Tattoos and T-Shirts applied to Marriage

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright December 2015


Tattoos and T-Shirts is my description of how a new technology displaces an older technology. (full essay here) Surprisingly, this concept can be applied to people getting married. That is what this essay is about.

Commodity uses and surprise uses

In Agricultural and early Industrial Age cultures there are two commodity functions for marriage:

o To provide a young mother with child-bearing and child-raising assistance

o To show a tangible bond of alliance between two family groups


The former is what a husband and in-laws are doing in a marriage. (the young mother's family can do this with or without a marriage) The latter is about creating in-laws who will cooperate over a wide range of activities that include business and politics. This latter is why arranged marriages are so common and important in many societies.

(One of the surprise uses of this early style of marriage was supporting the invention of writing. Writing allowed marriage contracts to be remembered more efficiently.)

These two have been the pillars of marriage. These are its commodity uses. But advanced Industrial Age lifestyles change many things, and one of those is the function of marriage.

What is changing

Both pillars of marriage as described above are being displaced.

As the Industrial Age makes a society more prosperous, and part of that prosperity is used to provide basic necessities to all members of the community, including young mothers, the first commodity use of marriage is being displaced. A young mother can get support from community organizations and her own employment instead of a husband.

As the Industrial Age increases the ways of cooperating the importance of inter-family/in-law cooperation, the second pillar, gets diluted. If you can get jobs, education, entertainment, influence and many other things without strong family connections, the importance of the family connection declines.

Looking at this change through the Tattoos and T-Shirts perspective, marriage is an older technology that is being displaced by new technologies. When that happens, what happens to this older technology?

Surviving and thriving on personal expression

Those technologies that survive and thrive even when they have been displaced in their commodity uses are those which have lots of personal expression in their use. These not only thrive, they get even better and fancier in their use as the commodity part of their use becomes less important to their use. This is what has happened to tattoos as an example. Another is the use of acoustical music instruments. Marriage is undergoing this same transformation.

In the case of marriage, one change is that the wedding ritual part of marriage is getting more elaborate. If you don't have to get married, but you choose to do so anyway... yeah! make that wedding as memorable as you can. And, for that matter, have a wedding even though you don't have a partner to have it with -- these are starting to happen in places such as Japan. These are changes based on the personal expression part of marriage.

Another change is that if the marriage isn't going well... end it. And if you feel like it, try again with a new partner. Divorce is weeding out marriages that don't have warm feelings in the personal expression dimension.

Update: This 16 Apr 16 Economist article, Why put a ring on it? Single women are reshaping America from marriage to politics to the economy, talks about how marriage in changing, and is, in effect, describing Tattoos and T-Shirts happening to the institution. It is explaining why getting married is becoming more a matter of personal expression and less about being a commodity activity.


As the commodity uses of marriage become less important the personal expression aspects become more important. Like music and tattoos, there is a lot of personal expression going on in a contemporary marriage, so the institution is transforming, not disappearing.

As it transforms it will become more beautiful because the beauty side will no longer be held back by the commodity use side.

This is Tattoos and T-Shirts explaining what is happening to marriage.


--The End--