The Economic Contract can take a variety of forms ï¿½ including bridewealth, brideservice, and dowry amongst other forms of exchange ï¿½ and is a cornerstone of economic anthropology. Marriage is a universal phenomenon and the Economic Contract is found cross-culturally as well as amongst different groups around the world.
Womack describes marriage in the United States as the sole economic contract in which the terms of the contract are not specified but rather are implied (145). This differs greatly with other cultures in which the economic underpinning of a union between a bride and groom are not only discussed but stipulated and put into practice through arranged marriage. The Economic Contract in an arranged marriage is thus explicit as opposed to implicit and invariably includes the involvement of a third party, sometimes described as a matchmaker, and most often a member of oneï¿½s kin (Womack 145-148).
There are many forms of exchange when marriages are arranged with the most common being bridewealth, brideservice, and dowry. Bridewealth (also known by the controversial term ï¿½bridepriceï¿½) is the ï¿½most common form of marriage paymentï¿½ (Womack 148) and involves a transfer of wealth by the husband and his family to the family of the bride-to-be. Brideservice is similar to bridewealth in that the husband compensates the family of the bride for their loss, but in this case the groom works for the brideï¿½s family as compensation ï¿½ sometimes for many years. Dowry is the last major type of marriage exchange and is the reverse of the previous two types of exchange because in this instance the brideï¿½s family transfers goods to the bride (or to the new couple). The dowry system is most commonly found in Europe and in Asia. All of these transactions - bridewealth, brideservice, and dowry ï¿½ strengthen ties between families and kin groups. Importantly, they also reinforce the economic foundation of marriage (Womack 148, 149).
The Economic Contract can have multiple implications for a bride and groom. While feminists decry the Economic Contract as a misogynist practice ï¿½ admittedly the term ï¿½bridepriceï¿½ sounds like the husband is ï¿½buyingï¿½ the bride and that the soon-to-be wife is ï¿½for sale ï¿½ the Economic Contract can be positive (Bossen 1988). An Economic Contract can both secure the financial future of the new couple as well strengthen bonds between families and kin groups. By stipulating the economic parameters of the union at the outset, the Economic Contract reinforces ties between groups while at the same time providing an economic basis for the new union (Womack 149).
Bossen, Laurel. ï¿½Towards a Theory of Marriage: The Economic Anthropology of Marriage Transactions.ï¿½ Ethnology 27:2 (1988): 127-144.
Womack, Mari. Being Human: An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1998.