Student examines Indian marriage market

By Alison Sider

After witnessing a number of arranged marriages among her circle of well educated, upper–middle-class Indian friends, fifth-year graduate student in economics and Mumbai, India, native Divya Mathur became interested in India’s arranged marriage market. The topic eventually inspired her doctoral dissertation, which was profiled last month in The Atlantic Monthly, the widely read economics blog Marginal Revolution, and the Indian newspaper the Hindustan Times.

Mathur culled survey results from over 6,000 Indian parents and unmarried adults from Mumbai who were polled on their views toward marriage. The paper found that men who enter marriages arranged by their parents are 11-percent less likely to marry college-educated women and 20-percent less likely to marry women in the workforce than men who choose their own spouses. The study also found that parents with stronger financial ties to their sons are more likely to favor an arranged marriage and tend to play greater roles in choosing their sons’ spouses.

Mathur said that she intentionally selected survey participants from Mumbai, a demographic group at the cusp of a slow but definite trend toward “love marriages,” marriages in which individuals select their own partners. In this regard, the Mumbai population is a rich source of information about when and why arranged marriages are preferred.

For Mathur, the study yielded surprising results. She said that the results were startling among what she called India’s “modern, educated, Westernized demographic,” and that they reflected broader Indian socioeconomic trends.

Mathur attributes much of the parental preference toward arranged marriage to the tendency in India for parents to live with their adult progeny. While the men surveyed placed greater value on finding a spouse compatible with both their interests and education level, their parents generally expressed more interest in the marriage’s economic yields.

“Parents prefer a daughter-in-law with inferior human capital attributes because this allows them to extract a larger share of household resources, even if the size of the ‘pie’ is smaller than it would be,” Mathur wrote in the paper.

Since very little data on the subject existed, Mathur was forced to construct her own data sets. She worked with a market-research firm in Mumbai to conduct and administer the survey. She said that she was initially hesitant about her methodologies, citing the fact that in India, where surveys are still novel, her chosen questionnaire style could have backfired. However, Mathur found that survey participants were generally eager to speak with her about their views on marriage. Mathur’s survey had a 90-percent participation rate.

Over the course of three one-month trips to India within a 10-month period, Mathur accompanied the market-research team in the field, often conducting surveys herself. Perhaps inspired by the subject matter, one survey participant attempted to arrange a match between her and his son, who is studying chemistry in Ohio, she said.

“He was convinced we would make a great match, and he wanted my contact information,” Mathur said.

Mathur said that the study’s findings have many potential policy implications for women’s education.

“Women face a penalty for investing in themselves. The government cares about women’s education but hasn’t taken into account mechanisms that shift things away from arranged marriages,” she said.

Though she is reluctant to make sweeping policy recommendations, Mathur said that improved retirement benefits and a strengthened social security infrastructure may reduce parents’ dependency on their children as they age.

Mathur said that her study garnered a wide international readership unusual for a graduate paper intended for an academic audience. Mathur’s advisor, economics professor Ali Hortacsu, said that Mathur’s topic is appealing because of its perennial focus.

“Conflict between children and parents over spouse selection is universal. I think Divya’s study is one of the first empirical studies to systematically analyze some of the economic incentives underlying this conflict,” he said.