There are many systems of partner choice, but all tend to produce a high degree of "assortative mating," that is a pattern in which individuals choose partners who are similar to themselves. This pattern also has been called homogamy and has been described as "like marries like." Assortative mating has been observed in a wide range of societies, though numerous exceptions have always been found.
Several theories have been advanced to explain the origins of assortative mating. The most common view starts from a rational actor/exchange perspective in which individuals search among potential partners and seek to maximize their gains from an alliance. Because each individual is likely to reject anyone with characteristics less desirable than his or her own, all are likely to wind up with individuals very much like themselves. An alternative view stresses the noneconomic aspects of status and sees the process as a search for a partner with the same culture and values. In both perspectives assortative mating links individuals who are similar on a number of ascribed (i.e., determined by birth) and achieved characteristics and thus perpetuates the prevailing system of social stratification.
The numerous exceptions to assortative mating also require explanation. Limitations imposed by the pool of possible partners are a potentially important factor. A second factor is that individuals typically have personal, emotional, and idiosyncratic partner preferences. Still, there is good reason to believe that many exceptions to homogamy reflect social structural factors.
Traditionally, women have sought men who can fulfill a breadwinner role, and in contemporary Western societies a man's steady job is still very important. Although women's employment outside the home is growing in importance in many societies, men traditionally have emphasized a woman's social characteristics: poise, charm, attractiveness, and other noneconomic attributes. As a result, mutually beneficial exchanges can occur between a man's economic characteristics (e.g., education, income, and occupation) and a woman's noneconomic characteristics (including age and race/ethnicity). A classic explanation along those lines is that most (two-thirds or more) black-white marriages in the United States involve black men and white women because they represent an exchange between a black man's greater economic resources and a white woman's superior social status.
Although the significance of exchanges in the overall context of partner choice remains a matter of dispute, exchanges involving a number of female noneconomic and male economic characteristics have been found in analyses of marriage data. Marriages that cross major social divisions also reflect the social distance between those groups. When dominant and subordinate groups are involved, such intermarriages are simultaneously a reflection of the acceptance of the subordinate group and a threat to that group's cohesion and distinctiveness.
One characteristic of Western and some non-Western societies since the mid-twentieth century is a trend toward a greater emphasis on achieved characteristics and a deemphasis of ascribed traits. For example, in the United States educational homogamy has grown in importance while religious homogamy has declined. The rise of cohabitation in many Western societies raises additional issues because if cohabitation is a distinct institutional form, patterns of partner choice could differ. There is some evidence that compared with marriages, cohabitations are more assortative in regard to achieved characteristics and less in regard to ascribed ones. Cohabitations are less permanent than marriages and thus are less likely to emphasize long-term, familistic considerations. However, since cohabitation is frequently a prelude to marriage, the increased frequency of co-habitation may accentuate the shift away from ascribed characteristics. Little is known about the nature of assortative mating in same-sex unions.
As societies change their institutional forms and beliefs, the criteria that guide mate selection are transformed. However, despite much individual variation, partner choice has always reflected the prevailing social structures and values.
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