The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Engagement Rituals Still Cherished

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Tradition may seem to exert few holds on American young people. Yet a study by sociologists at Iowa State University and the University of Alaska suggests that a staple of patriarchy, natural sex roles, and family custom—the engagement proposal—faces no risk of being deconstructed or redefined. In fact, the more that an engagement proposal conforms to a traditional script, the more that young people consider the relationship and subsequent engagement as serious and strong.

Improving upon his earlier study that was limited to 20 engaged couples (see “The Man Still Proposes,” New Research, October 2004), David Schweingruber teamed up with two colleagues to survey nearly 2,200 students at a large Midwestern university in 2002 and 2003. Rather than asking fiancés about their own engagement proposal, the researchers this time asked students to evaluate the strength of a hypothetical engagement proposal using seven components: the man was the proposer; the man got down on one knee; the man presented the woman with a diamond ring; the man gave the woman an especially large diamond ring; the couple picked out the ring together; the man asked permission from the woman’s father; and the proposal took place during a special occasion (not just a routine date). In six of the seven categories, the students were significantly more likely to perceive the relationship as stronger if the proposal followed the conventional understanding (p<.0125 for all six elements). Only the size of the diamond ring made no difference in student ratings of engagement rituals.

The researchers thought that tradition in judging engagement proposals would have a greater influence on male students, younger students, and more religious students. But their statistical models yielded no differences between the way men and women, or the way younger and older students, rated all seven engagement rituals. Moreover, the study found that students who were more religious were only moderately influenced by tradition, as religiosity influenced only ratings of three of the seven elements: the man proposed to the woman; the man asked for permission from the woman’s father; the couple picked out the ring (p<.05 for all three elements). Schweingruber makes the point that religious students were more likely to favor two engagement rituals “where the man takes the lead,” seeing a connection between religion and acceptance of traditional sex roles.

While his findings do not mean that traditional ideals are making a comeback on campus, they do suggest that the promise of marriage still resonates with American college students.

(David Schweingruber et al., “‘A Story and a Ring:’ Audience Judgments about Engagement Proposals,” Sex Roles 58 [2008]: 165–78.)