Marriage, Propinquity and Social Class


The Gleaners (1857).  Jean-Francois Millet.

Social class distributions can have an effect on marital movement, and a study of this pattern in Oxford (Kuchemann, 1974), and which covered the period from 1837 until the present day, was based upon information obtained from the marriage registers of a number of parishes spread across the city.

It was found that each district surveyed possessed a marked heterogenous composition with regards to social class. Correlation of the data demonstrated a significant relationship between the occupation of an individual and the spatial distance of the marriage partner. It was found from the investigation that distance increased almost linearly with an increase in the occurrence of city endogamy as one moved down the social scale. A significant result of the statistics that emerged was that there has occurred no marked increase in marital distance of the 20th century in comparison with the period from 1837 up to 1900. The conclusions therefore were that there exists a significant, in terms of statistics, relationship between class and social movement in terms of marriage patterns.

It has been claimed that gene flow in a population is often generated by spatial movement and that this functions as an important determinant of the genetic composition and structure of ‘geographical populations’ of men and women. Such a conclusion was arrived at by Harrison and Boyce (1972). Population geneticists with a significant statistical bent have naturally paid some attention to the effects of these movements and their theoretical and practical implications. Marital distance therefore given a genetic significance when it is described as one of the main components of geographical movement. But, the marital distance between spouses, or especially the distance between their birthplaces, is not important primarily because of any biological effects. Of more significance in analysing the marriage patterns of a population are the economic, social and class factors that determine a given pattern.

It has been argued from a somewhat superficial point of view that the members of the same social class have a tendency to act in common ways because they share common characteristics. One way in which this tendency is supposedly obvious and of alleged biological significance is marriage behaviour. Members of one class tend to marry one another and thus constitute a ‘Mendelian’ population in themselves. In other words they will breed according to a certain pattern, but more especially their offspring will exhibit predictable characters. This is suspiciously like arguing that class dispositions in a given society are genetically determined rather than being the objective expression of economic relations and cultural outlook. An examination of the relationship between vertical social movement and geographical movement is of great importance in the appreciation of human population structure, especially with regard to the effects exerted by social class on spatial movement.

In consideration of marriage and class the previous assertions can be examined further. Many sincere researchers of marriage patterns and population dynamics reach erroneous conclusions – especially with regard to ‘biological determination’ of social phenomena. The main mistake is made at the beginning of many such studies – at the point where social class as a concrete entity has to be determined and defined.

Social class is not a hypothetical concept, it is a concrete reality with historical significance, being determined by ones relationship to the means of production, distribution and exchange. The analysis we are considering , as an example of a misguided by genuine study of mate selection, takes as its definition of occupations. The root mistake of the method employed was its failure to see that social class is not determined by occupation or income. The Registrar-General employed five social ‘classes’ or socio-economic categories in his tables. These were ‘classes’ 1 to 5. Class 1 naturally being at the top and including higher administrative, professional and managerial elements; Class 2 consisted of farmers, intermediate professional and small business men; Class 3 contained clerical workers, shop assistants, foremen, supervisors, skilled manual, and personal service workers; Class 4 consisted of agricultural and semi-skilled workers, whereas Class 5 included all of the unskilled workers plus the services ‘other ranks’.

Many criticisms can be levelled at such a classification. Many sociological and political analyses exist concerning the inaccuracies in the Registrar-General’s superficialities. However, for the Oxford analysis one point can be taken up and that is whether we can determine the real, objective class structure of the population and therefore determine the true mating pattern. A more rational classification would combine classes 3, 4, and 5 as the ‘working class’, class 2 as the ‘middle class’ or ‘middle strata’, and Class 1  as the ‘upper class’.

The work by Kuchemann, et al, claimed that marked and systematised relationships existed between social class and movement by marriage in the City of Oxford. It was concluded therefore that the form of exchanges  between spatially separated population groups by the mechanism of marital movement, was influenced by occupation and its associated social factors. Kuchemann’s analysis was divided into two convenient time periods of early (1837-1900) and late (1900-1970). Using the modified class classification of the Registrar-General the percentages of marriages according to the class of the groom, groom’s father, and bride’s father, the results were analysed. Of marriages in the early period 74.34% of grooms were from rhe working class (categories 3, 5, and 5); 20.12% were from the ‘middle class’ (in this period of 1837-1900 the term ‘middle class’ had more validity than in the later period); and only 5.44% in the same period the grooms father’s showed a total of 72.34% with working class background; 23.67% were ‘middle class’; and again only a small minority, 4.0% were ‘upper class’ by definition. Due to the vagueness of the Registrar the class background of the brides was assumed from that of their fathers. The percentages were similar to those of the grooms and their fathers,

The survey showed that social mobility via marriage was restricted and limited. In fact the working class proportion of grooms actually increased with respect to that of their fathers. At the same time the middle class percentage of grooms decreased, whilst the upper class proportion increased. If one considers the composition of category or ‘class’ 1 we can safely assume that occupational mobility probably achieved by social movement upwards for men was almost negligible. If we consider that the brides fathers show a similar pattern of percentages by class, we can conclude that the early period (1837-1900) showed little upward or downward social movement. The remainder of the study further demonstrated the limited geographical mobility of spouses in respect of their parish of origin.

How does the data from the early period 1837-1900 compare with marriage and mobility for the later period of 1900-1970? With regard to grooms in the later period 73.60% were from the working class; whereas 16.32% were ‘middle class’; and the ‘upper class’ had risen to 10.8%. This increase in the Class 1 percentage may impart some confusion because of the known decrease in the sixe of this section of society. Class 1 here, as elsewhere now includes ‘managers’. This is further exemplified by recent bourgeois ‘humbug’ about the so-called managerial revolution. Today we must really consider many elements of the Registrar-General’s category 1 as really being vulnerable components of the transitional middle strata.

Grooms fathers with a working class background totalled 70.76%, the middle class fathers of grooms constituted21.68%;  and upper class totalled 7.56%; working class fathers of brides numbered a total of 72.19%, middle class fathers were 20.03%; and the upper class achieved 7.77%. Again, as with the earlier period, the working class grooms have a high percentage , whereas the middle class groom percentage has decreased when compared to the early totals. The increase to 10.8% of upper class grooms can be appreciated if one considers the nature of 20th century Oxford. The city possesses a transient population many of whom are centred around the University and its constituent colleges. The ‘upper class’ increase indicates the expansive growth of the colleges with their attendant and dependant entourage of dons, fellows and undergraduates, who reside in one-time proletarian areas of the city.

The majority of workers and their families live on satellite housing estates. An investigation into the marriage registers of the nearby village of Old Headington indicated a similar pattern, even though this data only went up to 1926. Again, similar processes are seen to operate – the indigenous proletarian population is gradually rehoused on estates and replaced by bourgeois and petty-bourgeois elements who effectually convert villages and one-time working class areas, by a process called ‘gentrification’, into academic and ‘individualist’ enclaves. Such a geographical redistribution of social elements has the effect of further complicating marital patterns.

In Oxford, the later period therefore still possesses a restricted pattern of social mobility. Combining the two periods clarifies the position by comparing 1837-1900 class composition of marriages with the other data. This compared data consists of the 1951 Oxford County Borough Census and class composition evidenced in both the 1951 and 1961 censuses. The result of the combination of early and late period totals and their comparison with national data is quite illuminating. For the entire period we have a mean of 73.97%  for working class grooms, 18,22% for middle class grooms, and 7.76% for upper class grooms.

The Oxford 1951 census figures showed that the entire population of Oxford consisted of 80.7% working class (using the combination of ‘classes’ 3, 4, and 5) and 14.9% middle class and 4.4% upper class. The national censuses of 1951 and 1961 exhibited a decline of the upper class from 3.3% to 2.7% and a similar decline from 18.8% to 14.8% for the middle class. The working class stayed virtually the same being only 0.1% down in 1961 on the 1951 figures. These results are significant when considered as a factor in social mobility.

The whole has to be considered in terms of propinquity, social class, and genetics. Kuchemann and others correctly pointed out that when analysing the so-called micro-genetic structure of geographical population groups that social class has to be taken into account. The conclusion was, however, that the type of research carried out would be even more valid if there was any demonstrable genetic differentiation between classes. Well, in real terms the working class is the largest socio-economic group or class (being differentiated by occupation but showing a common relationship to the means of production in so far as they do not own it), and therefore the most varied gene pool. Such marital flow within the working class would prevent the occurrence of any serious biological problems due to breeding, even if there are nonetheless enormous social problems to face.

What Kuchemann and colleagues did was to formulate the occupation-marital distance pattern, but mistakenly regarded occupational categories as being synonymous with actual class. When we combine the groups and use the relationship to the means of production as the scientific yardstick we attain totals that reflect the national class relationships. The conclusion is that even though geographical nearness is a factor, real class elations are operating in mate selection and marriage. It is the criterion of production relationship that is the primary determinant, not genes, in the formation of classes and the cultural flow that results.


Harrison, G. A. & Boyce, A. J. eds (1972).  The Structure of Human Populations.

Kuchemann, C. F.  Harrison, G. A.  Hiorns, R. W. & Carrivick, P. J.  (1974). Social class and marital distance in Oxford City.  Annals of Human Biology, 1 (1).


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