A Cross Cultural Perspective of Polygyny

As an institution, polygyny, the social arrangement that permits a man to
have more than one wife at the same time, exists in all parts of the world. From
our present knowledge, there are very few primitive tribes in which a man is not
allowed to enter into more than one union. In fact, ethologists now believe that
only one to two percent of all species may be monogamous (Tucker). None of the
simian species are strictly monogamous; our closest relatives, the chimpanzees,
practice a form of group marriage. Among the 849 human societies examined by the
anthropologist Murdock (1957), 75% practiced polygyny. Many peoples have been
said to be monogamous, but it is difficult to infer from the data at our
disposal whether monogamy is the prevalent practice, the moral ideal, or an
institution safeguarded by sanctions (Malinowski 1962). Historically, polygyny
was a feature of the ancient Hebrews, the traditional Chinese, and the
nineteenth-century Mormons in the United States, but the modern practice of
polygyny is concentrated in Africa, the Middle East, India, Thailand, and

Indonesia. The extent to which men are able to acquire multiple wives depends on
many factors, including the economic prosperity of the manís family, the
prevailing bride price, the differential availability of marriageable females,
the need and desire for additional offspring, and the availability of productive
roles for subsequent wives. Even in societies that permit polygyny, the
conditions of life for the masses make monogamy the most common form of
marriage. The two variations of polygyny are sororal (the cowives are sisters)
and nonsororal (the cowives are not sisters). Some societies also observe the
custom of levirate, making it compulsory for a man to marry his brotherís
widow. It must be remembered that any form of polygyny is never practiced
throughout the entire community: there cannot exist a community in which every
man would have several wives because this would entail a huge surplus of females
over males (Malinowski 1962). Another important point is that in reality it is
not so much a form of marriage fundamentally distinct from monogamy as rather a
multiple monogamy. It is always in fact the repetition of marriage contract,
entered individually with each wife, establishing an individual relationship
between the man and each of his consorts (Benson 1971). Where each wife has her
separate household and the husband visits them in turn, polygynous marriage
resembles very closely a temporarily interrupted monogamy. In such cases, there
is a series of individual marriages in which domestic arrangements, economics,
parenthood, as well as legal and religious elements do not seriously encroach on
each other. The polygyny with separate households is more universally prevalent.

Among the great majority of the Bantu and Hamitic peoples of Africa, where the
number of wives, especially in the case of chiefs, is often considerable, each
wife commonly occupies a separate hut with her children, and manages an
independent household with well-defined legal and economic rights (Pasternak

1976). Where, on the other hand, as among many N. American tribes, two or more
wives share the same household, polygyny affects the institution of matrimonial
life much more deeply. Unlike wives in many other African groups who live in
their own huts, Ijaw wives have apartments within one large structure and our
brought into much more frequent contact with their co-wives (Rosaldo 1974).

Various theories have been advanced to explain the cultural endorsement of
polygyny. One of the earliest explanations was based on the notion that men have
a greater disposition for variety in sexual partners than do women (Tucker).

Many ethologists believe that there is a sociobiological imperative for men to
have as many sexual partners as possible (Sayers). While this theory is of
historical interest, there exists no empirical support for the greater sex drive
of the male, nor is there any reason to expect the male sex drive to vary from
one culture to another. Women are just as naturally interested in sex, perhaps
even more so. Women can be multi- orgasmic and have a much broader range of
sexual stimulation than men. Non-monogamy is reproductively savvy for males in
order to spread their genes, and for females in order to improve the hardiness
and genetic variety of their offspring (Benson). It has also been suggested that
polygyny as a marriage form evolved in response to lengthy postpartum sex taboos
because polygyny provides a legitimate sexual outlet for the husband during this
period of taboo (Whiting). Whiting discovered that societies dependent on root
and tree crops (presumably low protein societies) are more