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Photo: iStock

Opinion | What economic studies say about our marriage market

A matchmaking show on Netflix seems to skim over the market deficiencies that scholars have studied in depth

Social media and the internet is awash with the world’s latest fascination with India: How marriages are made by matchmakers. Thanks largely to Netflix’s latest special, Indian Matchmaking, the spotlight and discussion is on how matches might be made in heaven elsewhere, but in India, it’s down to the matchmaker. The show documents various individuals who Sima Taparia, a matchmaker based in Mumbai, attempts to match with future partners on the basis of parameters set by them. Typically, a person who approaches the matchmaker submits a document (biodata) on his or her personal characteristics and also preferences of desirable qualities in a future partner. Taparia returns to her database and goes by these parameters to match them with one or several biodata submitted by others. The criteria vary by gender, age, country of location (there is a particular emphasis on non-resident Indians, or NRIs, in the show), and by parental influences, among many other independent variables.

Research in economics and other social sciences provides a useful abstraction of how to think about such situations. In typical economist style, this is described as a “market" for marriages—where eligible men and women search for their “ideal" partner. The theory that researchers appeal to here is that of matching, the same idea that was pioneered by 2012 Nobel Prize winner Alvin E. Roth to describe how organ donations can be facilitated efficiently in health care systems. The catch is, much like Indian Matchmaking depicts, marriages in India are often between families and not individuals. Thus, parents often have almost as much say (if not more) in the choice of partner for their children as the lovesick children themselves. A matchmaker in such cases must not only mediate the process and match candidates on the basis of the preferences of adult children, but also of their parents.

Research by Fali Huang and her co-authors in American Economic Review among Chinese households (another culture where arranged marriages are common) suggests that parental steering of matchmaking can overrule children’s choices for a very important reason: money. Indeed, something that the Netflix show fails to overtly acknowledge is that marriages between families in India can also be motivated by monetary or business concerns, and may have very little to do with companionship. In India, social stratification in the form of caste groupings (occupation based-signalling to ensure similar social status between households) also assumes centre stage. As shown by the work of World Bank economist Girija Borker, Cambridge economist Kaivan Munshi and their colleagues, concerns of caste tend to drive matching in Indian marriage markets, and could ultimately cause child sex selection among families as well. There is similar work by the Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee and his colleagues, too.

The term “assortative positive matching" used by economists best characterizes the matching seen in marriage markets. Put simply, this means that individuals (and families) seeking partners in the marriage market want to “marry up", or at least into their own group—that is, into a family of higher or equal wealth, caste, or educational qualification. Typically, due to patrilocal norms of a woman moving into the house of her husband’s family, the bride is already in a position of disadvantage. This is in stark contrast to what Indian Matchmaking and Taparia propose, as her clients try to marry at par with their own qualifications or criteria, or have criteria that may be difficult to fit into traditional models.

Existing inefficiencies identified by researchers in the marriage market have been put forth as an explanation for skewed sex ratios (via gender selection), lower parental investment in the education of a girl child, and historically low female labour market participation in India. These are all linked closely to economic growth and development, as economists Andrew Foster and Mark Roszenweig pointed out in a 1999 paper.

In recent years, there has been a change in this overall trend that favoured men disproportionately in the Indian marriage market, but this is determined largely by region-specific cultural beliefs and social norms. In the Netflix show, for example, we see Akshay voice explicit concerns about his future partner being able to help his mother at home, rather than work anywhere.

Despite all the evidence that suggests matchmaking is more than just a matching of preferences, with deep underlying roots in India’s caste system, Indian Matchmaking chooses to focus on a specific set of modern Indian families (either staying in India or abroad). The themes covered do include the case of divorced individuals re-entering the marriage market, but the show stays away from tackling the issues of caste and wealth head on, both of which are linked closely to economic status in India.

There also exist ways to encourage women to participate in the country’s labour market, thereby delaying their marriage and raising their prospects of a better life. Various state governments (like that of Haryana, where the sex ratio is particularly skewed in favour of males) have been promoting schemes such as Apni Beti, Apna Dhan. These programmes, aimed at providing women with opportunities for investment in their own skills and well-being, could enable them to turn the tables on men in the Indian marriage market. Until then, we’ll wait for the return of Sima Taparia in future seasons of Indian Matchmaking.

Anirudh Tagat is research author at the department of economics, Monk Prayogshala

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