Home Language & Literature Families, Status and Dynasties: 1600-2000
Choice of Spouse
The other transaction, choice of spouse, follows the imperative of status equivalence as neatly as occupational choices in the family. By saying this, I do not mean to suggest that spousal choices are determined or dictated by status alone. However, regardless of whether it is thought that these choices are made out of love or other emotional attachments, or out of convention or fear of remaining alone, the plain truth is that status matters, laying the foundation for more or less separate marriage markets. The existence of separate marriage markets is due to the hierarchical order of statuses and the imperative of status equivalence, which makes exclusiveness the trademark of the marriage market. In that case, some people are considered acceptable or suitable, while others are not: access to one’s proximity is granted on the basis of similarity. And status has been a fundamental basis of similarity. In earlier times children’s spousal choices were often decided on the basis of the father’s, and quite often the mother’s social networks, but now at one’s own discretion.
The principle of status equivalence was taken to extremes in royalty and the highest tier of the nobility, but also in clerical families where marriages with identical status equals were very common. In these families occupations, too, were often passed down to sons. Marriages with identical social equals tended to increase the propensity to cousin marriages, which in turn made social networks and the marriage market even more exclusive—a small world unto its own. The nobility’s marriage market became more open in the nineteenth century, albeit very selectively. When industrialists and bankers as well as academic professionals grew in prominence, their children became acceptable marriage partners for nobles. This I consider to be a performance of status, a manifestation of the partners being more or less social equals. These marriages were radical in the sense that they merged different status hierarchies with one another, status hierarchies that hitherto had been kept apart in the marriage market. But what was actually merged were the highest echelons of these status hierarchies.
This has been a more general tendency. A good example is provided by learned professionals from different fields: they have formed a large marriage market all their own, based upon the foundation of a university-level education. This was the basic condition of a suitable spouse. As we have seen in this book, this new version of status equivalence ran quite perfectly. In the same way as occupational choices in the family have fallen upon learned professions in successive generations, marriages between learned professionals have been very common, even among those who have recently risen to learned professions, albeit to a slightly lesser extent. The expansion of learned professionals’ marriage market has made identical status equivalence quite rare but, perhaps surprisingly, female professors make a striking exception. Since the 1960s one-third of women professors have married a male professor. This gender imbalance has been possible because female professors have been so vastly outnumbered by male professors. Anyway, for professors and for academic professionals more generally, university has provided a significant basis for an extensive marriage market of their own.
Artists, however, brought a new type of equivalence to the marriage market, one that gained increasing strength in the course of the twentieth century. Yes, they did often marry artists, their identical social equals, or those who took jobs somehow related to the arts, but what made them special was that they emphasized the significance of the lifestyle, which they associated with a select style of the arts. These became the criteria for acceptability: acceptable marriage partners were those who had a similar way of life and professional orientation. These criteria shaped the marriage market of artists who were no longer under the control of their parents but who had an air of self-determination about them. For priests in the nineteenth century, Pietism was one such direction, and there are also many other isms—in the domain of politics, for example—that nurture the creation of lifestyle enclaves which are then apt to develop into marriage markets. Common values and a common way of life are oft-heard criteria when people today talk about what they think is required of a ‘good partner’, but this does not do away with the fact discussed above (see also Jallinoja 2000, 70-82; Eurobarometer 1993). Nothing has detracted from the efficacy of status equivalence: people are most likely to find like-minded companions within their own status group, hardly outside it (see also Illouz 1997). To say that like-minded people best get along with each other is in fact just another version of the one-time order to marry within one’s rank. In this earlier version, it was assumed that it is easiest for people who are equal in status to get along with each other (Raisanen 1995).
While most marriages in higher echelons have mainly been between social equals, people from tenant-worker and worker families have effectively had no other option than to marry their own social equals. In their cases, however, status equivalence has not been a categorical imperative in the same sense as in higher echelons. In fact, many lower-ranking people would have preferred a spouse of a higher rank—this is evident from mistresses’ aspirations to marry kings, princes, noblemen and magnates, for example. As we have seen, these marriages have very rarely materialized.
Offences against the imperative of status equivalence were more fatal for women whose status was first dependent on her father’s status and, after marriage, on her husband’s status. Her father’s high status was of no value, but led to her social decline. This has not been a problem for men, but they have, nevertheless, mainly chosen their wives from their own social circles.
Marriage is a special type of status performance. Its peculiarity lies in intimacy, which is at variance with the requirements imposed by the imperative of status equivalence—or whatever other external forces there may emerge in society. This conflict is neatly captured by Paul Verhaeghe (1999, 194-7) in his essay on Eros and Thanatos, two figures from Greek mythology. Eros represents the fusion in which separate entities cease to exist. Thanatos (meaning death) represents the fragmentation that destroys this entity. Eros and Thanatos metaphorically stand for the contrast between two different forms of life, one referring to the unity of a loving couple, the other to a larger whole consisting of separate individuals. In opposition to the intimate entity of the two lovers is thus the individual—or we can also say, two individuals with their own requirements. Analogically, we can say that in opposition to the intimate world of the two is the imperative of status equivalence and all transactions intended to perform status. These have severely subordinated love. When the imperative of status equivalence has gained the upper hand, marriages have turned into arranged marriages that leave virtually no room for personal desire. When love has been given more weight in spousal choices—and this is generally thought to have been the principal or even the sole basis for spousal choices for some centuries (Shorter 1977; Stone 1979)—the perception has been that this new basis has displaced the old one, the imperative of status equivalence. But this is not how things have happened. Instead, the two continued to coexist, only in a different way from earlier. When status equivalence was the prevailing imperative, it forced men and women to marry accordingly—the imperative led to arranged marriages. When love became the principal basis for spousal choices, parents ceased to arrange their children’s marriages. But this did not do away with status equivalence. It is just that it is put into effect by two lovers, voluntarily.
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