This essay deals with the analysis of the social phenomenon of marriage from the perspectives of structural functionalism, conflict theory, symbolic interactionism, and social exchange theory. Marriage is a phenomenon which can be viewed from many angles given its characteristics. It is one of the basic socially determined stages in an individual's life. By definition, marriage is a legally attested union between two partners which presupposes sexual interaction as well as producing children and bringing them up together. Since marriage is one of the central phenomenon, its essence have always induced a lot of debates. For instance, until recently, couples of the same sex could not be married. The typical definition of spouses was husband and wife, not partner.
The theory of symbolic interactionism maintains that people rely on symbols when they interact with each other. The reality is constructed and interpreted by individuals: actions and items are symbols with meanings behind them, which influence and regulate people's behavior. This theory was developed and introduces by George Herbert Mead in the second decade of the twentieth century. Symbolic interactionism reaveals many interesting aspects of a marriage as a social phenomenon. Basically, marriage itself is a symbol. First and foremost, individuals see marriage as a symbol of true love since it presupposes a commitment number of legal and financial procedures which entail grave consequences for individuals who enter it. Marriage is also a symbol of social status. As it has been mentioned before, it is considered to be one of the most important stages of an individual's life: society determines the “appropriate” age for people to get married and does not generally approve of people who enter this stage of their lives “too early” or “too late” or those who choose not to marry at all. For example, it is accepted and approved when people marry in their twenties, though it is frowned upon when they do it in their teens. It is interesting to notice that the “approved” age differs from culture to culture, but it is usually attached to the phenomenon of marriage. It is also curious that the “approved” age differs with regard to sex: if a man is still unmarried in his forties, it is considered more or less normal, while if a woman is still unmarried at the same age, she might be viewed as a spinster. The fact that English language does not have a similar word for a male in this case is quite illustrative.
Marriage can also be viewed as a symbol of success. Apart from this phenomenon being “appropriate” and desired at a certain point of an individual's life span, as discussed above, marriage also is viewed as success based, for instance, on the parameters of a spouse. For example, a man is considered to have married successfully is his wife is beautiful and comes from a rich family. Through marriage, this man not only obtained a desirable sexual partner for himself, but also forged a business connection and gained monetary reward. A woman is considered to have married successfully if her husband is a wealthy and powerful man. Within the phenomenon of marriage, there are also symbolic elements such as wedding ring, the wedding ceremony, the white dress, the documented status.
Given the recent events, the social interactionism theory can shed some light on the reasons why same sex couples considered the right to marry so essential and fought for it for a long time. There is no biological basis for marriage between them: they are of the same sex, so they cannot produce offspring by the conventional method of sexual intercourse. However, since marriage is an important symbol in social interaction, as described above, they also want to receive all the benefits which possession of this symbol entail.
Another aspect of marriage which the theory of symbolic interaction reveals is the discrepancy between conventional, legal, marriage and civil marriage. Basically, people in civil marriage practice the same procedures as people in legal marriage: they live together, they have sex, they share their income, they might even have children and bring them up together. However, in this case they lack the important symbols – the wedding ring and the documents which make them a couple in the face of law. Countries all over the world differ in the legal recognition of the phenomenon of the civil marriage, however, usually people in the civil marriage do not have the same rights as in the legal one as well as divorce does not entail the consequences of the same gravity.
The theory of structural functionalism, developed by Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton, suggests that every phenomenon has a distinct function which promotes the well-being and stability of the system. The social phenomenon of marriage has a number of functions which benefit society as a system. First and foremost, people who enter marriage are usually of reproductive age and possess, more or less, material and non-material means to produce and bring up children. Marriage, thus, is a way for society to ensure the replacement of old individuals by young ones, which is the basis for the continuity of society. Moreover, marriage is a means for society to ensure stability: moral and financial ties which come with marriage safeguard proper upbringing environment for the child. The child is fed and sheltered as well as properly educated about the norms of the given society to grow up and conform to them. Marriage, in a way, also secures the position of the woman, especially a pregnant one of with a small child. It was particularly important several centuries ago when women had practically no rights and were just an addition to their husband. Marriage established certain responsibilities of the man before his wife: he could not leave her easily. Nowadays, when women, despite instances of gender discrimination, manage to support themselves and even their children on their own, the significance of marriage is not as critical as it was earlier in time. However, it still retains its force as a structural item in the system of society.
Another function of marriage is ensuring that children are not produced chaotically, which brings about the lack of stability to society. It is preferred that people marry before they produce an offspring. If it happens that the woman is pregnant before marriage, the cultural norms insist that the man who fathered the future child marry the woman. This function, along with the economic function of marriage, can be illustrated by the following example. Early in history, when people led the nomadic life, there was no need in marriage because, probably, there were no private property. When people began to lead the sedentary life, the phenomenon of private property began to exist and prompted to seek ways to ensure the line of heirs. In other words, the children produced in marriage inherited the property of their parents. It was also important for men to ensure that they father their heirs: hence the demand for the future wife to be a virgin – to make sure she is not pregnant with somebody else's child. These speculations clearly illustrate that the social phenomenon of marriage has an important regulatory function for society.
The conflict theory, developed on the basis of Marxist theory, emphasizes the importance of limited material and non-material resources in social interaction. The theory suggests that there is a constant conflict over the resources because they are the means of control of some members of society over others. From the point of view of this theory, marriage also presents a struggle for power and resources. Simply speaking, in a marriage, usually, the breadwinner is the most powerful member because he or she controls the material resources. However, the control over non-material resources can modify this premise. Historically, the woman had a dependent status in marriage because women generally had almost no economic rights. Thus, unhappy marriages lasted because a woman could support herself and her children on her own. The husband exercised considerable influence because he controlled the material resources. Nowadays, the high rates of divorce can be partially explained by the fact that women can provide for themselves on their own. Also, the control over the part of the family's income provides them with influence over the family's decisions. Marriage also presupposes that, in case of conflict, there are legal means to regulate the settlement of the financial issues. Finally, in a broader scope, a marriage creates a nuclear family, which consolidates material and non-material resources within it and thus can exercise influence over society.
The social exchange theory, developed by George Casper Homans in 1960s, views social interaction as an exchange process where every individual strives to be rewarded for his or her behavior and avoid punishment for it. In other words, in the course of any interaction, the individual conducts a mental assessment in order to reduce the costs of his or her actions and maximize the benefits received from them. Roughly speaking, the primary purpose of marriage is producing children. In this case, both a man and a woman are rational beings who seek to reproduce with the minimum cost for them and with maximum reward. Marriage is the most “rewarding” ways of reproducing: first, it provides the joint resources for the child's upbringing; second, it allows to ensure legally that sufficient resources are demanded from the parent who wished to retracted from the process of joint upbringing; third, it provides not only the resources of the nuclear family, but the joint resources of the extended family; fourth, it induces approval by society as a way of bringing up a child. Another point, from which marriage can be explained by social exchange theory, is its role in regulating sexual intercourse. First of all, marriage is a socially approved form of having social intercourse, which is a benefit for an individual involved in this activity. Second, it minimizes the costs of having sex: outside of marriage – either while dating or in adultery – having a sexual intercourse entails emotional, mental and financial costs, while in marriage to have sex with one's spouse is viewed as marital obligation. If one of the spouses refuses to engage in sexual intercourse, it is a sign of the conflict in marriage.
Analyzing a social phenomenon from the angle of a sociological theory enhances the individual's understanding of the phenomenon: it might place his or her attention on the crucial characteristics which would otherwise go unnoticed. Each of the discussed theories, when applied to marriage, revealed specific characteristics of this phenomenon. However, the analysis conducted in this essay allows to suggest that the theory of symbolic interactionism is the most useful theory in explaning the phenomenon of marriage. Other theories reveal important elements of this phenomenon, however, especially nowadays, marriage has more symbolic meaning than the practical one. The theories discussed in this essay are able to cover any social phenomenon due to working on universal principles of interaction between humans.