

second

alternative

 

forms

a more

serious

objection

to dowry

as

a mechanism

of

property

devolution

 

and

concerns

the

aspect

of

dowry

as

a

transaction

accompanying

 

marriage.

Until

fairly

recently,

anthropologists

 

regarded

dowry

as

the

inverse

of

bridewealth.

 

Bridewealth

was a marriage

payment

from

the

groom's

 

family

to

the

bride's

while dowry

was

just

the

opposite?a

payment

from

the

bride's

 

family

 

to

the groom's

(White

1948).

In

actuality,

 

these

two

forms

of

marriage

transaction

differ in ways

other

than

merely

the

direction

of

payments.

The

most

important

difference,

 

as

Goody

(1972:5)

has

pointed

out,

is

that

bridewealth

 

becomes

part

of

a circulating

fund

(at

least

 

legally)

 

likely

to

be

passed

on

as bridewealth

 

for

the

recipient

family's

own

daughters-in-law.

In

most

African

108

Ethnology

 

cases,

at

any

rate,

it remains

separate

from

the

subsistence

goods

necessary

to

the

survival

and

growth

of

the

newly

established

 

family. Even

in

those

cases

where

cattle

function

as

both

bridewealth

 

and

subsistence

goods,

there

are

different

rules

of access

to

cattle

for

milk

and

for

bridewealth

(Gulliver

1955:132-33).

 

Dowry,

 

by

contrast,

creates

a

conjugal

 

fund

legally

belonging

 

not

to

the

extended

family

of

which

the

new

couple

is

a part

but

to

the

couple

itself.

It

is

an

integral

part

of

the

couple's

estate

in

both

subsistence

goods

and

wealth,

which

are in

any

case

not

so clearly

distinguished

 

in

complex

as

in

African

societies.

 

Nonetheless,