Dowry, India, Social Institution, Path dependence


Originally conceived as a voluntary marriage gift, dowry has developed into an obligatory payment by the bride’s family to the groom’s family. Moreover, the institution of dowry has persisted even in the face of legal prohibition. Though women substantially contribute to the economic wellbeing of a family, the legitimization of dowry typically reflects the cultural bias of the marriage market, in which a woman’s value is either discounted or taken for granted. Ironically, existing studies also tend to implicitly accept this prevailing cultural bias of the marriage market. The existing literature can be categorized into two groups. While some studies highlight the origin of dowry practice, many others provide post-hoc explanations for the contemporary practice of dowry. Although these studies provide partial explanations to the existing phenomena of dowry inflation, they mostly neglect the woman’s value when explaining the "value" based phenomena of dowry in the marriage market. Moreover, we know little about the mechanism that led dowry to evolve and persist over time as a social institution. This study modifies the marriage market argument and integrates the structural aspects of actors' beliefs and cultural context. It argues that actors’ beliefs tied with cultural context creates a self-reinforcing path-dependent mechanism, which contributes to the change and persistence of dowry practice.