Mate Selection

(c) Royal Academy of Arts; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Outcast (1851)  Richard Redgrave.

1.  Introduction

This contribution is an attempt to examine whether such factors as biological relatedness, spatial nearness, and class structure, have any effect on the patterns of marriage in societies. If they do, then in what proportion are these factors relevant? Can we assume that physical characteristics and genetic factors are operating to determine a choice of marital partner? If biological determinants are factors to be considered we must establish their relative importance or unimportance. To what extent is the particular social and cultural background of marital partner a factor in establishing a marriage pattern? To what extent is geographical nearness or ‘propinquity’ a determining factor? In essence, does like tend to marry like? Finally, if it is argued that class structure is a primary factor to consider, can we deduce any evidence from society in terms of social mobility – movement up and down via the institution of marriage?

We can examine mate selection and mating patterns from both biological and sociological points of view. Certainly we must, and can, determine certain regularities when basing our analysis of mate selection on the prevailing class relationships of a society. Unlike the theories of the bourgeois orientated population geneticists and the ‘statistics is an ends rather than a means’ brigade of demographers and social analysts, we can elucidate the prime causative factor in the pattern of marriage in various societies.

Reference to social mobility studies show that marital patterns and opportunities, with few exceptions, are determined by one’s position in society. More accurately – by one’s relationship to the means of production, one’s class position. In terms of social class or strata thee is a tendency of like to marry like. It will be observed that biological undertones are not of prime importance because, even though they have some validity, they are only secondary to class determinants. Marriage is a social institution, and shall remain so despite the efforts of some population geneticists to drown class relations and human development in a ‘gene pool.’

2.  Mate Selection and Biology

According to population genetic theory the random mating of two parents will lead to a random combination of their germ cells. The occurrence of this ‘chancy relationship’ can be upset by either or both of two mechanisms. Firstly it is postulated that an assortment of individuals will mate according to the characters that their genetic endowment confers upon them, and such a mating pattern will establish what is termed a mating preferential. This mating preferential is established for both like or unlike mates. A vulgar and unscientific distortion that in an extreme would have all long eared, or all members of the bourgeoisie insisting on marrying members of the proletariat. This mating preferential in population genetics is known as positive assortative mating. Secondly there also occurs the preferential mating of close relatives, this being the consanguineous or inbred family pattern. But has already been seen – inbreeding is not the normal pattern of human mating – the norm being outbreeding. Both consanguinity and exogamy are socially determined relationships.

However, there is no evidence of any mating preferential for either likes or dislikes as regards blood groups or any of a number of physiological or metabolic characteristics. It is claimed that there is a mating preferential of likes for those genetic characteristics showing what is known as continuous variation – examples offered are stature and ‘intelligence’. Some people do like tall people it is true. But, on an aside, how many women have been induced by male dominated propaganda and the social idealism of the ‘glossies’ and the cinema to long for the ‘tall. dark and handsome stranger’? And, in serious analysis, it is now scientifically validated that height is closely, dependent on the interaction of both genetic and environmental factors. This is also the case with ‘intelligence’.

Mating in human societies is not an entirely random process and any statistical claims that this is a random process would imply an aimlessness to the role of marriage and procreation within a given society. After one considers the socio-economic, cultural, geographic and historical factors involved in mate selection in a given society it is seen that a purely quantitative approach is too mechanical and narrow a method to explain mating preferences. The best answer is to answer the trend towards the ‘statistical cretinism’ of certain population geneticists and population ‘experts’. To take this a stage further, according to one of the basic formulations of population genetics known as the Hardy-Weinberg ‘law’, a stable gene pool can only  exist when there is random mating. However, it is extremely doubtful if within any human group, be it a tribe, a clan, or an urban conurbation, that random mating occurs.

In all known human associations, marriage rules and other social preferences and prohibitions on mating make a random process impossible. In addition to this there are many societies where mating behaviour is affected and even determined by social institutions such as class and caste. These socio-economic determinants of sexual behaviour prevent the formation of a completely stabilised gene pool and must therefore act to determine the biological evolution of humans, especially as such a process will contribute to human variability. Variability, as is known, is a prime characteristic of the human species.

As groups of men and women are not infinitely mobile there is a tendency for groups of genes to occur together. It is this limitation upon geographical and social mobility that is one of the important factors affecting the limits imposed on mate selection. These limitations are in part due to geographical location, social custom and language. If the choice of a mate by humans is an intellectual or emotional decision then the use of symbolic language will assume some level of importance, and in this respect like will tend to marry like. In consideration of this one may assume mistakenly that upper class elements will mate on the basis of their affected pronunciation (a common character) but in all truth the determining factor will be the socio-economic  aspects of their class compatibility as well as the considerations of property inheritance.

Similarity, whether genetically based, or social and linguistic, will have obvious advantages for the prospective mates although over-emphasis will inevitably lead to the perpetuation of social divisions and divergence. Mating systems are involved in ‘race’ (though ‘ethnic’ would be a better term to use) because it suggests that clearly discernible hereditable characters are being considered in the selection process. But is this so when mate selection takes place within a homogenous ethnic group? Racial characteristics within a particular ethnic group cannot outweigh the socio-economic considerations of that group in deliberations concerning their mating patterns. Ethnic considerations will come into play more especially where societies consist of a mixture of ethnic groups, in what are sometimes referred to as plural societies. These considerations are all the more apparent in societies where different groups are delineated by superficial ‘racial’ characteristics and the class nature of the society concerned perpetuates artificial divisions and encourages the fermentation of racist attitudes. Intermarriage between an indigenous population and various immigrant groups is a slow process that is further curtailed by erroneous ideas of inferiority/superiority and will only begin to be solved once the inequalities of the social system have been eradicated.

People tend therefore to select partners (where the practice is to make one’s own choice) who meet particular needs of their own, and this is true even if characteristics also exist that are not liked in the partner, because at one level these requirements are met. Accompanying the conscious or objective choice of a particular mate and his or her desirable characteristics there is also an unconscious or subjective set of criteria selected. These subjective considerations or qualities that are considered desirable cannot be separated from the cultural milieu based upon the economic and class nature of the particular society concerned.

3.  Mate Selection and Sociology

In order to understand the inter-relationship of social mobility and the sociological concept of homogamy (mate selection of partners from similar social categories) in the choice of a mate, it is best to outline the basic principles of human mating patterns as they are expressed on the social institutions of exogamy and endogamy. In ‘primitive’ society (which in no way implies that they are inferior) one cannot marry whom one likes within one’s group and therefore marriage must be to a mate outside the particular group or tribe or village community. There exists therefore a segment of the community from which no marriage partner can be obtained and another portion from which from which the mate must be sought. The development of lineages and clans have nearly always been exogamous by nature, and as a process does not exist without reason or historical purpose. Exogamy exists as a social mechanism to prevent the complications of sexual relations within mutual human associations epitomised by the molecular and extended family institutions.

A prime function of exogamy is the establishment of social relations with other groups and thereby extending mutuality and co-operation that cements the created alliance between the two communities. In this situation marriage has been likened to an exchange between two groups of men, one group receiving the wife and the other group receiving the bride price. This mechanism has been described as a pump that enables the women to be removed from their consanguineous families and redistributed amongst their affinal or ‘in-law’ groups. Such Societies possess a complicated set of social mechanisms that include incest taboos, matchmakers and the rituals connected with the negotiation of the bride price. In some societies, such as the Bedouin, cousin marriages are allowed, but these parallel cousin marriages are not exogamous but endogamous.

Much has been written about an alleged instinctive repugnance to incestuous marriages. Freud having based certain elements of his ‘anthropomorphic mythology’, known as the Oedipus Complex, on such an erroneous notion. Scientific anthropology and social psychology denies that such an instinctive revulsion exists and rejects Freud’s analytic concepts for the following reasons: (1) the inclination for incestuous unions or consanguineous mating has no biological, and therefore instinctive, basis in the human make-up, and as such is not a primitive perversion with modern persistence; (2) incest is condemned for social reasons not for reasons couched in biological terminology. The inclination so to mate arises firstly through opportunity based upon spatial propinquity rather than blood relatedness. Such means of mating is regarded as socially disruptive because it engenders sexual jealousy, creates destructive familial tensions and, more importantly, it prevents the expansion and development of the community via exogamous practices. Biological ill-effects due to incestuous mating are due solely to the presence of a small number of recessive or deleterious genes in the population concerned. These are not as widespread as some may think, especially as deleterious effects can be found in non-consanguineous communities where two individuals both happen to carry a recessive gene.

I should be clarified here that because a gene is recessive to a dominant gene it does not mean that it will necessarily be damaging should it be expressed I the offspring’s phenotypes – after all, the gene for blue eyes is an example of a recessive gene. Certainly the history of marriage in society is far longer than the study of human genetics, Primitive matchmakers may have had many responsibilities but they were certainly not eugenicists or genetic counsellors.

Close interbreeding or marriage between relatives is not only allowed but considered desirable in a number of contemporary societies, notable examples can be seen with Indian castes, where considerations of wealth and property are intricately involved with the stratification of such peoples. In western industrial societies social classes are prone to exhibit similar tendencies in mate selection in so far as the up and down mobility of marriage partners is concerned, but there are rarely any specifically prescribed rules. The roots of class exclusive marriage partners in capitalist societies are to be found in the aim of preserving the distinctive qualities (property, wealth, and bogus ideological concepts concerning alleged superiority) of what are described as self-regarding ‘in-groups’.

Therefore, the concepts of homogamy in preferential mating patterns and mate selection have to be studied with due understanding of the socio-economic pressures operating in a given society, and that biological and genetic considerations are only of a secondary and weakly analytical nature.

4.  Homogamy and Mate Selection

The principle of homogamy, as a process in mate selection, is well established in the literature of sociology in regard to marriage, the family and mating patterns. The general hypothesis is that the pattern that dominates in our society is for marital partners to come from similar social categories, and that this exists within an alleged framework of ‘freedom of choice’. Some outlooks consider that propinquity plays a major role in the process of mate selection, whereas others consider that patterns of similarity refer to preferences on the part of the chooser for individuals like themselves, and further from this there may be enforcement of such choices by certain social and customary sanctions.

Conformity to homogamous patterns may be due to limited opportunities that may be geographical or social in nature, or compliance could also be due to adherence to socially and economically determined norms. In other words, the concept of the ‘right and proper thing.’ The question that arises here is whether there is a norm or ‘done thing’ for like to marry like, or whether there is a pattern of interacting and inter-dependent processes that have a relative importance according to the particular needs and roles of a particular group or strata within a given society at a given time.

Within any social segment, such as a class or intermediate strata, one could expect that differing life-styles (and more especially  the relationship to the means of production) would lead to varying degrees of homogamy. One could assume that an individual exhibiting geographical and occupational mobility would have an extended number of social contacts, but this need not imply that he or she would have a greater degree of homogamy. The reason for restricted homogamy still being an effective action is because, despite claims to the contrary, there is far greater mobility classes than there is between them.

Patterns in Britain may be thought to have changed in this respect with the disappearance of the so-called ‘middle class’ and its replacement by a transitional and unstable sandwiched middle stratum between the working class and the bourgeoisie. This can be considered more especially in the light of the social mobility trends  exhibited by the middle strata whereby their movement tends to be more precipitous in nature rather than the myth of their general upward motion. The upper echelons still exhibit a restrictive homogamous mating pattern despite recent inclusion of  non-royal ‘blood’ into the regal family, but even this may be due to an attempt to eradicate certain undesirable genetic traits, as well as survival in the face of an ever decreasing supply of royal offspring. Even so, the ‘commoners’ incorporated into the ‘royals’ are hardly from the ‘commons’. The main and basic principles of a homogamous mating system demonstrate the existence of a filed of ‘eligibles’ affected by a set of variables that include racial considerations, religious requirements, social class, broad occupational groupings, residential location, income, age, level of education, so-called ‘intelligence’, and ideology.

An analysis of University of Oxford students by the author using the above variables, the results of which demonstrated pairing tendencies, along homogamous lines. This was safely assumed, especially as the majority of male and female undergraduates possessed a similarity of background in terms of social class and cultural experience. It was of special interest to note the role of an apparently popular misconception concerning the genetic constitution of the various classes in society. This was an ideological consideration by the students concerned that illustrated how an unscientific concept, regarding the alleged inferiority of certain ‘lower’ classes and ethnic groups, could operate to determine not only choice of marriage partner but also companions. Such attitudes were used to justify the status quo of class divisions as well as to sanctify the continued assortative mating patterns of particular strata. This further exemplified the existence of sub-cultures that in many ways do not communicate on a truly equal social basis.


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