Assistant Professor Michael Yarbrough Wins Law and Society Association Article Prize for Bridewealth Research

Assistant Professor Michael Yarbrough Wins Law and Society Association Article Prize for Bridewealth Research

Assistant Professor Michael Yarbrough Wins Law and Society Association Article Prize for Bridewealth Research

The dynamics of different relationships has always fascinated John Jay Assistant Professor Michael Yarbrough—which relationships are publicly valued, which ones are not, how people define families, the interplay of power within relationships, and how laws and societal norms affect relationships. And, it was this fascination that led to his recent Law and Society Association Article Prize.

Years ago, while studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, Yarbrough examined the country’s different marital laws, investigating how they impacted different sexual and racial identities. With a deeper understanding of South Africa’s rich history, he vowed to conduct his first big research project there. “When I did a J.D./Ph.D. at Yale, I was still very interested in researching marriage in South Africa,” said Yarbrough, explaining that this research later became the basis for his dissertation, the focal point for a book project, and the subject of his winning article titled “Very Long Engagements: The Persistent Authority of Bridewealth in a Post-Apartheid South African Community.” 

“I’m interested in how certain relationships become visible and others don’t.” —Michael Yarbrough

Finding A Focus
Yarbrough’s interest in relationships stems from two aspects of his own life. “I’m adopted. So, I think I have always been fascinated with how people come to see a group to be a family or not a family. What draws those boundaries, feelings, and emotions that come out of that?” he said. “Also on a personal level, my own views on marriage are actually quite critical as an institution. I see it historically as something to control women, and even now including same-sex marriage, I am still critical of it because it elevates certain forms of relationships over others. For example, best friends who care for each other and look after each other, that’s still invisible and we still have no sub-ceremonies to celebrate that. On a personal level, I’m interested in how certain relationships become visible and others don’t.”

Studying in South Africa
South Africa has recently expanded its marriage laws. In 2006, it was ordered that the country open their marriage laws to include same-sex couples. Yarbrough explained that the LGBTQ movement in South Africa was strongly connected to the movement that was opposing apartheid. “The most important factor that led to this openness in South Africa to LGBTQ rights was that a small group of anti-apartheid activists were also themselves lesbian, gay, or queer,” said Yarbrough. While the inclusion of same-sex couples shows a level of progression and inclusion, the country is still steeped in tradition.

“The most important factor that led to this openness in South Africa to LGBTQ rights was that a small group of anti-apartheid activists were also themselves lesbian, gay, or queer.” —Michael Yarbrough

During his research in a Zulu-speaking village, Yarbrough became interested in a custom called “lobola” because it’s the primary way that black South Africans marry, often followed by a church wedding. “Lobola, is the opposite of a dowry, it’s a bridewealth,” said Yabrough. “Bridewealth goes with the groom or his family, and is paid to the bride’s family. A dowry goes with the bride into the marital home. Southern Africa is a bridewealth culture rather than a dowry culture. The reason that I use the term lobola rather than bridewealth is because it encompasses even more than that. What lobola is overall, is a series of gifts that go between each family to the other.” Yarbrough went on to say that there is a long sequence of events and gifts that families undertake for lobola, all done in a certain order, for many years.

Looking at “Lobola” 
To start the whole process of lobola, the groom and an uncle or a close male friend, come to the bride’s family house. They sit down and offer gifts to the bride’s family, opening up a conversation of negotiation. Many meetings, gifts, and negotiations proceed, often involving many family members and large sums of money. Once the initial meetings have been performed to both families’ satisfaction, that’s when the ceremonies start. “It’s not like there is a ceremony with ‘I now pronounce you man and wife’ and you are married, like it is in the United States,” said Yarbrough. “Instead, you become more married overtime. It’s a gradual process. With this lobola process, you become more married at the ‘delivery’ of the bride. Then the first child makes you a little more married, and then the second child makes you a little more married. You are really married when the children have children.” 

“What is available to the women in these regions is the practices of lobola. They influence the process so that they can get what they need out of it.” —Michael Yarbrough

What fascinated Yarbrough during his research was that women want to keep traditional lobola in place. Marriage rates are going down in South Africa, with many people citing lobola as the cause—saying it’s too expensive. Yarbrough believes that women want to keep lobola because it gives them two things: behind the scenes negotiating power, by telling family members what to ask for; and the flexibility to leave the relationship because in lobola, the marriage happens gradually. “When a lobola process has gone on for many years—as they normally do—and a woman starts to believe that the man would not be a good husband, it’s common to just let it go. They break up with the guy, let the marriage drift away, and focus on their kids and stay in their families home,” said Yarbrough. “This is the core argument of my article, that women are consciously thinking this way and it fits with this anxiety. They know that they are going to have a very long engagement, during which they can see what kind of husband this guy is going to be. If it turns out to be someone that they don’t really want to be with, they are able to let it go. If it would have been a fully completed marriage, it would be much harder to do, and they would be trapped. What is available to the women in these regions is the practices of lobola. They influence the process so that they can get what they need out of it.”

“I would suggest that the Supreme Court Windsor decision in 2013 really came out of those same-sex commitment ceremonies that came before it. Those are the actions that ultimately produced a change in constitutional law.” —Michael Yarbrough

Connecting the Experiences
Yarbrough believes that the lobola customs he researched in South Africa can help inform some of the relationship experiences we have here in the United States. “We say that same-sex marriage arrived in the States in 2013, which is when the Windsor decision happened, and there was a ruling by the Supreme Court that the Constitution required this to be made available in law nationwide,” said Yarbrough. “What I would argue is that same-sex marriage started to arrive decades earlier, when gay and lesbian people in the U.S. would go to their churches and say that they wanted to honor their union. They started to have commitment ceremonies, as they were called back in the day. It’s a way of using a culture practice that is familiar to people locally and using it in connection with a relationship that they have formerly been excluded from. I would suggest that the Supreme Court Windsor decision in 2013 really came out of those same-sex commitment ceremonies that preceded it. Those are the actions that ultimately produced a change in constitutional law. It had deeply powerful effects. I think when you are talking about gender and sexuality, this is often the case.” Like the women in South Africa, using lobola to empower themselves in marriage negotiations, the LGBTQ community, decades before it was legally recognized, reclaimed their power with commitment ceremonies on their own terms. “Actions taken in the home have a larger effect than simply on the individual. They inform particular strategies that change context, become the norm, then become law, and finally produce change.”    

“Actions taken in the home have a larger effect than simply on the individual. They inform particular strategies that change context, become the norm, then become law, and finally produce change.” —Michael Yarbrough

Analyzing Relationships in America
The Law and Society professor’s fascination and examination of relationships has led him to look at relationships on a broader political level, particularly when considering current events. “I’ve become increasingly more concerned with how we come to see who is with us and who is not part of us. Because it seems to me that when we see someone as part of our community, we are fine with them getting resources and help. When we see them as not part of our community, we resent the resources that they get. I’m worried about this. I’m worried about the breaking down of being able to see other humans as part of our communities,” said Yarborough. “I wonder about the role law plays in that. If you think about things such as citizenship—Dreamers for example, we have a lot of Dreamers here at John Jay—Law and Society research shows that when some of these early laws were changed, to allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition, the most important effects were not just the material effects of ‘I can pay a lower amount and so it’s easier for me to go to school.’ It transformed the way they thought about themselves and their relationship to society.” He noted that the law changed what the Dreamers thought to ask for, and what others were willing to give to them. “A shift of the law can change the way people see themselves as related to each other. That is really interesting to me.”

“A shift of the law can change the way people see themselves as related to each other.” —Michael Yarbrough

Thinking About John Jay
As a professor who focuses on Law and Society, Yarbrough sees both tremendous strength and determination in John Jay students. “I’m very hopeful for the long-term success of our country for this reason. I work with our students every day. I know we’re in good hands. Actually, we are in amazing hands. The students at John Jay are so smart, so grounded, so hopeful, and they’re here for the right reasons,” said Yarbrough. Thinking of John Jay’s diverse student body, Yarbrough was intrigued at a recent academic conference, where his colleagues at private liberal arts colleges voiced concerns about a decline in enrollment. “They were very worried that their schools might collapse and no one will go to them anymore because the demographic shift is happening, and their traditional student body is declining,” said Yarrough. “At John Jay, that demographic shift encompasses our student body. We are poised to ride that wave. And, that is what I see my work here as doing, figuring out how to build the model of teaching, university research, and pedagogy, that actually harnesses this wave.” 

Listen to the full interview with John Jay Assistant Professor Michael Yarbrough