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Arranged Marriages in Contemporary Times: What's Love (or Chance) Got to Do with It?

Armen Hareyan's picture

The Arranged Marriage

Although difficult to comprehend for many Westerners, the arranged marriage is the dominant form of matrimony in other parts of the world among rich and poor, cosmopolitan and provincial including subcontinent India, Africa, the Middle East and parts of East Asia.

Casting an economist's eye toward arranged marriages, Amit Batabyal, who holds the endowed Arthur J. Gosnell professorship at Rochester Institute of Technology, looks at the role of chance and uncertainty in his new collection of essays, Stochastic Models of Decision Making in Arranged Marriages (2006, University Press of America Inc.). This is largely an unstudied area in economics thus far.

Some aspects of arranged marriages and Western-style dating services are not so dissimilar, Batabyal notes. "When you sign up with a dating service you fill out a form listing your likes and dislikes. That's arranging! That's indicating your preferences to someone who, although unconnected with you in any direct sense, will play a significant role in matching your preferences with someone else's stated preferences."

"Marriages in a Western context are essentially a search problem," he adds. "But in arranged marriages, the decision often involves solving a so-called 'optimal stopping problem.' In other words, from the perspective of someone wishing to get married, the question is not when and how to search but which marriage proposal to say 'yes' to and to stop when the marriage proposals are of uncertain quality."

The search for a partner in the modern arranged marriage is conducted by parents, family members or matchmaking intermediaries who weed through available candidates, reducing the uncertainty associated with finding suitable prospects.

Potential couples meet on a few occasions that can be, depending on the specific circumstances, more like job interviews than dates. They talk openly about their preferences, expectations, and determine whether marriage might work for them.

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"Had I been a smoker that would have killed the deal right away," Batabyal says about meeting his wife in India for the first time. Theirs was a quasi-arranged marriage. "The two of us didn't know each other, but our fathers were old college friends."

Some of the topics Batabyal explores in his collected essays on arranged marriage include:

  • Seeking a spouse under time and age constraints (e.g., the likelihood of getting married by a certain year or by a specific age)

  • The likelihood of finding the right partner

  • The likelihood of success

  • Arranged vs. love marriages

  • A game model of dowry determination

Batabyal emphasizes love marriages are not unheard of in non-Western countries and notes an increasing trend in that direction, usually depending on exposure to Western culture, higher levels of education and, often, family precedent.