Does bride price harm women? Using ethnography to think about causality

Eva Brandl
Heidi Colleran

Many institutions claim that bride price – where the groom’s family transfers wealth to the bride’s family at marriage – harms women. Due to its long-term engagement with communities that practice bride price, ethnography is well-placed to identify causal mechanisms at play in this issue, and there is a substantial literature on its effects. Here, we condense this literature, drawing out key causal arguments made about brideprice in various Melanesian societies. This reveals a complex, multi-causal picture: rather than being singularly harmful, bride price may involve a mixture of drawbacks and benefits, making it a double-edged sword with contested implications. Bride price may constrain women’s options before and during the marriage but also serve as a safety net that enhances their status. Its effects are likely influenced by many other variables, including age, kinship networks, and residence structures. These dynamics have been transformed by conversion to Christianity, the (post-)colonial state, market integration, urbanization, and formal education, often yielding ambiguous outcomes. Rather than reducing it to a collection of datapoints, we show that ethnography can serve as a source of verbal arguments that can be used to challenge reductive narratives about sensitive issues and to formulate hypotheses for testing with quantitative data.

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Research Type(s)
Journal Article
May 30, 2024
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