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Still, dating varies considerably by nation, custom, religious upbringing, technology, and social class, and important exceptions with regards to individual freedoms remain as many countries today still practice arranged marriages, request dowries, and forbid same-sex pairings.Although in many countries, movies, meals, and meeting in coffeehouses and other places is now popular, as are advice books suggesting various strategies for men and women, in other parts of the world, such as in South Asia and many parts of the Middle East, being alone in public as a couple with another person is not only frowned upon but can even lead to either person being socially ostracized.

Historically, marriages in most societies were arranged by parents and older relatives with the goal not being love but legacy and "economic stability and political alliances", according to anthropologists.Dating as an institution is a relatively recent phenomenon which has mainly emerged in the last few centuries.From the standpoint of anthropology and sociology, dating is linked with other institutions such as marriage and the family which have also been changing rapidly and which have been subject to many forces, including advances in technology and medicine.Women eventually won the right to vote in many countries and own property and receive equal treatment by the law, and these changes had profound impacts on the relationships between men and women. In many societies, individuals could decide—on their own—whether they should marry, whom they should marry, and when they should marry.A few centuries ago, dating was sometimes described as a "courtship ritual where young women entertained gentleman callers, usually in the home, under the watchful eye of a chaperone," but increasingly, in many Western countries, it became a self-initiated activity with two young people going out as a couple in public together.

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In the twentieth century, dating was sometimes seen as a precursor to marriage but it could also be considered as an end-in-itself, that is, an informal social activity akin to friendship.

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