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When Brothers Share a Wife

03 May 2017Other Essays

In his article, Melvyn C. Goldstein sheds the light onto the major controversies that grow out of Tibetans’ commitment to the principles of fraternal polyandry. It appears that for Tibetans to promote fraternal polyandry means to promote a normal form of marriage relationships. Unfortunately, the author of the article does not back up his claims with either previous studies or the results of other empirical researches. From the anthropological perspective, we should be more than interested in answering the question WHY fraternal polyandry remains one of the basic marriage forms in Tibet. Economic reasons might be relevant, but beyond purely economic factors there is a whole set of social and cultural considerations, which should be taken into account when investigating the hidden facets of marriage principles in Tibet.

In his article, Melvyn C. Goldstein (1987) sheds the light onto the major controversies that grow out of Tibetans’ commitment to the principles of fraternal polyandry. It appears that for Tibetans to promote fraternal polyandry means to promote a normal form of marriage relationships, in which several brothers and their wife live, work, and bring up their children cooperatively. Apart from the fact that fraternal polyandry helps avoid favoritism and inequality, this form of marriage is rooted in long-standing Tibetan traditions. Fraternal polyandry is justified by the need to cultivate land and grow cattle. “Because of the limited farmland, the Tibetan subsistence economy characteristically includes a strong emphasis on animal husbandry” (Goldstein, 1987), and monogamous marriage would hardly give families sufficient opportunities to manage their farms and animals. Unfortunately, fraternal polyandry is not without its problems; sexual relationships with the wife often become the reasons of conflict. Goldstein (1987) suggests that given the dominant position of the eldest brother, his younger siblings are hardly ever offered a chance to change their social position (Goldstein, 1987). Simultaneously, as economic conditions in Tibet are gradually changing, fraternal polyandry may soon become irrelevant and vanish in the next generation.

Certainly, Goldstein (1987) tries to be objective in his research, and along with the benefits and rationale for fraternal polyandry in Tibet, he also provides an extensive list of problems that stem of the competition and conflicts between brothers. The problem, however, is in that the author of the article does not back up his claims with either previous studies or the results of other empirical researches. Furthermore, Goldstein (1987) asserts that the roots of fraternal polyandry are purely economic; but what about social stratification and its impact on marriage? Moreover, what about the sociobiological assumptions which fraternal polyandry seems to deny? As long as males biologically and naturally seek to expand the range of their female mates, fraternal polyandry, on the contrary, reduces their chances to have as many offspring as possible, due to the fact that they have to share a common spouse. From the anthropological perspective, we should be more than interested in answering the question WHY fraternal polyandry remains one of the basic marriage forms in Tibet. Economic reasons might be relevant, but beyond purely economic factors there is a whole set of social and cultural considerations, which should be taken into account when investigating the hidden facets of marriage principles in Tibet. To review fraternal polyandry from sociobiological and social perspectives may help create a more holistic anthropological picture of Tibetans and explore the impact, which different factors produce on their choice of the specific marriage form.

References

  • Goldstein, M.C. (1987). When brothers share a wife. Natural History, March, pp. 39-48.

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