Emily Garbutt and Julia Carter
Our research project aimed to ask: can weddings help us understand the nature of agency in people’s lives? With a sizeable minority now choosing to “live apart together” or cohabit, marriage is no longer a legal or social necessity, yet many people still choose to marry and have a wedding; the questions remain why marriage is still so popular and why weddings have taken on the cultural significance they have. This research was specifically concerned with the form and process of the wedding and understanding better how these are imagined and lived by individuals. By asking why people choose to have weddings and how they experience these, we uncovered some of the central elements involved, including the roles of agency, tradition and imagination.
This research used in-depth methods with a small sample of men and women to investigate the complexity of ideas surrounding weddings, including the relationship between agency and conformity to social scripts of behaviour. Our participants were selected on the premise that they were planning or have recently had their own wedding in order to be able to draw on their own wedding experiences rather than relying on generalised discourses on the subject. We limited our sample to the previously unmarried in the age group 18-30, those to whom the marketing of weddings is most commonly directed. Although our sample is small and purposive and does not reflect the diversity of those undergoing weddings, it did allow us to conduct a thematic analysis (using NVivo) to uncover and address the current issues surrounding the perceptions and experiences of the wedding event for some people.
In existing literature, the wedding event has been presented as a project of self, in which a couple are able to construct their self and social identity in terms of the acceptable norms and values of western society: marriage = success. Furthermore, the wedding event provides the opportunity for the couple to become involved in the ultimate material binge, in which they are able to buy into forms of habitus and visually display the social status they wish to be. Individuals are able to carefully orchestrate and construct the rituals and structure of the wedding event to reflect their ideals, values and ability to participate in market expectations.
The wedding assists the couple into their new roles as man and wife, defining their identities and enforcing heteronormative standards (Kimport, 2012). When discussing wedding planning work, it is apparent there is a significantly gendered division of labour which reinforces the social, cultural, political and historical emphasis on the bridal spectacle as central to the wedding event. This is evident in the discourse of both male and female participants emphasising the wedding dress as a sacred ritual artefact to the wedding.
Although there is a significant amount of attention paid to the rituals and materiality of the wedding, we found there was a distinct inability to articulate the importance of the wedding to our participants in terms of personal meaning and significance. In a society that highly values the wedding event, we can question why there is a deficiency of appropriate discourse which enables individuals to recognise, understand and verbalise the reasons why they decide to get married and conform to the social scripts of wedding behaviour. Although the wedding exists as a cultural performance, to display and express the romantic commitment of two people (Boden, 2003), there was a significant absence of ‘love’ and emotion in our interviews. Our participants’ discussion about their weddings and relationships were defined by a pragmatic approach to talking, no emotional detail and a general sense of awkwardness when asked about personal questions regarding their relationships. Participants often turned to clichés surrounding “commitment” and “the next step” in order to articulate their experience (Carter, 2012). It is also significant for participants, as evident within the interview discourse, that the wedding is a social performance for friends and family to enjoy the “transformed” couple.
Therefore what we find is actually, in an event which is presented as an expression of individualism, there are structural constraints to the individual decisions surrounding planning a wedding. Our participants ‘choices’ are in fact guided by a series of formal constraints, social norms and traditions. This can be understood further through the concept of bricolage (Duncan, 2011). As our research found, people need existing reference points in order to reduce the risk of having to cognitively calculate and socially negotiate the choices which deviate from the norm. The concept is demonstrative of the social pressures exerted on actors involved. We found the marital ceremony is impinged with specific rituals that individuals must conform to due to societal expectations. The ritual components described in the initial question are “necessary for publically conveying the meaning of marriage and commitment” (Carter, 2010). Through this, relationality becomes a significant aspect of the marital bricolage (Duncan, 2011) and in articulating the reasons to have a wedding. The imperative to marry is discussed in terms of traditions, norms and expectations that are still important to the social fabric of society.
Therefore although it is considered we are living in a fluid, individualised society, our findings suggest that as social beings, relationality is still central to people’s lives. The emphasis placed on couples in the wedding event is misplaced. The pressure for weddings and marriage is about constraining factors, not about choice. We found that choice is minimized in accounts of weddings, structural forces encouraging people to have weddings are damaging. In a country where we believe we are free to act, there are social and structural forces at work which subconsciously dictate the choices we are to make in our lives.
This research was undertaken by Dr Julia Carter, senior lecturer in Sociology, and Emily Garbutt, first class graduating student in English Literature and Sociology and Social Science.
Boden, S. (2003), Consumerism, Romance and the Wedding Experience, (Palgrave),
Carter, J. (2010) Why Marry? Young women talk about relationships, marriage and love. PhD thesis, University of York, <http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/1113/>
Carter, J. (2012) What is commitment? Women’s accounts of intimate attachment. Families, Relationships and Societies, 1 (2). pp. 137-153. ISSN 2046-7435.
Duncan, S. 2011), ‘Personal Life, Pragmatism and Bricolage’, Sociological Research Online, 16 (4) 13 <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/16/4/13.html> <
Kimport, K. (2012), ‘Remaking the white wedding: Same-Sex Wedding Photographs’ Challenge to Symbolic Heteronormativity’, Gender & Society August 8, 20120891243212449902.