Archive for the ‘Marriage’ category

Mixed Marriages Declining? For Whom?

March 27, 2009

Recently the Washington Post published an article claiming that racially mixed marriages are on the decline, in part because the children of immigrants are increasingly looking for, and presumably finding, partners of the same ethnicity.

The articles cites population studies by sociologist Zhenchao Qian who finds that intermarriage rates for Latinos and Asians in the US –the two ethnoracial groups whose members marry outside their group most—have been declining since 1990. One explanation often given for this trend is a demographic one: as immigration from Latin America and Asia increases, Latinos and Asians in the US have a greater pool of marriageable “co-ethnics” to choose from and thus intermarriage declines. The other kind of explanation cites sociocultural factors, like pressure from parents to marry within their group or a desire to partner with someone who shares one’s traditions, values and aspirations.

While I don’t doubt the finding that intermarriages as a percentage of all marriages are declining for some racial groups, I think caution is warranted in how we interpret these figures. Too often this trend is framed as if it signals some profound shift or reversal in the trend toward greater intermarriage. But as immigration increases, it’s not surprising that a greater percentage of marriages would be intra-ethnic given that more recent arrivals are less likely to be fully embedded in institutions (like jobs and schools) that would facilitate intermarriage.

Trends toward less intermarriage in the second generation, however, are more intriguing. If, as this article implies (I say “if” because I haven’t spent enough time reading the latest population studies on this demographic to evaluate the claim), second generation Asians and Latinos are outmarrying significantly less, this raises some interesting questions about the nature of assimilation that are a lot more complicated than the Post article implies.

Intermarriage is often treated as a measure of assimilation. When an ethnic group becomes sufficiently integrated into the social institutions of a society so as to experience what sociologists Alba and Nee call “easy social intercourse” with the dominant group, intermarriage is more likely. The trend toward less intermarriage, then, might imply that there are significant barriers to such “easy social intercourse”, even for groups, like Asian Americans, who have experienced significant economic and residential mobility.

On the other hand, there may be something else at work in these figures. The Post article spills almost all of its ink on the experiences of young Asian American professionals in the Washington, D.C. area. They profile people looking for love at speed dating events designed specifically for, say, South Asian professionals looking for South Asian professionals; Chinese American professionals looking for Chinese American professionals, etc. “Professionals” is the operative word here, revealing that this is a story at least as much about class as race. And it’s a very old story about how the better-off construct marriage markets from an economic “floor”—eliminating those below their level—while also bounding them by ethnicity.

This class/race pattern of intermarriage would seem to confirm, rather than challenge, the assimilation hypothesis, but take it in new directions. Socially and economically mobile second generation Asian Americans and Latinos may be outmarrying less because they have access to more co-ethnics who have also experienced this mobility. In other words, increasing integration into the mainstream in terms of jobs, housing and income may be facilitating increasing segregation in marriage.


marriage: the sound and fury

March 9, 2009

In reviewing the marriage-go-round, by Andrew Cherlin, I came away with a keen sense of the historical roots of the intensity with which Americans cherish marriage.  Cherlin’s main point is that the United States is unique in that it has a pro-marriage culture and a culture that values personal expression and self-development, and these two profound values create the unusual pattern of high marriage and high divorce rates.  Cherlin’s excellent book  compares the U.S. to countries in Europe and the UK.  He notes that marriage rights and marriage rates are hotly debated here, but not in other countries, where children — who gets to have them, through assisted reproduction or adoption, and who has kinship rights to them — are a more central concern.

Protests raged in San Francisco this past week, when the courts heard arguments about Proposition 8, which invalidated same-sex marriages when it passed on the November ballot.   Hearing about them brought to mind some pictures a friend sent last June, when the Gay Men’s Chorus set up outside City Hall, serenading the couples as they went in.


And my friend captured the delight on this bride’s face, as she watched them on her way in.


Does marriage mean something different here?  Is that why we fight over who gets to have it?

Some argue that the “soulmate” version of marriage, now ascendant, has shredded many marriages who cannot sustain that level of emotional union without other things to prop them up, institutions like churches, functions like childrearing.

But what about providing care for each other?  Why isn’t that a “function” that works in the same way?  What would it take for that to be the glue of marriage?  For inspiration, I offer this.