German Microdata Lab

The study was carried out using data from the 1970 census and 1993 microcensus, so that the situation in the former GDR, scarcely studied to date, can be integrated in the analysis. In the context of the research question on the permeability of social capital, the question of the central development tendencies for education-specific marital relationships forms an initial focus of the study. The change of education-specific marital relationships is one dimension that may be used to test the tendencies of society to become more open, as assumed by the individualization thesis. However, the core of the discourse on destructurization is concentrated on the assumed diminishing influence of class membership on individual action orientations as a result of advanced modernization and individualization. If advocates of the individualization thesis are followed, then in contemporary society the idea of class is hardly realistic, and social awareness of classes in the sense of their delineation through “networks of contact, mutual assistance, and marriage” is no longer valid.

The central outcome of the various education-specific analyses underlines that the existing results, in particular for West Germany, clearly contradict the theory of social rapprochement (destructurization thesis) between members of different education groups. The analysis of the relative proportions of homogamy as an indicator for processes of societal opening or closing shows that the tendency to marry partners with the same formal educational qualification represents the dominant pattern for marital relations and that this hardly changes across cohorts. The highest degree of closure can be identified for the most privileged educational group, that is academics, as well as for the least privileged educational group, namely school-leavers of the German Hauptschule without any vocational training. Accordingly, at the upper and lower end of the education scale, an accumulation of respectively high or low socio-cultural and economic resources can be observed for men and women.

Overall, the results tend to point to a currently more intensive polarization of education-specific marital relationships in West Germany. The expansion in education is not accompanied by an opening of education-specific marital circles. Rather, the tendency is for increased social distance between the upper and lower educational groups. In the wake of the generally higher level of qualification, no ‘merging’ of middle and upper educational groups arose, that is, no opening of social marriage circles can be observed. Measured in terms of educational-specific marriage circles, West German society is therefore also presently to be regarded as a ‘closed society’. For East Germany, the key point is that the general structuring of marital relationships resembles the basic features of the West German pattern. For East German cohorts, the tendency to educationally homogamous partner choice is the predominant characteristic, followed by the tendency for both partners to exhibit the same general educational qualification.

The second key focus of the study is the analysis of class-specific marital relationships. Here, it can be noted that class-specific marital relationships essentially reveal a similar pattern of permeability of social class boundaries as intergenerational mobility processes. On the one hand, a characteristic of this is the strong concentration of marital relationships among partners belonging to the same social class. As with studies for intergenerational mobility, this materializes most notably for members of the service classes and traditional working classes. At the same time, the structure of marital relationships among members of different classes reveals a similar pattern to the mobility processes. On the one hand, this trend is distinguished by the fact that there are obviously substantial barriers to the chances of members of the working classes marrying into the service classes. On the other hand, marital relationships are distinguished by the formation of blocks: members of the ‘white-collar’ block mainly intermarry just as much as members of the ‘blue-collar’ block. Contrary to the widespread assumption that, albeit not on a large scale, overcoming this traditional ‘white-collar or blue-collar distinction’ is at least to be expected in terms of marital relationships between skilled workers and women in white-collar positions, when controlling for class distribution among men and women no increased positive affinity is evident among either of these groups. Even when controlling for the correlation between educational level and class position, a clear class dimension can be observed for marital relationships. This is particularly expressed in the continued clear separation of marriage circles into a manual and non-manual block.

The modernization processes which took place between the 1970s and 1990s did not lead to a fundamentally different composition of class-specific marital relationships. No convergence of marriage circles can be observed between working class and white-collar employees, that is, a diffuse middle-class did not emerge. Even if a certain amount of overlap in terms of material wealth doubtlessly occurred among workers and white-collar employees and the options for individual action have increased, according to the available results, this made very little difference overall to these groups' social contacts. During recent decades, therefore, social development had virtually no influence on class-specific partner choice.

How is it possible to explain these findings for marital relationships which – even today – are heavily influenced by education and class membership when compared with results of other studies which show, using advertisements for marriage partners, that characteristics of social position are significantly less relevant in the search for a partner? In modern partnerships, which are established on the basis of common interests, mutual understanding, and emotional security, the reference to the individual’s ‘social standing’ appears “increasingly [to] become illegitimate in the process of searching for a true love partner”. Instead, nowadays the search for a partner seems oriented above all towards criteria of lifestyle, external appearance, and leisure activities. The simplest explanation for this seemingly paradoxical finding is that the formation of a different life conduct and different lifestyles is also closely related to economic resources. Thus, other studies demonstrate a clear correlation between the practiced lifestyle and socio-economic position. In this context, therefore, explicit references to an individual’s social position are superfluous, since these are already implied in the description of the individual’s interests. Another point to consider is that the choice of newspaper in which the advertisement was placed already represents an initial social selection of the potential partner. Finally, it should be considered that using the small ads as a way to search for a partner ultimately means that no acceptable partner was found from within their own social circle, and thus in certain conditions the willingness to accept partners with different social positions may be greater, providing that other peripheral factors (e.g. similar leisure interests) are guaranteed.

Wirth, H., 2000: Bildung, Klassenlage und Partnerwahl: Eine empirische Analyse zum Wandel der bildungs- und klassenspezifischen Heiratsmuster. Opladen: Leske + Budrich.