This is the author's Post-print version (final draft post-refereeing as accepted for
publication by the journal). The definitive, peer-reviewed and edited version of this
article is published as: Niedomysl T., Östh J. and van Ham M. (2010) The Globalisation
of Marriage Fields: The Swedish Case. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 36(7),
The Globalisation of Marriage Fields:
The Swedish Case
Thomas Niedomysl, John Östh, Maarten van Ham
Thomas Niedomysl is Research Fellow at the Institute for Futures Studies, Stockholm. John
Östh is Research Fellow in the Dept of Social and Economic Geography, Uppsala University.
Maarten van Ham is Lecturer in Geography at the University of St Andrews. Correspondence
to Dr T. Niedomysl, Institute for Futures Studies, PO Box 591, 101 31 Stockholm, Sweden.
Abstract: Marriage fields – the geographical areas where people meet to partner –
traditionally tend to be relatively small and local. Increasing international travel and the use of
internet have broadened the geographical opportunity structure of potential partners. This
increases the risk of meeting a partner from abroad, possibly resulting in an increase of
international marriage migration. This paper uses unique longitudinal population data for the
whole of Sweden to explore the globalisation of Swedish marriage fields. The results show an
increase of marriage migrants in Sweden between 1990 and 2004, although absolute numbers
remain relatively low. The paper yields two new insights not previously recorded in the
literature. The first is that we found a substantial proportion of all marriage migrants in
Sweden to be males while most existing literature on marriage migration focuses almost
exclusively on females. The second is that the pattern of geographical origins of marriage
migrants is highly gendered with male and female marriage migrants in Sweden originating
from different regions in the world. The results suggest that different mechanisms underlie
male and female marriage migration.
Key words: Marriage, Migration, Globalisation, Sweden
Marriage fields – the geographical area where people meet to partner – traditionally tend to be
relatively small and local (see for a literature review Houston et al., 2005). Bossard (1932),
for example, shows that one third of all couples who got married in a metropolitan region in
the U.S. lived within five or less blocks from each other. Similarly, Coleman and Haskey
(1986) found that most people who form a couple in the UK initially live reasonably close to
each other. In order to find a partner, people need to be able to meet and interact (arranged
marriages are an exception). Proximity makes frequency of interaction easier and therefore
increases the chances of contact that lead to long term relationships (e.g., Bossard, 1932;
Kennedy, 1943; Clark, 1952; Coleman & Haskey, 1986; Lieberson & Waters, 1988; Kalmijn
& Flap, 2001). The fact that people spend most of their time in small and functional units, like
their school, neighbourhood, and workplace (Kalmijn, 1998) and have limited spatial activity
spaces (Hägerstrand, 1970) produces the generality that individuals often marry the boy or
‘girl next door’ (Houston et al., 2005). There is, however, evidence that the range of
contexts where people meet is growing and that the local context (the neighbourhood) is
loosing importance as a marriage field (Bozon & Heran, 1989; Kalmijn & Flap, 2001).
On a national scale, people are increasingly mobile for purposes of work and leisure and
modern technology allows us to interact in real time with people in different locations (mobile
phones, internet). If you meet a potential partner outside your own local area, communication
technology allows us to build up a relationship without regular physical contact. Singles are
increasingly making use of partnering websites – covering whole nations – which bring them
into contact with potential partners they would otherwise not ‘meet’ locally. These
developments are likely to take the geography out of the initial phases of partnering and
broaden marriage fields for at least a part of the population, although it is interesting to note
that many partnering websites have the option to search only in your own region.
People are also getting increasingly mobile on an international scale. Increasing ease of
air travel for work and leisure, rising numbers of individuals studying, working and travelling
abroad, and the emergence of international partnering websites can be expected to increase
the ‘risk’ of meeting a potential partner from abroad (see Piper, 2003). Globalisation could –
through reshaping the geographic opportunity set of potential partners – lead to a globalisation
of marriage fields for at least a part of the population. In addition, processes of modernization
make that people are more likely to have a positive attitude to marry with someone from
outside their own group (Uunk, 1996; Hendrickx, 1994), and in this ‘age of migration’
(Castles & Miller, 1998) moving to another country becomes more common. Together, these
developments can be expected to make people more open to the concept of partnering with
someone from abroad.
There is an increasing body of literature on international marriages. Some of the
literature focuses on the experience of well-educated middle class couples in US and Europe
(Johnson & Warren, 1994; Breger & Hill, 1998; Schreiber, 1992). An increase in the number
of international marriages does not necessarily mean that marriage fields are globalising. It
might just indicate that more and more people live outside their country of origin, and still
meet locally. Other literature studies immigrants who recruit a partner from their country of
origin, which is generally seen as evidence of immigrants not integrating in their ‘host’
society (González-Ferrer, 2006). This is a form of marriage migration, but not the main focus
of this paper. A literature that more explicitly deals with geographically expanding marriage
fields is the literature on marriage migration linked to the commercialised marriage mediation
industry. This industry has, since the 1960s, increased enormously in size and spread across
borders (Kojima, 2001). According to the literature most of these commercially ‘arranged’
marriages involve women from less developed countries – sometimes referred to as ‘mail-
order brides’ – who are ‘recruited’ to more developed countries (Piper, 1999; 2003).
There is some evidence that a growing group of people ‘recruit’ their partner from
geographically distant locations (Johnson & Warren, 1994; Cottrell, 1990), but information on
volumes and changes over time are not available, as most studies are qualitative and based on
small samples (Cottrell, 1990). Moreover, our knowledge of marriage migration is biased
towards examples from the commercial marriage industry, focussing on the experiences of
women from less developed countries moving to developed countries. As a result, there is a
lack of insight in more general patterns of marriage migration, especially with regard to male
marriage migration. In this paper we aim to fill this gap by studying changes in volumes of
marriage migration between 1990 and 2004 by country of origin and gender using unique
longitudinal population data for Sweden (1990-2004). This paper will answer the following
two research questions. First, how can we describe the geography of international marriage
migration to Sweden and are there any signs of a globalisation of Swedish marriage fields
between 1990 and 2004? And second, is there any variation in demographic (age and sex) or
socioeconomic (education) characteristics of partners from different countries of origin? In
our analyses we focus on couples consisting of one partner native to Sweden who ‘recruits’ a
partner from another country.
There are two reasons why Sweden is a particularly well suited country for this research.
The first is that Sweden has unique longitudinal population data of high quality for the whole
Swedish population (1990-2004). This data makes it possible to study changes over time in
volumes of immigration, by country of origin, and demographic characteristics of the
immigrant. The second reason is that Sweden has for some time now been considered to be
one of the world’s most globalised countries (Dreher, 2006). Swedes are frequent
international travellers for both business and leisure and Sweden is very well connected to the
internet (Ellegård & Vilhelmson, 2004). This makes Sweden an interesting country to test our
hypothesis on the globalisation of marriage fields. If such an effect exists, it should be visible
2. Theory and research context
2.1 The marriage market
To understand patterns of partnering behaviour (including geographical patterns), researchers
often use the metaphor of the market (Blau, 1977; Kalmijn, 1998). The marriage market
consists of a demand side where individual preferences play a role (with regard to love,
physical attraction, income and social status, age, ethnicity, religion, etcetera) and a supply
side, the opportunity structure of the market. The opportunity structure determines the
probability that someone is able to realise his or her preferences. The choice of partner is
constrained by the demographic composition of the search area and the type and number of
meeting places people frequent (England & Farkas, 1986; Mare, 1991; Blossfeld & Meyer
1988; Dagsvik, 2000; Kalmijn & Flap, 2001). A literature review by Houston and colleagues
(2005) shows that the marriage market metaphor is used to study the relative availability of
suitable partners at the local (e.g., Ní Bhrolcháin et al., 2002), regional (e.g., Lichter et al,.
1991; Brien, 1997; Farley, 1999; Bratter & Zuberi, 2001), national (Ní Bhrolcháin, 2001;
Qian & Lichter, 2001; Rosenfeld, 2002), and international scales (e.g., Piper, 1997; Adams &
There are several things we can learn from the metaphor of the market about the
geography of marriage migration. First, the opportunity structure of the marriage market plays
an important role in our understanding of the type of partner people choose (Kalmijn, 1998).
As we argued in the introduction, this opportunity structure has broadened enormously for
(frequent) international travellers and internet users, which we expect to be reflected in
marriage patterns. We can expect marriage migrants in Sweden to originate from countries
relatively close to Sweden and countries frequently visited by Swedes. Second, according to
Becker’s (1973) model of marriage migration, marriage markets in different countries are
competitive and an individual looking for a partner has to choose between alternative markets.
When an individual decides to search outside his or her local market this reflects that the
utility of a match in the foreign market is higher than the utility of a match with someone
from the local market (Çelikaksoy et al., 2006). We can expect that there is a category of
people who deliberately search for a foreign partner because they look for characteristics they
can not find locally. Whether or not such a partner is found and from which country this
partner originates, depend partly on the supply of potential partners.
2.2 Commercial marriage industry
The scale of the commercial marriage industry – one of the main channels through which
people actively search for a foreign partner – has increased significantly since the 1960s
(Ford, 2004). Globalisation is leading to a commercialisation of marriage migration (Lu,
2005). The internet is becoming more and more important as a marriage market, both on the
national and the international scale (Lu, 2005). The use of commercial websites is relatively
new, but the concept of ‘mail-order brides’ existed long before internet existed. The
availability of services through the internet means that people can explore commercial
websites in the privacy of their own home, lowering the threshold to use these services. In our
data we have no possibility to research the extent of ‘mail order brides’ (or ‘mail order
grooms’), but given much of the recent literature this is a phenomenon that should be given
According to Lu (2005) scholarly attention for mail-order brides started about 14 years
ago (del Rosario 1994; Glodava & Onizuka, 1994; Robinson, 1996). This early work links the
mail-order bride phenomenon to sex tourism and sex trafficking (Barry, 1995) and more
recent literature studies mail-order brides in the context of female labour migration for
domestic work (see Lu, 2005). Most mail-order brides originate from Southeast Asia, South
America, and Russia, and the male partners they seek come primarily from the United States
or Western Europe (Paez Minervini & McAndrew, 2006). Lu (2005) warns that one has to be
careful not to stigmatise mail-order brides as many women benefit and ‘true love’ may well
play a role. It is also stressed that there is no information available about the volume of cross-
border marriages that are commercially arranged since people also meet during, for instance
business and leisure travel, and through non-commercial dating websites, which is likely to be
far more common than commercially arranged marriages. What is interesting about the term
‘mail-order bride’ is that the term is almost exclusively used with reference to women from
economically less developed countries who partner with men from richer countries (Lu,
2005). When a woman from a western country finds a partner through a commercial site we
generally do not speak of a mail-order bride (Lu, 2005).
2.3 The gendered nature of (marriage) migration
The mail-order bride literature raises the important question why the focus is almost
exclusively on female marriage migrants and not on male marriage migrants. A simple
explanation could be that international male marriage migrants are very rare. Surfing
international matchmaking sites on the internet shows that most partners ‘on offer’ are female,
and only few men use the internet to ‘advertise’ themselves internationally to potential
partners. Alternatively, the attention for female marriage migrants might be explained by an
academic interest in (sexual) exploitation and gendered inequality. As Osipovich (2004)
points out, mail-order brides have been portrayed mainly as victims. Issues of exploitation are
likely to be of less importance in the case of male marriage migrants.
There is also a gender dimension in the geography or origins and destinations of
marriage migrants. Most marriage migrants in the literature are women from relatively poor
countries moving to more affluent countries. The main explanation used is one of poverty and
exploitation where women in poor countries are ‘forced’ to ‘sell themselves’ in exchange for
a better life. Johnson (2007), in a study of Russian mail-order brides, offers a much more
nuanced explanation. In her research, Western husbands of mail-order brides stated that they
were looking for a partner with traditional family values, something they could not find
locally. The mail-order brides stated that they were looking for a stable husband willing to
build up a family, a type husband hard to find in their home country. This research shows that
mail-order brides are not necessarily poor women trying to escape unfavourable living
circumstances, but also middle-class women not being able to find a suitable partner in their
own country (see also Paez Minervini & McAndrew, 2006).
Alternative explanations of marriage migration see marriage as a means of obtaining a
legal residence status in a western country. Geographic patterns of marriage migration might
also be reinforced through forms of chain migration and explained by using network theory
(see Montgomery, 1991 on networks and labour-market outcomes). In this view, marriage
migrants share (positive) experiences with people in their home country which encourages
more people (mainly women?) to follow in their footsteps. Another explanation of gendered
patterns of marriage migration is risk-sharing behaviour in families in poor countries where
especially daughters are encouraged to marry abroad to minimize income risks (Stark, 1991).
2.4 Positive and negative assortative mating
Studying the socio-demographic characteristics of marriage migrants and their native Swedish
partners may shed some light on the mechanisms underlying marriage migration, especially
the gendered nature of marriage migration. In general, people choose a partner from their own
group (endogamy) and close in social status (homogamy) (Kalmijn, 1998). The result is that
partners are often very similar in terms of age, level of education, ethnic background, religion,
and social status (Smits, 1996). Although women are in general slightly younger than their
male partner (Buunk et al., 2001; Kenrick et al., 1993). Part of these marriage patterns can be
explained by the fact that peoples’ choice of partner is constrained by the opportunities
available (the supply side argument, see Fisher et al., 1977; Flap, 1999; Huckfeldt, 1983;
Marsden, 1990; Kalmijn & Flap, 2001). Preferences also play an important role: people
simply seem to prefer a partner from the same social background (positive assortative
mating). Marriage patterns are also connected with the mutual satisfaction of needs – whether
concerned with diverse issues such as age, physical attractiveness, economic security, charm
or the attainment of a residence permit (Klein, 2001; Górny & Kepinska, 2004).
According to Çelikaksoy and colleagues (2006), in theory, both negative and positive
assortative mating on age and education can occur (see also Becker, 1973). Negative
assortative mating would provide evidence for the social exchange hypothesis (Davis, 1941;
Merton, 1941; Schoen & Wooldredge, 1989; Kalmijn, 1998) that partners exchange resources
by their marriage to improve social status. People, for example might compensate
unfavourable characteristics (being poor) by a more favourable characteristic (physical
attractiveness, being young, or having a high educational level). We might find some
evidence of negative assortative mating as a consequence of exchange of resources between
the relatively wealthy native Swedes and the recruited partner (see also Çelikaksoy et al.,
The above literature review leads to several ‘hypotheses’ on international marriage migration.
First, we expect to see an increase of marriage migration to Sweden since the early 1990s. As
most of the literature focuses on the experiences of women moving abroad, we expect more
women than men to move to Sweden to partner with a native Swede. The literature is not very
clear on the volume of male marriage migration we can expect to find. With regard to the
countries of origin we expect that in general regions nearby and with the least cultural
distance (the Nordic countries, Western and Eastern Europe) are likely to be the most
important suppliers of partners for both men and women. The literature on mail-order brides
also suggests that South-east Asia, Russia and South America are important suppliers of
brides. Again, the literature is less clear on the origin of male partners. The social exchange
theory leads us to expect to find evidence of negative assortative mating: we expect especially
female partners from low income regions to be much younger than their native Swedish
partners. We also expect female partners from low income regions to be higher educated than
their Swedish partners. The literature is less clear about what to expect for male partners from
3. Data and research design
For this project we used a longitudinal micro database of the entire Swedish population drawn
from a number of different administrative registers (Statistics Sweden, 2005). From an
international perspective, the database is unique as it consists of linked annual demographic,
geographic and socioeconomic data for each individual living in Sweden, for the whole 1990
to 2004 period.
In this paper we focus on couples consisting of a native Swede and a foreign partner.
We are only interested in those partnerships where the first contact is likely to have been
made before the foreign partner moved to Sweden. Hence, we are not interested in couples
which were formed while both partners lived in Sweden. Because of the nature of the data we
have to assume that if people enter the country in a given year and have formed a partnership
by the end of the year that they have entered the country to form a relationship. We define
Swedish natives as people born in Sweden whose parents were also born in Sweden. This
excludes second generation immigrants who recruit a partner from the homeland of their
parents. We define couples as either cohabiting or being married. Because cohabitation is not
formally registered we had to assume that a male and a female living in the same residential
location form a cohabiting couple. We excluded same sex couples from our analyses.
During the years 1990-2004, a total of 485,473 people migrated to Sweden, on a
population of around 9 million. Of those who entered Sweden, 9 per cent (43,862 individuals)
married or cohabitated with a Swede within one year of arrival and this is the population we
extracted from the database. Of this group, again 9 per cent shared the same country of origin
as the non-native Swede (3,694 individuals). This left us with a population of 40,168 couples
consisting of a native Swede and a foreign partner, formed within a year after the foreign
partner entered Sweden. We summarized the countries of origin into nine world regions, using
definitions from Statistics Sweden. In addition, we also used a country classification from the
World Bank (2007) in which countries are divided into low-, middle- and high income
countries according to their gross national income, which is thought to be indicative of their
economic level of development.
3.1 Note on ethics
The nature of our project and the type of data we use raise some questions about research
ethics. Since much of the literature on international marriage migration has portrayed stories
of abuse and human tragedies there is the risk of stigmatising individuals from certain
countries of origin. It is therefore important to stress that the data we used in this project do
not tell us anything about people’s motivations to migrate, their feelings for their new partner,
or whether they moved out of free will or not. Using our data we can only show facts like the
number of immigrants, their countries of origin and their characteristics.
The results of our study should therefore be interpreted in light of other relevant
literature, being careful not to produce or reproduce any stigma based on prejudice or
anecdotic evidence and myths. We also have to be careful with the fact that what may be
considered normal or abnormal or right or wrong in one country or region, might be perceived
different in another country or even another region within the same country. For example, a
relationship between a young woman from a developing country and a much older man from
a developed country might be prejudiced as a case of exploitation. But the same situation
might be beneficial for both partners, simply out of love, or perhaps to provide the woman
with status in her home country and provide her with the opportunity to escape living
circumstances she found to be undesirable.
4.1 Volume and region of origin
Figure 1 shows how the volume of immigration to Sweden has developed since 1990. The
scale on the left hand side refers to the total number of immigrants and the scale on the right
hand side to the number of marriage immigrants. The total number of immigrants shows a 17
per cent increase between 1990 and 2004 (from 32,753 in 1990 to 38,376 in 2004). The peak
of immigrants in 1993 is related to the war in former Yugoslavia. The number of immigrants
who moved to Sweden and married or cohabited with a native Swede increased with 37 per
cent (from 2,519 in 1990 to 3,449 in 2004). For the general Swedish population both the rate
of marriage unions and the share of single households have remained at the same levels
during this time period (Statistics Sweden, 2007a and 2007b). The relatively strong increase
in the number of marriage immigrants compared to the total number of immigrants gives
some evidence for the globalisation of marriage fields hypothesis, although the absolute
number of marriage migrants per year remains low.
(Figure 1 about here)
When we break down the number of marriage immigrants by gender we see that the number
of men who moved to Sweden and married a Swedish woman has increased from 1,136 in
1990 to 1,455 by 2004, an increase of 28 per cent. The number of women who moved to
Sweden to marry a Swedish man has increased from 1,383 in 1990 to 1,994 in 2004, which is
an increase of 44 per cent. In 1990 45 per cent of all marriage immigrants were male and in
2004 this had dropped slightly to 42 per cent. This is a fairly equal gender balance compared
to, for example, Japan where according to Piper (2003), 75 per cent of all international
marriages involve Asian women and Japanese men or Poland where 68 per cent of all
international marriages involve foreign women (Górny & Kepinska, 2004). Given the
emphasis on female marriage migrants in the literature it is surprising to find relatively large
numbers of male marriage migrants in Sweden. It has been suggested that some of these
marriages involving men might be arranged marriages to help these men to get a legal
residence status in Sweden.
Figure 2 shows a series of 3 maps with the geographic origin of immigrants over the
1990-2004 period. Map A shows the origin of all immigrants. The largest group of
immigrants come from Eastern Europe & Russia (25 per cent), the second largest group from
North Africa & the Middle East (22 per cent) the third largest group from the other Nordic
countries (18 per cent) and the fourth place is shared by Southeast & other Asia and Western
Europe (both 10 per cent).
(Figure 2 about here)
Map B and C show the geographic distribution of marriage immigrants by gender. Map B
shows that 24 per cent of all immigrant men who migrate to Sweden to partner with a native
Swede originate from Western Europe, 19 per cent originate from North Africa & Middle
East, 12 per cent from the Nordic countries and 11 per cent from both North America and
Eastern Europe & Russia. For immigrant women who migrate to Sweden to partner with a
native Swede the picture looks very different. A total of 29 per cent of these women originate
from Southeast & other Asia, 26 per cent from Eastern Europe & Russia, 11 per cent from the
other Nordic countries, 10 per cent from Southern America and 9 per cent from Western
Europe. Figure 2 shows that the geographic pattern of marriage migration is highly gendered,
with male and female marriage migrants originating from different world regions.
The last column on the right hand side in Table 1 gives an alternative view on the
gendered geography of marriage migration by showing the percentage of immigrants by
region and gender of all marriage immigrants. More than 16 per cent of all marriage
immigrants to Sweden are women from Southeast & other Asia, 15 per cent are women from
Eastern Europe & Russia, and 10 per cent are men from Western Europe. The table further
shows that since 1990, twice as many men than women came from Western Europe; three
times as many women than men from Eastern Europe & Russia; more than six times as many
men than women from Northern Africa & the Middle East; and more than eight times as
many women than men from Southeast & other Asia.
To shed more light on the gendered geography of marriage migration, Table 1 takes a
more dynamic approach by investigating trends in marriage migration over time (1990-2004)
by country of origin and gender. We calculated an index figure with a base of a 100 in 1990
for each region by gender. The results show that the fastest growing group of marriage
migrants to Sweden are women from Northern Africa & the Middle East (100 to 293),
although it has to be kept in mind that absolute numbers remain small (see column with
totals). The next fastest growing group are women from Southeast & other Asia (100 to 240);
then women from South America (100 to 238); then men from South America (100 to 172);
men from Africa (100 to 161); and men from Northern Africa & the Middle East (100 to 158).
Table 1 also shows that some regions deliver fairly constant numbers of marriage immigrants
per year between 1990 and 2004, for example, North America for both men and women and
Western Europe and Eastern Europe & Russia for women. For ease of presentation we had to
present our data summarised in fairly large regions instead of individual countries. Within
these regions there may be considerable differences between countries. For example, Alm
Stenflo (2001) has shown that during the 1970s and 1980s the level of immigration to Sweden
of Polish women who married Swedish men was much higher than currently is the case (see
also Cretser, 1999). Immigrants from Russia and the Baltic states are a relatively new
phenomenon in Sweden (since the fall of the ‘Iron curtain’) and compensate for the now much
lower volumes of Polish women.
Two overall conclusions can be drawn from the above. The first is that given the
emphasis on female marriage migrants in the literature, surprisingly many male marriage
migrants come to Sweden. The second is that the geography of marriage migration is highly
gendered. Male and female marriage migrants in Sweden originate from different parts of the
world. The two largest suppliers of male marriage migrants are Western Europe and Northern
Africa & Middle East while the largest suppliers of female marriage migrants are Southeast &
other Asia and Eastern Europe & Russia. Between 1990 and 2004, the fastest growing
suppliers of both male and female marriage migrants are Northern Africa & Middle East, the
rest of Africa and South America. In the above section, we have restricted ourselves to
describing patterns found in the data. In the conclusion and discussion we will work towards
an explanation of the gendered geography of marriage migration.
(Table 1 about here)
4.2 Age differences between partners
The mail-order bride literature suggests that there is a category of men who deliberately
search for a foreign partner because they have a preference for certain partner characteristics
(a young and attractive female with traditional family values) which are difficult to satisfy on
the local marriage market. In this section we focus specifically on age. We know that in the
general population within a relationship women are on average slightly younger than their
male partner. The mail-order bride literature suggests that female marriage migrants from low
income countries are on average much younger than their male partner.
Figure 3 consists of two sets of population pyramids showing age structures of marriage
migrants and their Swedish partner by gender and type of country (low, middle, and high
income countries, using a definition developed by the World Bank). For comparison we have
added a population pyramid for Swedish-Swedish couples (pyramid at the bottom of Figure
3), showing no notable age differences between partners. The three pyramids for Swedish
women and their foreign partner show only small age differences: native women are generally
younger than their male foreign partner. The three pyramids showing the age composition of
Swedish men and their foreign partner show a much more diverse picture. Swedish men are
on average 11 years older than their partner from a low income country, 9.6 years older than
their partner from a middle income country, and 2.7 years older than their partner from a high
Table 2 shows the average age difference in years between partners by region of origin
of the marriage immigrant. Again, there are no large age differences between native Swedish
women and their foreign partner, but striking age differences between Swedish men and their
foreign partner. Men are on average respectively 13, 11.2 and 9.5 years older than their
partner from Mid & Northern Africa, Southeast & other Asia, and Eastern Europe & Russia.
The findings with respect to age differences between partners are in line with what we
expected based on the mail-order bride literature. The fact that there are hardly any age
differences between Swedish women and their foreign partner and Swedish men and partners
from Western countries might help us to understand some of the mechanisms behind the
gendered geography of marriage migration.
(Table 2 about here)
4.3 Educational differences between partners
In this section we zoom in on differences in level of education between the native Swede and
the foreign partner. We know from the literature that in the general population within a
relationship men on average have a higher level of education than their partner. We also know
that increasingly, couples are formed between partners of equal educational level. Table 3
shows the level of education of the imported partner by gender and region of origin. The table
uses the same low, middle, and high income categories of countries as before. The results are
surprising in that both male and female marriage immigrants from low income countries have
on average a higher level of education than marriage immigrants from high income countries.
63 per cent of women from low income countries marrying a native Swedish man have a post-
secondary education compared to only 42 per cent of the women originating from a high
income country. This finding supports the idea that migrant women from poor countries might
be relatively high educated women not being able to find a suitable partner in their own
country (Paez Minervini & McAndrew, 2006).
(Table 3 about here)
Table 4 further explores the educational level of marriage immigrants by geographic region of
origin. A relatively high percentage of women from Northern Africa & Middle East and from
Southeast & other Asia have a low level of education (only compulsory school). A high
percentage of women from Eastern Europe & Russia, North America, South America and
Australia & Pacific have a high level of education (post-secondary or higher). For male
marriage immigrants the picture is very similar with the exception of partners originating
from Eastern Europe. A high percentage of men from Eastern Europe have a low level of
education and a low percentage have a high level of education. The results from Table 3 and 4
show that, on average, marriage immigrants have relatively high levels of education (see also
Górny and Kepinska, 2004), especially women from low income countries.
(Table 4 about here)
Table 5 explores the distance in educational level between partners by gender and region of
origin. According to the homogamy hypothesis we can expect to find that partners have fairly
similar levels of education. However, Table 5 shows a more complex and to some extent a
more surprising picture. The results show that in the majority of couples with a partner from a
high income country, both partners have an equal level of education (60 and 53 per cent) or
the imported partner has a higher level of education (30 and 34 per cent). For couples with a
partner from a middle income country the picture is more diverse. Also here the equally
educated couples are a large group (38 and 36 per cent) but in 39 per cent of these couples the
imported partner has the highest level of education (for both men and women). Almost the
same picture emerges for those couples with a partner from a low income country. Our results
seem to give evidence for the homogamy hypothesis for partners from high income countries
and evidence for the negative assortive mating hypothesis – derived from the social exchange
theory – for partners from middle and low income countries.
(Table 5 about here)
5. Conclusion and discussion
This paper set out to explore the globalisation of Swedish marriage fields. The central idea
was that increasing international travel and the use of internet have broadened the
geographical opportunity structure of potential partners for Swedish residents, increasing the
risk of meeting a potential partner from abroad. We therefore expected to see an increase in
marriage migration to Sweden over the last decade and a half. The unique feature of this paper
was that we have used longitudinal registration data for the whole Swedish population
enabling us to explore changes over time in the volume and geography of marriage migration
for a whole country where most previous studies have used qualitative methods. The results
show that although the increase of international migration to Sweden has been relatively
modest during the years 1990-2004 (an increase by 17 per cent), the numbers of international
marriage migrants have increased substantially (by 37 per cent). However, given the relatively
small numbers of marriage migrants (2,519 in 1990 up to 3,449 in 2004) it is debatable
whether we found enough evidence to make claims about a ‘globalisation of Swedish
This paper has yielded two major new insights in patterns of international marriage
migration not previously recorded in the literature. The first is that we found a substantial
proportion of all marriage migrants in Sweden to be males. This was surprising as the
marriage migration literature is strongly biased towards female marriage migration and the
experiences of mail-order brides in particular. Our results show that there is a large gap in our
knowledge of marriage migration as we know very little about the mechanisms behind male
marriage migration. The second major insight arising from our empirical work is that the
pattern of geographical origins of marriage migrants is highly gendered. Male and female
marriage migrants in Sweden originate from different regions of the world. We also observed
large gender differences in patterns of change in volumes of marriage migrants by region of
origin between 1990 and 2004. These findings underpin the argument that more work has to
be done on male marriage migration as explanations of female marriage migration are
unlikely to be valid for males.
The overrepresentation of female marriage migrants in our data from Southeast & other
Asia, Eastern Europe & Russia, and South America fits in literature on mail-order brides.
Also the age and educational differences between partners from these regions and the native
Swedish men fits in this literature. The patterns found are likely to reflect both the supply side
and the demand side of the marriage market. The supply side consists of females (not males)
from traditional mail-order bride regions who advertise themselves as potential partners on
commercial matchmaking websites. Some of the couples might also have met in the country
of origin of the foreign partner, for example in Thailand, which is a popular holiday
destination for Swedes. This might explain the existence of (small numbers of) male marriage
migrants from the traditional mail-order bride regions. The demand side for partners from the
mail-order bride regions consists of western men with a preference for relatively young
females with traditional family values. These men can not find a local match as Swedish
women (and western women in general) are on average looking for modern male partners of
roughly the same age.
Our research is the first which was able to quantify the age differences between
marriage migrants and their native Western partners on the scale of a whole country. Our
results have shown that female marriage migrants are on average much younger than their
Swedish male partner. Our analyses also show that there is a strong relationship between the
income level of a country and age differences between the female marriage migrant and the
Swedish male. The largest age differences can be found in couples with partners from the
poorest countries. These findings raise important questions about the potential exploitation of
the lack of choice for some women by Western men. Also the fact that marriage immigrants
from even the poorest countries often have an equal or a higher level of education suggests
that many marriage migrants use marriage as a means to escape their home country. The
relatively high level of education of marriage migrants, especially those from the lowest
income countries, suggest that marriage migration from low income countries also causes
some degree of ‘brain drain’.
Male marriage migrants are overrepresented among those originating from Western
Europe, Africa & Middle East, Northern America and Australia. Couples with an imported
male partner from Western and high income countries show very similar characteristics
compared to Swedish-Swedish couples. This suggests that these couples have formed in very
similar ways and that the match between partners might have been made during employment
or leisure related travel. Some of these couples might have met in Sweden while the foreign
male was on a business trip. The male bias in marriage migrants originating from Mid &
South Africa and Northern Africa & Middle East is intriguing. The pattern found does not fit
in existing explanations of marriage migration. The pattern might be linked to preferences for
African men for a specific category of Swedish women or, as has been suggested, to arranged
marriages linked to obtaining legal residence permits.
Our findings show that that the traditional distance decay of interaction on local
marriage markets is less valid for contemporary international marriage migration to Sweden.
For example, only 20 per cent of the immigrant women who moved to Sweden to partner with
a native Swedish man came from the Nordic countries and Western Europe, compared to 29
per cent of immigrant women coming from Southeast and Other Asia. The complex gendered
geographical pattern of marriage migration suggests that some forms of marriage migration
are conceptually closely linked to other forms of migration. Therefore, explanations of the
geography of marriage migration have to be found in combining literatures on mail-order
brides, international migration, and job and leisure related travel. Research on marriage
migration should move beyond studying mail-order brides and flows of marriage migrants
from poor to wealthy countries. More qualitative work is needed on the background and
motives of especially male marriage migrants.
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Figure 1. Total number of immigrants and marriage immigrants moving to Sweden, 1990-
Figure 2. Regions of origin of A) All immigrants to Sweden; B) Immigrant men marrying
native Swedish women; C) Immigrant women marrying native Swedish men. Totals volumes
B) Immigrant men
(n = 17,800)
C) Immigrant women
(n = 22,368)
A) All immigrants
moving to Sweden
(n = 485,473)
Swedish men (left) marrying women from low
income country (right) (mean age diff 11.0 years,
median diff 9 years).
Swedish men (left) marrying women from middle
income country (right) (mean age diff 9.6 years,
median diff 8 years).
Swedish men (left) marrying women from high
income country (right) (mean age diff 2.7 years,
median diff 2 years).
Swedish women (right) marrying men from low
income country (left) (mean age diff -1.4 years,
median diff 0 years).
Swedish women (right) marrying men from middle
income country (left) (mean age diff 2.1 years,
median diff 2 years).
Swedish women (right) marrying men from high
income country (left) (mean age diff -1.7 years,
median diff 0 years).
Swedish men (left) marrying Swedish women
(right) (mean age diff 0 years, median diff 1 year).
Figure 3. Population pyramids showing age structures of immigrants who marry or partner with a native
Table 1. Annual number of marriage immigrants by region and gender 1990–2004, index figures (1990 = 100%) and totals
North Africa/Middle East
Table 2. Age differences per region between immigrant men and women marrying a Swede, 2004
Swedish men marrying women
Swedish woman marrying men
diff. in years
diff. in years
diff. in years
diff. in years
North Africa/Middle East
Table 3. Level of education of immigrant men and women marrying a Swede by development state of the
region of origin, 2004
Swedish men marrying immigrant women with
Compulsary school Upper secondary school Post-secondary, tertiary
Low income country 14% 23% 63% 100%
Middle income country 26% 18% 56% 100%
High income country 15% 43% 42% 100%
Swedish woman marrying immigrant man with
Compulsary school Upper secondary school Post-secondary, tertiary
Low income country 16% 33% 51% 100%
Middle income country 22% 31% 47% 100%
High income country 15% 44% 41% 100%
Table 4. Level of education of immigrant men and women marrying a Swede by region of origin, 2004
Swedish men marrying immigrant women with
Compulsary school Upper secondary school Post-secondary, tertiary
Nordic countries 8% 41% 51% 100%
Western Europe 13% 39% 48% 100%
Eastern Europe & Russia 11% 27% 62% 100%
Mid & South Africa 20% 39% 41% 100%
Northern Africa & Middle East 26% 51% 23% 100%
Southeast & other Asia 36% 18% 46% 100%
North America 5% 30% 65% 100%
South America 8% 36% 56% 100%
Australia & Pacific 2% 41% 57% 100%
Swedish woman marrying immigrant man with
Compulsary school Upper secondary school Post-secondary, tertiary
Nordic countries 11% 37% 43% 101%
Western Europe 10% 32% 59% 101%
Eastern Europe & Russia 20% 45% 35% 100%
Mid & South Africa 14% 40% 46% 100%
Northern Africa & Middle East 24% 35% 41% 100%
Southeast & other Asia 20% 54% 27% 101%
North America 4% 31% 65% 100%
South America 11% 43% 46% 100%
Australia & Pacific 8% 32% 61% 101%
Table 5. Educational distances between partners, 2004
Percentage of Swedish men marrying immigrant women
Immigrant much more educated
Immigrant more educated
Swede more educated
Swede much more educated
Percentage of Swedish women marrying immigrant men
Immigrant much more educated
Immigrant more educated
Swede more educated
Swede much more educated