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Exchanging Social Change for Social Class: Traditional Marriage Proposals as Status and Scrip

The Challenge of Progress

ISBN: 978-1-78714-572-6, eISBN: 978-1-78714-571-9

Publication date: 26 November 2019


This chapter studies the social reproduction of the traditional heterosexual engagement ritual in which men propose marriage to women, even as many women now occupy positions of power, surpass men in educational attainment, and provide their own incomes. We draw from 37 semi-structured interviews with middle-class, heterosexual women in which they discussed their marriage proposals. We argue that three related types of socioeconomic incentives encourage women to participate in traditional proposals: (1) the social status of being chosen to marry, (2) the value of gifts, especially an engagement ring, which also reflects the fiancé’s implied taste, and (3) the proposal story itself as scrip for inclusion in heterosexual women’s social groups. By considering social factors that mediate relationships among women, we show that economic and status incentives are important explanations for the perpetuation of the traditional engagement ritual. Specifically, the middle-class, heterosexual women in our study exchange socioeconomic status in their female-centered reference groups for their participation in gender-normative relations with their male partners.




We would like to thank Harry Dahms, Steven P. Dandaneau, Leah Schmalzbauer, Donica Belisle, Katherine Rye Jewell, Jared Del Rosso, and Ruth Thibodeau for feedback on drafts of this chapter. We appreciate Fitchburg State University for awarding a Special Projects Grant for data analysis.


Arend, P. and Comeau, K. (2019), "Exchanging Social Change for Social Class: Traditional Marriage Proposals as Status and Scrip", The Challenge of Progress (Current Perspectives in Social Theory, Vol. 36), Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 179-198.



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