An Anthropological Look at Engagements

Getting engaged is an event with many cultural symbols, rituals and traditions. I recently got engaged, but I had never really contemplated the cultural forces that guided me through the process�until now. While examining the various rituals associated with proposals and marriage both in other cultures and my own, I realized that a marriage proposal and engagement are culturally rich events. While some cultures trade goods, cattle or other livestock, in the United States, most people use expensive rings of precious metals and jewels to celebrate the occasion.

The process of getting engaged seemed pretty clear cut to me a few months ago, but now I realize that there are innumerable ways to go through with it. I had always assumed that to get engaged, you found the right girl, bought a diamond ring, asked her to marry you, and then she said yes (or no). Now I see that on a global scale, we, in the United States, are a minority with this tradition. I also see that this outline is not always followed. In my own experience, I talked to my potential wife about marriage, lifetime goals, morals and values months before I had even considered proposing. After a while, it just seemed inevitable that we would get married so we decided to get engaged. Together, we decided to ask her father for his blessing, and we did so – together. After earning his stamp of approval, we went and picked out an engagement ring together. It turned out that she did not want the “traditional” diamond engagement ring (due to the conditions in which they are mined), and, as we learned from the sales associate, sapphires, not diamonds, are actually the traditional stones for engagement rings. She ended up choosing a ruby and platinum ring that I gave to her a few days later while kneeling and asking her to be my wife. This scenario fits loosely into the above outline for a “traditional” proposal, but I now see that variation exists both between and within cultures.

Before and after the proposal, I found the cultural anthropologist in me asking questions like: “Why a ring?” “Why do I propose and not her?” and “Why do we ask her father, but not mine?” In other cultures, such as the Turkana in northern Kenya, potential husbands exchange goods or livestock for a wife in order to compensate the family for the loss of a working member of the family. (Haviland) Such economic reasons do not exist in the United States in general, nor do they exist in my own situation. While a ring does have monetary value, it is not a form of compensation to the family. The tradition seems to have evolved from a system similar to that of the Turkana, but in its modern form, it does little to serve its original purpose. Today, an engagement ring is a sign to other men that the girl is betrothed, and between fiancÃ?©es it is a symbol of the promise to marry. As for the questions of who “should” propose and whose blessing is “required,” these gender biases probably stem from the long-standing patriarchal tradition of the United States. In other words, it’s just what men do. However, that answer is not good enough. This tradition probably developed from the fact that men often earned more money than women and men have traditionally been the “head of the household.” Therefore, many women did not have the economic means to purchase an expensive ring with which she could woo a man to marry her. Also, since men controlled the household, they often controlled their daughters and a potential son-in-law would need his permission.

Since many of these reasons are no longer extant, it seems like fewer engagements fit into the “traditional” outline set forth above. Today women do propose to men, and while they may not necessarily buy their groom-to-be a ring, they may purchase one for themselves. As for fathers granting permission to their daughters to marry, this too is not always required today. I asked permission to be polite and to help build a better relationship with my future father-in-law, but it was hardly a requirement to marry his daughter (in fact neither of his other daughter’s two husbands made the gesture). Today, it seems like engagement traditions in the United States are alive and strong-in many varying forms-but they seem to have lost the connection to their original purpose. It appears that I, and those like me, adhere to these traditions out of cultural habit (if there is such a thing) reinforced by societal pressures to act within standard behavioral norms. Or perhaps, we like the romantic and emotional aspects of these traditions that outlived their original more practical purposes.

Works Cited
(See Reference Below)

Haviland, William A. Selected Chapters from Anthropology, Tenth Ed. Belmont, CA:Wadworth/Thomson Learning, 2000.

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