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The role of polyandry on the demography

Anthropologists have always been intrigued by the various behavioral complexes that involve multiple males in union with a female. Yet, a holistic and universal explanation for polyandry seems to be elusive. This failure has led to questions being asked concerning whether these behavioral complexes are as similar as many observers assume. According to Berreman (1975), polyandry is not a sufficiently unitary phenomenon to be explained in the same terms everywhere. His argument is that the origin, function and consequence of polyandry is truly worthy discussing.

This argument cannot be disputed. Attention has been diverted by the obvious similarity between polyandrous groups-the fact that more than one man maintain unions with females-from significant and often basic differences between such populations with regard to their marriage family system. Only four known societies practice polyandry. These are the Nayar, the Marquesans, the Toda and the Tibetans. However, there is also the possibility for polyandry to occur sporadically in societies where it is not the cultural norm (Caselli, Vallin, & Wunsch, 2006).

The practice is quite unusual on the cultural level. In normatively polyandrous societies, the majority of marriages are apt to be monogamous. However, the cultural definition of the ideal marriage in these societies particularizes polyandry. Because of its relative rarity, polyandry has often being termed unnatural. It is often the presumed tendency for men to have more than one woman and not women to have more than one man. This is however a poor way of categorizing a behavior that is characteristic of an entire society, even if there are a few societies involved.

A much less appropriate term which is far much value laden would simply be “unusual”. There are various factors which may predispose a society adopt polyandry. Extreme poverty has been cited to be among the factors that may predispose a society to polyandry. The explanation is that a polyandrous marital system may be a coping mechanism for those societies whose members can barely provide for their own subsistence. Extreme poverty however does not result in polyandry with any great frequency as there are numerous extremely poor societies that do not practice it.

Polyandry is just one of the numerous structural alternatives for societies that live under strict economic conditions. The question is how polyandry may serve to lessen the hardships caused by limited resources. The most obvious reason is that polyandry is an effective way of regulating the population. Relatively few children are produced in polyandry families. The explanation is that a woman with four husbands can produce no more children as a woman with one in any given duration of time.

Polyandry has thus been found in those societies where small families or families that cannot support population growth are deemed advantageous by virtue of the scarcity of resources. However, not all societies characterized by resource scarcity practice polyandry. There may also be some additional factors. Polyandry may be a viable option in societies where resources are scarce and there are few productive tasks that women and children can be assigned. In many non-industrial societies, large families are more advantageous than smaller ones.

Members of large families can make much contribution in production than in consumption. This is however not the case in some societies. This situation may arise in agriculturally based societies like Tibet. Tibet’s economy was basically agricultural and farmland was a rare commodity. Tibet’s climate is quite harsh and the high elevation and mountainous terrain made farming a difficult and a risky occupation. Again, according to custom and the legal structure, the government, church or the landed aristocracy controlled all land. The peasant, who actually worked the land, rented their farms from any of these agencies.

The rent amounted to at least two thirds of the annual produce of the farm. The tenancy of the farms could also be retained by the peasants by the grace of the landlords. Not much could be gained by a family who wished to expand their lands and increase production since almost all the surplus were paid for rent and taxes. There was however much benefit in continuity of tenancy from one generation to the next. This served to secure the tenant’s right to occupy the land. Tibet polyandry is fraternal. The children that were born by the wife were thus the children of all the brothers.

When the sons became mature, they could marry a single wife and the family property could be passed to them as a group. The family did not have to be divided according to this method and this also meant that the family would not grow too large to be supported by the land. A closer analysis of polyandry indicate that it is a consequence of demographic imbalance due to girl infantile (Goldstein, 1981). Societies that are incapable of guaranteeing the livelihood of their offspring would appear to have practiced female infanticide as a means of controlling population growth.

Therefore, there is population imbalance between the sexes leading to polyandry. Fraternal polyandry serves as an effective mechanism of reducing population even though it is one which is unperceived by the inhabitants. It minimizes both the number of females exposed to the risk of conception and the exposure of others, leading to reduction in population growth. However, polyandry does not reduce the fertility of individual females. Nevertheless, when viewed from a population or aggregate point of view, polyandry does have an important effect on fertility.

In the absence of intervention of cultural or biological mechanisms to reduce the number of females, one would expect that a marriage system such as polyandry would generate a sizable number of surplus unmarried women. The unmarried females in Tibet either establish their own separate households, continue to live at home or work as others. A mild social stigma exists toward unmarried women even though there is no ostracism or social isolation. Not being married is not however the same as not being included in the reproductive pool.

Extramarital relationships are tolerated if discreet and therefore quite a number of unmarried women do have children. The offspring per unmarried female is often lower than that of the married women (Lee, 1982). Apart from the factors such as the need for discreetness and the difficulty of privacy, there are also several other important economic factors that seem to limit the extent of coitus for the unmarried females. From a male’s perspective, illegitimate children are expensive. The janitor is jurally responsible for his children whether illegitimate or not and is required to provide for most of the things that the child needs.

A great deal of open discussions exist among men concerning the risks of having affairs with unmarried women and this often acts as a restraint on the cautious and the poor. From the woman’s perspective, children are also difficult to maintain. The payments that are often made by the genitor are normally are normally not sufficient to sustain a child. The unmarried women also do not possess enough land to even support themselves. Their deficits are partly made up by working for others. A limit therefore exists on the amount that a woman can overcome.

After the first or second child, the economic pressures become so great that unless there is a supplementary income available, unmarried females either voluntarily assume a celibate role or have intercourse only on infrequent occasions. Regardless of the cause of this significantly lower rate of children for the unmarried women, its consequences are obvious on the population. A considerably large percentage of reproductive age females are restricted by polyandry from participating in childbearing thereby minimizing population growth.

The adaptive significance of polyandry lies beyond this. Fraternal polyandry in Tibet is part of a negative feedback process which operates to adjust population size to resources. The Tibetans certainly do not practice polyandry as a strategy of reducing individual or aggregate fertility levels. There is not link between polyandry and fertility. The Tibetans also do not marry polyandrously because they enjoy wife sharing with other siblings or because of any deeply founded motivational value such as sibling solidarity. The preference for polyandry is highly materialistic.

In order to preserve the family’s productive resources among the male heirs, polyandry becomes the best option. Owing to the scarcity of land, the Tibetans consider the maintenance of this land a critical factor in sustaining a satisfactory standard of living. This goal is achieved by polyandry by offering an intra-familial milieu in which discord is reduced by the presence of only one wife on each generational level and therefore one set of heirs. Polyandry evades a situation in which nuclear family units comprising of a brother, his wife and children compete with one another.

Another important and perceived advantage of polyandry is the need for labor. Polyandry concentrates labor in production units while reducing the risk of division of the family estate. Fraternal polyandry concentrates labor in family cooperation’s in a way that is analogous to stem families. It greatly minimizes the possibility of partitioning of the corporation’s estate. The maintenance of the family estate is considered by the Tibetans a critical factor in sustaining a quality of life associated with families of substance and standing. The way that this is accomplished is buy fraternal polyandry.

This economic dimension is however inclined toward subsistence. Situations where multiple brothers are involved do not clearly lead to a polyandrous marriage. Since the subsistence of these families basically derive from wage labor, very poor families with limited land generally undergo fission each generation. There does not exist any estate of substance to conserve and individuals are as competitive individually as in sets of male siblings. There are problems that characterize polyandry. Since authority is customarily exercised by the eldest brother, there is little hope for younger sibling s changing their status.

In situations where these younger individuals are aggressive and individualistic, there is often inter-sibling tensions and difficulties. Similarly, tensions may exist in polyandrous families between the wife and the husbands. While the cultural ideal in Tibet calls for unbiased treatment with regard to affection and sexual access, a shift from this ideal at times occur leading to intra-familial tensions (Levine, 1988). Such deviations are in most cases common where there exists a sizable difference in age between the marriage partners.

While polyandry offers an answer to one type of culturally perceived problem, it also offers other types of problems. More important than these categories are cases where individuals could easily together with their brothers yet prefer more personal freedom and independence. They constitute a critical category since the more these males decide to precipitate fission, the higher the overall fertility for the populations. Young males are therefore faced with the choice of whether to trade off personal freedom and independence for economic security and social prestige.

Young siblings who are not forced by internal conflict to initiate fission muss assess their capacity to attain satisfactory income and social status before initiating fission. They must consider the opportunity costs of polyandry and going it alone. In the comprehension of this assessment of opportunity costs, inheritance norms become very important. The inheritance norms of Tibet traditionally allow the partition of the family estate among the male members. In theory, each male within the corporation has demand rights to an equal share of land and animals.

However, on a de facto level, the system functions as if there existed impartible inheritance. With regard to polyandry, whenever opportunities or resources became available which do not demand heavy input of ready capital and which, for an individual, holds the promise of becoming a person of substance and status in the community, younger siblings with defect from polyandrous marriage in considerable numbers (Levine, 1988). Population growth will therefore increase since more women of reproductive age will be placed in role of high conception risks (ibid, 76).

Traditionally, this was meant to as a type of negative feedback pattern which could quickly expand or contract population growth depending on productive resource availability. References Caselli, G. , Vallin, J. & Wunsch, G. (2006). Demography: Analysis and Synthesis. Academic Press Goldstein, M. 1981. New perspectives on Tibetan fertility and population decline. American Ethnologist 8(4): 721-738. Lee, G. (1982). Family structure and interaction: a comparative analysis. Minnesota Press Levine, N. 1988. The Dynamics of Polyandry: Kinship, Domesticity and Population on the Tibetan Border. Chicago: University of Chicago.

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