Anthropological Critique of the “Marriage by Wife Purchase” Thesis as a Contribution to the Rethinking of Inderdisciplinarity


  • Zorica Ivanović Department of Ethnology and Anthropology, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade, Serbia



marriage, transactions, goods, gift, purchase, exchange, interdisciplinarity


Anthropological research demonstrates that exchanges and transactions related to marriage alliances, regardless of their central organising principle and form, are not governed by the logic of the market but by the logic of gift exchange.Thus, the exchange of women for worthy material goods and valuables (bridewealth), which is (or has been) a dominant form of marriage transactions in Africa and some parts of Asia and Oceania, cannot be understood as commodity exchange and “wife purchase”. The “marriage by wife purchase” thesis, developed within a Victorian evolutionist paradigm, has been rejected in anthropology a long time ago. At the same time, some more recent research showed that the exchange of persons for goods as a principle of marriage exchanges and transactions does not entail only the practice of exchanging women for material goods. In some societies, marriage transactions are based on the principle of exchanging men for goods (groomwealth). This research called into question, once again, not only the “wife purchase” theory but also Levi-Strauss' fundamental assumption about the “exchange of women between groups of men”.

     In response to the fact that the “marriage by wife purchase” thesis is still regarded as an adequate explanation not only in the popular discourse but also in the Serbian scientific literature, this article seeks to offer an anthropological critique of the thesis and to draw attention to some key interdisciplinary disagreements that emerge in the interpretation of this particular form of marriage transactions. The article also discusses theoretical and epistemological assumptions which underpin the “marriage by purchase” thesis, as well as the process of critical examination that led anthropology to discard the thesis. From a contemporary anthropological perspective, the article suggests a possibility to explore a cultural and political economy of the gift, since the logic of gift is different from but not diametrically opposed to the logic of commodity exchange.


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How to Cite

Ivanović, Zorica. 2007. “Anthropological Critique of the ‘Marriage by Wife Purchase’ Thesis As a Contribution to the Rethinking of Inderdisciplinarity”. Etnoantropološki Problemi Issues in Ethnology and Anthropology 2 (2):157-220.