Marriage is an important and universal social institution of society. As a social institution, it provides a recognized form for entering into a relatively enduring heterosexual relationship for the bearing and rearing of children. It is thus primarily a way of regulating human reproduction. This reproduction, however, also has a sociological dimension.

The right of sexual relationship, that universally accompanies marriage, provides legitimacy to the children born in wedlock and this legitimacy is of great importance in the matters of inheritance and succession. In addition to this, through marriage there comes into existence the family, a relatively stable social group that is responsible for the care and training of children.

So, we can say that marriage has historically provided the institutional mechanisms necessary for replacement of societal members and thereby has been meeting the important pre-requisites of human survival and society’s continuance

In some societies, particularly in the industrialized western societies, the chief aim of marriage is not only procreation but companionship, where emotional and psychological support are equally emphasized. The idea of companionship in marriage as a main feature is a recent development. For the major part of the human history, all societies have emphasized marriage to be social obligation, which is invested with several familial, social and economic responsibilities.


It is a historical fact that marriage has been found to exist in a wide variety of forms in different societies. Also, it has been found to perform differing functions. The manner in which marriage partners are to be obtained reveals an astonishing variety of modes and customs. There is an almost endless variety in nearly everything concerning marriage. This has led to the several definitions of what marriage is.

Types and Norms

Marriage has a large number of types and norms. These can be identified on the basis of the number of partners and rules governing who can marry whom.



At any given time a man can have only one wife and a woman can have only one husband. Monogamy is prevalent in all societies and is almost the universal form in all modern industrial societies. Due to constraints of financial resources and almost an even balance between the ratio of men and women in the population, majority of individuals living in any societies cannot have more than one spouse at a time.

In many societies, individuals are permitted to marry again, often on the death of the first spouse or after divorce. Such monogamous marriage is termed as Serial Monogamy. Most western societies practise serial monogamy.

A society may also practise Straight Monogamy, in which re-marriage is not allowed. Most upper caste Hindu females were obliged to follow the norm of straight monogamy prior to the enactment of Widow Remarriage Act of 1856. In some lower castes, widow re-marriage was permitted.



Polygamy denotes marriage to more than one mate at one time and takes the form of either

Polygamy – one husband with two or more wives, or

Polyandry – one wife with two or more husbands.

While monogamy is permitted in all societies, polygamy, in the form of polygyny, is the preferred form in several societies. Murdock’s research, based on an analysis of 283 societies, revealed that 193 of these were characterised by polygyny, 43 were monogamous and only 2 practiced polyandry.


Preferential rules for the choice of wives/husbands are followed in some polygamous societies. In certain societies males marry the wife’s sister, which is termed as Sororal Polygyny and females their husband’s brother, which is known as Fraternal Polyandry.

Among polyandrous societies, Fraternal Polyandry is by far the most common. In these societies, a group of brothers, real or classificatory, are collectively the husbands of a woman. This kind of polyandry has been found by the researchers in various parts of the world. Tibet has been described as the largest and most flourishing polyandrous community by Prince Peter.

Polyandry is reported to be widely prevalent among some tribes of south India. Todas are considered a classic example of polyandrous people. Todas practise ‘Bow and Arrow’ ceremony in order to give societal acceptance of children. Nairs of Kerala are another polyandrous group. In North India some groups of jats are reported to be polyandrous.

It is noticed by some sociologists that where economic conditions are harsh, polyandry may be one response of society, since in such situations a single male cannot adequately support a wife and children also, extreme poverty pressurize a group to limit its population. All societies have prescriptions and proscriptions regarding who may or may not marry whom.