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Socio-economic and cultural factors underlying the contemporary revival of fraternal polyandry in Tibet

Socio-economic and cultural factors underlying the contemporary revival of fraternal polyandry in Tibet


Department of Anthropology, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH 44106, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.


This dissertation presents the first data on Tibetan fraternal polyandry (two or more brothers sharing a wife) based on fieldwork in Tibet per se. Based on 12 months of anthropological fieldwork conducted in a village in Benam county in Shigatse prefecture of Tibet Autonomous Region, China, the dissertation examines the revival of polyandry in rural Tibet using a multifaceted research strategy that included a mix of traditional anthropological methods.

Despite the illegality of polyandry in the People's Republic of China and its virtual demise during the commune era, China's post-1978 economic reforms created a new set of socio-economic conditions that has led a substantial number of Tibetan families to choose the traditional Tibetan marriage pattern of polyandry over monogamy. At present, 33% of households in the study village practice polyandry. The dissertation examines why villagers are choosing polyandry in such numbers and what the consequence of selecting it is for them.

The reasons provided by villagers for practicing polyandry were economic and fell into three categories: concentration of male labor in households, greater potential to exploit off-farm economic opportunities, and the preservation of a household's land intact across generations. These reasons were borne out in reality as polyandrous households were found to be significantly more successful economically than monogamous and polygynous households. Households who practiced polyandry had significantly more males earning off-farm wages, had a higher total value of animals owned, and critically, had 43% higher per capita income than monogamous and 208% higher income than polygynous households. Polyandrous households also were significantly higher proportions of the upper socio-economic strata.

The dissertation examines the two major alternative explanations for polyandry found in the literature on polyandry in Tibetan society - the socio-economic versus the cultural. The findings of this study confirm the "socio-economic" explanation of Tibetan polyandry. Tibetans were clearly not deciding to marry their sons polyandrously because of a deep-seated cultural value that prescribes that form of marriage. Rather, they utilize polyandry because of materialistic, means-end factors that they perceived made polyandry more advantageous to the subsistence of their household and thus their stature and standing in the locality.