Polygyny and the Happy Ever After?

Student thesis: Master thesis (including HD thesis)

  • Mette Gøransson
Polygyny and the happy ever after? is a cultural anthropological thesis about polygynous practices in the Northern Region of Ghana, which is the poorest and least developed region in the country.
The purpose of this master thesis is to provide a thorough analysis of polygyny on an everyday basis in an urban setting in order to understand the reasoning behind the practice. 42% of women in the Northern Region are married into polygynous unions, compared to 8% in the richer south, near the capital. Although statistics from across sub-Saharan Africa have shown a constant decline in polygynous marriages over the past five decades, polygyny still occurs in high numbers in northern Ghana.

This thesis is an explorative study that aims to investigate the culture around polygyny in a narrow context. By applying an inductive model of reasoning, theories were derived based on the findings of the interviews. The experiences, which the interviewees have, are not isolated incidents, nor can they provide the full picture of how polygyny is practiced even in this narrow context. However, by investigating them through relativism, we can generalize them and offer a more varied picture of the practice.

The empirical data has been collected during a two months field study in Tamale, the capital of the Northern Region. Prior to the actual interviews, two explorative interviews were conducted with two people, who had experienced polygyny first hand. Then interviews were conducted with four different families (11 family members in total), each representing different age groups, educational levels, and number of wives. All interviews were conducted using semi-structured interviews and carried out using the method of sustained judgment.

Most work carried out on this subject is large-scale quantitative studies from across the sub-Saharan Africa, and only a few focusing solely on Ghana. An extended amount of this work has been discussed in the thesis, so as to gain a preunderstanding of the subject. However, the previous studies have not been able to encompass what was found to be relevant aspects to polygyny when investigating the practice on an everyday basis. This new contribution to previous studies on polygyny encompasses an investigation on the impacts of gender roles, gender relations, power and male-domination, and various forms of capital, as well as the influence religion and tradition have on the practice.

The theoretical framework reflects the complex character of polygyny and the system of mutually interrelated conditions related to it. Judith Gerson and Kathy Peiss’ theory has been utilized to conceptualize the different roles of men and women in the household, and to examine the relations among gender that keeps women in a subordinate position to men. Michel Foucault’s theory of power and power relations to investigate what power is put into action in a polygynous unions. Lastly, Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of capital is used to investigate what influence economic, cultural, and particularly social capital have on polygyny. The aspect of capital is further elaborated using James Coleman, who focuses on the functioning of human and social capital.

The first part of the analysis provides a thorough conceptualization of gender roles and how these are socially constructed in this particular context in northern Ghana based on the narratives of the interviewees. It was found that men are breadwinners, while female values are to perform domestic work, be a good and respectful wife towards her husband, motherhood, and an additional gender role, that takes the woman out of the kitchen and into the labor market. The second part investigates gender relations in polygynous unions, and the power and dominance relationships that are in evidence. Lastly, the analysis offers an investigation of the various types of capital that the interviewees perceive as being important for their reasoning behind engaging in polygyny.

The thesis found that gender roles are indoctrinated from early childhood and are highly valued and adhered to in northern Ghana. It is concluded that a recent development of the respectively gender roles of men and women, specifically that women are now also expected to be financial contributors, maintains the high level of polygynous unions in this specific context. Gender relations and male-dominance are found to be causing the more problematic aspects to polygyny, meaning how polygyny is practiced but not the practice itself. This is because males tend to find the practice pleasurable, and use religion and tradition as arguments for personal gain. Lastly, it was found that women’s reason for being polygynous is directly influenced by economic capital, as they put emphasis on the man’s ability to provide for the household when entering a marriage. Men, on the other hand, found cultural and social capital as preferred reasons.
Publication date29 Jan 2016
Number of pages79
ID: 229618018