Hypergamy (colloquially referred to as "marrying up") is the act or practice of marrying someone wealthier, or of higher caste or status than oneself. Although the term is not gendered, it is generally used by social scientists to refer to women marrying higher-status men, rather than to men marrying higher-status women.
The word "hypogamy" typically refers to instances of the inverse occurring: marrying a person of lower social class or status.
Today most people marry their approximate social equals, and in much of the world hypergamy is felt to be in slow decline: for example, it is becoming less common for women to marry older men. However, even in relatively gender-equal societies it is accepted that young women will often partner with powerful older men.
Mating preferences and hypergamy
Studies of heterosexual mate selection in dozens of countries around the world have found men and women report prioritizing different traits when it comes to choosing a mate, with men tending to prefer women who are young and attractive and women tending to prefer men who are rich, well-educated, ambitious, and attractive. Evolutionary psychologists contend this is an inherent sex difference arising out of sexual selection, with men driven to seek women who will give birth to healthy babies and women driven to seek men who will be able to provide the necessary resources for the family's survival. Social learning theorists, however, say women value men with high earning capacity because women's own ability to earn is constrained by their disadvantaged status in a male-dominated society. They argue that as societies shift towards becoming more gender-equal, women's mate selection preferences will shift as well. Some research supports that theory, including a 2012 analysis of a survey of 8,953 people in 37 countries, which found that the more gender-equal a country, the likelier male and female respondents were to report seeking the same qualities as each other rather than different ones. However, Townsend (1989) surveyed medical students regarding their perception of how the availability of marriage partners changed as their educational careers advanced. Eighty-five percent of the women indicated that "As my status increases, my pool of acceptable partners decreases" (p. 246). In contrast, 90% of men felt that "As my status increases, my pool of acceptable partners increases" (p. 246).
Saint-Paul (2008) argued that, based on mathematical models, human female hypergamy occurs because women have greater lost mating opportunity costs from monogamous mating (given their slower reproductive rate and limited window of fertility), and thus must be compensated for this cost of marriage. Although marriage reduces the overall genetic quality of her offspring (e.g., the possibility of impregnation by a higher quality genetic male, yet sans his parental investment), this reduction is compensated by greater levels of paternal parental investment by her husband. An empirical study examined the mate preferences of subscribers to a computer dating service in Israel that had a highly skewed sex ratio (646 men for 1,000 women). Despite this skewed sex ratio, they found that "On education and socioeconomic status, women on average express greater hypergamic selectivity; they prefer mates who are superior to them in these traits... Men express a desire for hypergamy on physical attractiveness; they desire a mate who ranks higher on the physical attractiveness scale than they themselves do."
In modern society, discussing the role money plays in determining how women select long-term male partners is often considered a taboo or antiquated subject. One study did not find a statistical difference in the number of women or men "marrying-up" in a sample of 1109 first-time married couples in the United States.
Hypergamy in India
For citizens of rural India, hypergamy is an opportunity to modernize. Marriages in rural India are increasingly examples of hypergamy. Farmers and other rural workers want their daughters to have access to city life, for with metropolitan connections comes internet access, better job opportunities, and higher caste social circles. A connection in an urban area creates a broader social horizon for the bride's family, and young children in the family can be sent to live with the couple in the city for better schooling. Hypergamy comes with a cost though: the dowry, which often costs as much or more than an entire house. The high price that has to be borne by the parents while marrying a daughter has led to increasing rates of abortion of female fetuses.
The concept of marrying up in India is prevalent due to caste-based class stratification. The women from the higher castes were not allowed to marry men from a lower caste. This concept, cited in the Vedas as the Anuloma was justified as the mechanism to keep the Hindu ideological equivalent of the gene pool from degrading. The opposite of the Anuloma, called the Pratiloma was not allowed in the ancient Indian society. However, the Vedas cite an example where one such exception was allowed when the daughter of Sage Shukracharya, Devayani was allowed to marry a Kshatriya king (lower caste compared to Brahmanas in the Indian caste system) named Yayati.
Hypergamy is also seen in men who marry women from powerful or influential families as a way to increase their social status and access to opportunities.
Feminism and hypergamy
Feminist analysis of hypergamy says the practice needs to be understood in the context of a patriarchial system: men choose attractive partners because they can, and women choose partners with material resources simply because they make life more comfortable. Feminist historians say lower-status families participate in hypergamy because it's felt that the best possible use of a daughter is for her to increase the status of her natal family by marrying up. Hypergamy allows higher-status men maximum choice in mate selection, and, as historically practiced in India, results in the man's family gaining wealth through the transfer of dowry from the bride's family. Hypergamy disadvantages higher-status women (by removing high-status men from their mating pool, from which social constraints and economic disincentives already exclude lower-status men) and lower-status men (by removing lower-status women from their mating pool, from which social constraints and economic incentive structures already exclude higher-status women).
Because a hypergamous marriage is unequal, hypergamy has been criticized for reinforcing and perpetuating gender inequality in society overall, for example when highly educated women married to high-income men decide to stay home to raise children rather than pursuing their own careers.
- not to be confused with the botanical term hypogamous.
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