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  • Introduction:New Insights on Marriage and Africa
  • Mark Hunter (bio)

From Sadio’s dramatic rejection of her fiancé at a Malian wedding ceremony, to mothers weighing up child-maintenance claims in South Africa, to Senegalese couples navigating transnational marriages, to Mauritanians who raise the status of others through marriage gifts, to women’s informal entrepreneurial activities in divorce-high Tanzania, to the wedding presents that sustain women’s survival and status in Burkina Faso, the accounts in this special issue of Africa Today offer new ways to think about marriage on the African continent and beyond.

The study of African marriage, once at the center of African studies, is overdue for attention. Published in 1950 and often seen as a foundational text of structural functionalism, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown’s African Systems of Kinship and Marriage revealed how marriage customs function in a social system and the role of lineage groups in organizing societies. Another celebrated text in this broad paradigm is Meyer Fortes’s essay “The Concept of the Person” (1987), showing how personhood was formed in relation to an individual’s position within a web of kinship. Such accounts, often seen as unfashionable today, offer valuable insights, whether we wish to recall Radcliffe-Brown’s insistence on marriage as process, or to seek from Fortes a kinship-centered approach to personhood or subject formation.

Claude Lévi-Strauss’s (1969) work brought marriage exchanges to the fore—a theme famously projected into studies of gender by Gayle Rubin in the essay “The Traffic in Women” (1975). A trenchant critique of Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism was provided by the young Pierre Bourdieu. He is well-known for his work on French society, but his early work on Algeria was a challenge to Lévi-Strauss, who, he argues, overemphasized fixed roles. Instead, kinship is “something people make, and with which they do something” (Bourdieu 1977:35, original italics). [End Page vii]

One of Claude Meillassoux’s key contributions to studies of marriage was emphasizing the importance of social reproduction in agrarian societies. In labor-intensive agricultural communities, he argued (1972), central to the organization of society was the control of the means of reproduction, especially regarding women and children, in contrast to capitalism’s central attention to the means of production. In providing a Marxist framework to understand the importance of children in marriage transactions, Meillasoux’s intervention converges in important ways with older writings. Notably, Radcliffe-Brown stressed how marriage resulted in the transfer of children’s rights, while Jeffreys’s (1951) analysis of customary law made the strong case that ilobolo is “child price.” Thus, in this agrarian setting, children were shown to be at the center of the process of marriage.

Written in 1980, when anthropology was beginning to reassess its conceptual baggage and reflect more deeply on its role in the administration of colonialism, John L. Comaroff’s (1980) edited book The Meaning of Marriage Payments is notable for its critique of structural functionalism and attention to the details of marriage payments. Comaroff’s own chapter in that volume took apart the jural position, whereby marriage is seen, in Western jurisprudence, as the exchange of recognized rights. Marriage, he argued, is inherently ambiguous and open to negotiation, and marriage gifts were productive and thus not simply reflective of marriage. Continuing the empirical focus on changing practices was the edited volume Transformations in African Marriage, with one of its strong themes being the way women approach marriage, especially in urban settings (Parkin and Nyamwaya 1987).

Anthropologists have been at the forefront of the production of knowledge about African marriage, but historian Meghan Vaughan (1983) offered a poignant essay on the difficulty of constructing histories of the family in Africa. The challenge, as she showed, is because colonial tropes tend to emphasize “the disappearance of the tribe,” and informants can view the past in somewhat romantic terms. If Radcliffe-Brown had argued that the weakness of what he called “pseudo-history” warranted a comparative approach, Vaughan made an enthusiastic call for social historians to mine sources on the family and, analytically, give attention to historical process and changing relationships and transactions.

In the 1980s, however, just as...


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