Marriage in Globalizing Contexts

Exploring Change and Continuity in South Asia



Background and Focus       

Currently, South Asian countries are undergoing a trajectory of rapid economic growth, manifesting high consumption patterns, new economic opportunities and upward mobility. Marriage and family, pre-eminent institutions in the personal lives of peoples in most societies, also connect closely with the economy and other processes, a view that scholars from varied disciplines have long worked with.  However, while economic changes are being extensively researched, concurrent social changes in South Asia have not received the scholarly attention they deserve.  Demographic trends, intra- and inter-country migration, economic shifts and processes as well as political, particularly gender, struggles are altering the marriage landscape in cultures and societies across the globe. In different developing countries, the decline in household production and out-migration has had contradictory implications for marital patterns and familial obligations and relations.  In developed countries, where these processes took place earlier, fertility declines and changing ideas of the marital contract have had implications for intra- and inter-generational familial ties as well as care of the elderly and young children outside of a traditional marriage and kinship context.


In this conference we would like to focus on emerging patterns of marriage and family in South Asia that appear tied to economic and demographic shifts, as well as new forms and imaginings of intimate relationships, and of the self. Keeping in mind the manifold cultures, local variants and class disparities in South Asia, how is the institution of marriage shifting and transmuting? Which aspects of marriage in terms of ideologies, norms and everyday practices remain resistant to change? Are there fundamental shifts in the importance, forms and content of marriage that are thereby challenging the universality of marriage per say? Does marriage continue to be significant in individual and familial imaginings of their life careers?  Is a more general South Asian model emerging or is marriage retaining its local particularities?


In probing the theme of change and continuity, the conference aims to generate a debate on modern-day marriage. So far marriage has been studied as an adjunct to other research topics (e.g. migration, domestic violence etc). Popular and media representations paint a picture of love marriage and divorce as having replaced the practice of arranged marriages and lifelong marital unions with marriage ceremonies as uniformly ostentatious and joyful, or contradictorily of community outcry against those young people who flout rules.  Sociologists too may read much of this as new and ‘modern’ and widespread, given the overwhelming earlier emphasis on examining kinship norms, alliances, rules, structures, marriage ceremonies and rituals. New work in the sociological field of marriage and kinship needs to take into account a vast and rich array of everyday marriage narratives/trajectories and their interpretations. Moreover, the accommodation of the palpable differences of caste, class, ethnicity, region and religion, which has been part of the feminist analytical framework in the region, has to be taken further in its analysis of marriage.


Thus, the theme of marriage from a global and South Asian perspective merits separate and detailed attention. Against the backdrop of economic transformations and modernization, a key concern is to unpack modern expressions and lived experiences of marriage. Moreover, our interest lies in collating papers that review contexts of change, and how men and women deploy their agency, emotive power and choices in reshaping and/or subverting marriage.


We invite papers on marriage and family research focusing on the countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Whilst we encourage papers from different disciplinary backgrounds, individual contributions should combine conceptual thinking with ethnographic content (i.e. field-work, participant observation, interviews and analysis based on quantitative data bases) on the following themes: 


1: Conceptual understandings of marriage: Diversity and congruence in marriage models and practices

 Given the heterogeneity within South Asia, there is a need to explore the diversity of marriage forms and their acceptance by communities despite the existence of hegemonic and culturally privileged forms of marriage representing ‘correct’ types of marriage. Have sociological studies done justice to describing and analysing diverse patterns that vary by region, caste, class, ethnicity and religion? Here we seek to understand not only dominant marriage patterns but also patterns from the ‘margins’ - marriages which appear liminal or flout the rules of caste and community  or atypical marriages/unions that have been largely bypassed in the literature. These entail that we question the conceptual frameworks we have worked with in the discipline.


Furthermore, a comparative understanding of trends and patterns in contemporary South Asia will enrich our sociological understanding of directions of change as well as questions regarding what drives changes in marriage and family. Is heterogeneity being replaced by apparently common practices?  How is the significance of marriage as a life cycle ritual  and event for the individual and the community changing? 


2: Demographic Imbalances, Economic Shifts and Marriage Markets

 Most South Asian countries are demonstrating a consistent rise in the age of marriage although it remains far below that of South-East Asia and Japan. What are the multiple factors that influence changes in age at marriage – education, dowry, ritual practices, employment, labour needs of families, care concerns, etc.? Are there variations by region, religion and ethnic community?  Are we beginning to see trends towards non-marriage, or couples choosing not to have children or instead opting to be in live-in relationships?  If yes, how widespread are these trends? 

Patterns of marriage are also being directly impacted by demographic imbalances and economic disparities. The declining number of women in India, China and South Korea has led to widespread shortages of female spouses sparking a significant numbers of trans-national, cross-border and cross-culture marriages with distinct social implications. Such marriage migration, tied to the economics of poverty and prosperity, challenges the very notion of marriage as a sacrament or a relationship of mutual care and intimacy and appears to be defined more by the need for women’s productive and reproductive labour. Issues of the economic, social, moral and emotional costs/benefits of marriage and non-marriage for both women and men are critical here.  Complex questions of female agency and choice are also pertinent.


3: Shifting ideas of love, intimacy and marital practices

 In this theme we are interested in contemporary marital practices and the types of marriage/relationships/alliances (from self-chosen marriages to gay relationships) younger generations of Asians are entering into and how marriage and love are being defined or viewed. Is marriage today a social necessity or are new modes of flexibility emerging in relation to marital choice? Is the conventional system of arranged marriages being subjected to modifications? What role are education, media exposure, employment and urbanization playing in shaping young people’s notions about marriage, romance, and love? Are younger generations eschewing parental match-making criteria for marriages based on romantic love (or taking the initiative to arrange their own marriages)? Which sections of younger people (class, caste, occupation, location, and region) are doing so?  Where and how do meeting, matching and courtship take place? How are they negotiating their marital preferences within the wider framework of the family, community and caste nexus? Equally, are parents ready to relieve themselves of the duty of marrying their progeny? How are ‘modern’ arrangements being combined with ‘traditional’ rituals, observances and prestations? While self-choice and individual fulfilment may be the desired hallmarks of the modern marriage, we need to interrogate the agency of the marrying couple and track whether any real shifts from earlier patterns of significant parental role are occurring - for instance the phenomenon of ‘arranged love marriage,’ that conforms to caste, religion, class and status requirements.  We welcome papers that investigate new marriage patterns and their interrelationships with the changing economy and society.


4: Divorce and re-marriage

We are keen to explore the relative stability of conjugal relations, in order to foreground the incidence of divorce, separation, and abandonment or its emergence/non-emergence across Asia. While Indian data indicates no increase in divorce, changes in the stability of unions can direct us to changing marital expectations, ideals and lived experiences. We will benefit from papers that have documented inter-generational change, having looked into those societies and classes where divorce was previously uncommon and whereby a shift is evident in the younger generation’s experience. In South Asia, often the dominant perception is that the arranged marriage system manifests stable, life-long and harmonious marriages. Accordingly, a common stereotype in marriage discourses is that “love marriages do not last.” Papers that compare divorce and separation rates in both arranged and love marriages and factors contributing towards marital break-down can lend a nuanced perspective to rectifying these stereotypes. In addition, papers should elaborate on the gender dimension of divorce, i.e. whether women or men are initiating divorce, post-divorce natal kin support, economic fall-back position and custody of children. Alongside divorce, studying the dynamics of re-marriage will provide fruitful comparison. The gender differential in remarriage is one continuing issue.  What of the differential implications of divorce and widow(er)hood for remarriage?  Are individuals rejecting re-marriage and opting for other relationships? Which individuals? What about the emotional quality and longevity of new marriages/ relationships preceding divorce?


5: Women’s paid work, labour force participation and marriage

This theme would look at the relationship between women’s paid work, their economic independence and marriage. Given the new economic opportunities that have surfaced for South Asian women, is the growing phenomenon of women’s entry into non-household-based, paid labour leading to the democratization of marriage? How is paid work affecting women’s fall-back position, their agency and choices in or exit out of marriage (e.g. are other factors such as the support of natal kin as pivotal in strengthening a women’s fall-back position)? What challenges is economic independence presenting to the marital dyad/husbands?  Are we seeing a significant delay in the age of marriage and how are young/older women evaluating and perceiving their work? If there are shifts in the male breadwinner ideology and practice, how is it affecting conjugal and affinal relations? What are the variations by caste and class in this?


6: Socio-legal reforms, feminist interventions and their impact on   marriage/domestic life.

We wish to focus on new marriage legislation (e.g. relating to property, inheritance, child custody, domestic violence etc) and how the law is affecting women’s choices in marriage, prevailing social norms and experiences of conjugality. To what extent are women benefiting from socio-legal reforms? Does the law play a salient role in marriage and what types of marriage/gender discourses emerge from legal texts and verdicts?


Furthermore, in South Asia a range of women’s organisations, feminist NGOs, women-based ‘community’ organizations (nari adalats, mahila panchayats) and caste associations play an important role in the domain of marriage. In relation to arbitrating marital disputes and break-down, these organizations offer women/couples services of informal dispute settlement, conflict resolution and marriage counselling.  We are keen to understand how these informal/community arbitration forms that fall outside the legal domain regulate marriage and domestic life and reported incidents of marital conflict. By studying feminist arbitration procedures and counselling services we can gain a better comprehension of the nature of marital discord that gets reported, and how various non-legal pluralisms are functioning side by side.


Date and venue of conference:

New Delhi, 25-27 September 2008


Submission of abstract:

1 February 2008


Submission of final papers:

21 August 2008


Long-term goal:

Our goal is to put together an edited volume that can lend differing perspectives to marriage in South Asia.


Conference organizers and contact persons:

Dr. Ravinder Kaur

Associate Professor

Department of Humanities and Social Sciences

Indian Institute of Technology, Hauz Khas

New Delhi 110016



Dr. Shalini Grover

Sir Ratan Tata Post Doctoral Fellow

Institute of Economic Growth (IEG)

University of Delhi (Delhi): 110007



Dr. Rajni Palriwala
Professor of Sociology
Delhi School of Economics
Dept of Sociology
University of Delhi