The study of the characteristics of a population includes the study of the distribution of persons according to their marital status. Unlike sex or age, marital status is not a biologically ascribed characteristic, but is an acquired characteristic. The study of a population by marital status is useful for several reasons.
Marriage involves the first step in the formation of a biological family. Since in most societies reproduction takes place only in wedlock, the marital status distribution is an important factor affecting fertility, the other related factors being the proportion of persons who never married.
The proportion of persons, especially females, in the reproductive age groups (15 to 44 or 49), the age at marriage, the proportion of those whose marriages have been dissolved by death or divorce, their age at the time of the dissolution of marriage, etc.
The pattern of marital status distribution of any society is determined by the combined effect of various biological, social, economic, religious and legal factors affecting marriage.
For instance, the universality of marriage in India may be explained by pointing out that amongst the Hindus, who form 82.71 per cent of the population, marriage is essential primarily to enable a man to fulfill the duties associated with the second stage of his life, grihasthashram, as well as for progeny and pleasure.
For a woman, marriage is essential because though a man goes through many sacraments throughout his life, marriage is the only sacrament that she is allowed. Females marry young in India because of the influence of the Hindu religion.
These factors have resulted in the demographic fact that in India, the proportion of women who never marry is much smaller than in many other countries. For example, in India in 1961, the percentage of such women in the reproductive age group (15-44) was only 7.4, whereas in Ireland it was 52.4.
The rather unique pattern in Ireland is a result of the peculiar social, economic and political conditions in that country.
The Irish family has been neolocal for a long time, in the sense that, immediately after marriage, a man is expected to set up an independent residence and not take his bride to his father’s home (patrilocal family organisation). A man, therefore, must have his own land, or he has to postpone his wedding. The Land Purchase
Acts, which were enacted in the wake of a famine in order to provide relief to tenants in the form of loans to enable them to become owners, stipulated that no subdivision of land would take place, and that the annual payments for it would run for 35 years.
According to Kingsley Davis: “A more powerful restraint was the fact that, once the tenants became owners, they grew unwilling to subdivide on behalf of their sons. The tenancy was to retain only one son on the paternal land, the remainder of the children being dispersed, partly through migration abroad.
The independent nuclear family was maintained, but the son who remained at home could not establish such a family until the father was willing to resign both authority and property. As a result, the average age at marriage in Ireland became extremely advanced, reaching 29.1 for women by 1926.”
Another peculiar feature of Ireland’s marital status distribution is that no divorces are reported in the demographic data. This is, of course, because Ireland is predominantly inhabited by Roman Catholics, for whom divorce is prohibited by their religion.
It is evident therefore that, in Ireland, the peculiar pattern of the distribution of population by marital status has affected fertility as well as other demographic variables such as mortality, migratory movements, labour force, etc.
Sources of Data for the Study of Marital Status
The data required to study the marital status distribution of any population are usually obtained from the national periodic census, in which information regarding marital status of each individual above a certain age is collected and made available to the users of demographic data.
Demographic sample surveys, especially fertility surveys, collect information on marital status, age at marriage, age at consummation, duration of effective marriage, etc.
The United Nations compiles all this information collected through census organisations and other agencies and publishes it in a yearly publication, The Demographic Year Book.
Classification of Population According to Marital Status
The United Nations has recommended that individuals should be classified according to their marital status in the following five categories: (1) Single (never married); (2) married and not legally separated; (3) widowed and not remarried; (4) divorced and not remarried; and (5) married but legally separated.
Usually, an additional category is included for those whose marital status has not been reported.
Information on marital status is usually presented for persons above a minimum age, usually based on the lower limit of age at marriage in a particular country.
In India, however, it is observed that though the minimum legal age at marriage for females is 15 and males 18, a sizable number of marriages do take place below this minimum legal age. The compilation of data on marital status in five-year age groups, therefore, begins from the age group 10.
Measures and Analysis of Change
For any meaningful analysis of marital status, it is essential that data on it are classified by age and sex. This is done because any change from one marital status to another is closely associated with age and because the patterns of marital status distribution for males and females differ.
The data on marital status are customarily classified in the following four categories: (1) Never married; (2) Currently married; (3) Widowed; and (4) Divorced or separated. The last three groups may be combined and referred to as the “ever-married” groups. The data are made available separately for males and females for various age groups, starting with some minimum age.
The measure most commonly used for an analysis of marital status is the very simple measure of percentage distribution of males and females by marital status and by age groups.
Such a Table can, of course, be prepared also for males, but this and the Tables that follow for marital status distribution is presented only for females, for this type of data are more meaningful for demographic analysis.
The percentage distribution of males and females by marital status and age groups is useful for a study of marital status patterns in a particular country, for comparing such patterns of various countries or regions or areas, such as rural and urban, at a particular point of time.
It is also possible to study the shifts in patterns of the marital status on any one country over a period of time.