The idea that marriage is under attack and needs defending is a central tenet of the so-called “culture wars”. The meaning and importance of marriage is central not only to efforts to ban same-sex marriage, but to pro-life politics, father’s rights advocacy, abstinence-only sex education, the “mommy wars”, and pretty much the entirety of contemporary conservative politics. The (wholly imaginary) good old days that conservatives want to conserve is essentially a time when (straight, lifelong, twin-bedded) marriage was the fount of all that is good in society. And everything that is bad about today’s society – teen pregnancy, street violence, welfare dependency, the spread of STDs, sexual predators roaming the Internet, even terrorism, is traced by said conservatives, directly or indirectly, to the decline and degradation of the institution of marriage.
Now, to anthropologists, the way marriage is discussed and deployed in these debates is laughable. We know that marriage as conceptualized by the American religious right at the dawn of the 21st century is neither the only – or even a particularly common – form of marriage in the world, nor the way marriage has always been in our own society. The Biblical marriage that religious conservatives hold up as their example and guiding principle would be (and is) almost universally condemned by today’s Christians. Jacob, the central patriarch of the Biblical Hebrews, would be jailed as a bigamist today; the acceptance of Utah into the Union on the condition that they outlaw polygamy is demonstration enough that we view Biblical marriage norms as literally un-American. Marriage today is drastically different than it was even a century ago, even a half-century ago. A small extremist fringe contingent apart, few Americans would consider the marriage-as-property-arrangement attitude of the 19th century to be truly reflective of our modern notions of freedom and individual fulfillment. And hardly anyone would advocate a return to the way marriage was in the 1950’s, when teen pregnancy was at its peak and fully 1 of 3 marriages involved a pregnant bride. Whatever one thinks of single parenting, I find it unlikely that most Americans would prefer marriage to be thought of primarily as something teenagers do when they get knocked up.
Be that as it may, I think conservatives are right about one thing: if the institution of marriage is going to survive, it does need defending. Not because marriage is the only or best source of truly moral living, but precisely the opposite: marriage is increasingly irrelevant in modern society. In the absence of many good reasons for marriage to even exist, those who value it as a tradition are going to be more and more hard-pressed to perpetuate it.
To understand what I mean here, it might be instructive to look at the kinds of societies where marriage is most relevant and enduring. For the most part, marriage is meaningful in societies where food-production is labor-intensive and dependent on carefully-monitored social rules, which means mainly agricultural and pastoral (herding) societies. Examples include rural Indians and Chinese, Pale of Settlement-era Jews, Central Asian tribalists, and pre-Industrial Europeans and Americans – it is probably not a coincidence that Christianity, and Christian notions of marriage, evolved in a largely peasant population. Marriage in such societies is generally not, as today’s formulation has it, a “relationship between a man and a woman”, but a relationship between extended families in which the relationship between the particular people married is secondary at best – and often simply irrelevant. Thus, in many societies (such as the Biblical Hebrews), the practice of levirate (in which a man marries his brother’s widow) or sororate (in which a woman marries her sister’s widower) allow the kinship bond between families to remain unbroken regardless of the death of a spouse – structurally equivalent, siblings become interchangeable in marriage because their function is identical. Most agricultural and pastoral societies also practice arranged marriage, which generally involves the mobilization of the entire kinship network to locate and secure a suitable mate – with suitable generally defined as having an upright, respectable family. While some effort goes into making sure the personalities of the prospective spouses mesh well, the overall goal is to make sure their families are well-matched – the fit between the spouses then acts as insurance against the dissolution of the inter-familial bond.
Marriage is so important in these kinds of society because the need for social networks through which labor and trading can be arranged is so important. A large extended family might be allied by marriage with a dozen or more other extended families. This pool of contacts gives one: resources to call on in case of natural or human-created disaster; a trading network; a body of closely-bonded men to provide defense; a labor reserve for building, planting, or harvesting; and the emotional well-being that comes of social solidarity. With stakes so high, divorce – while often allowed – is greatly discouraged, and problem resolution in marital relations becomes the business of the entire extended family. (In theory this would protect both spouses, though given the strong tendency towards patriarchy in such communities, an undue burden is often put on women to endure in silence, while men often enjoy much more freedom to divorce as well as the use of prostitutes as a source of emotional and sexual solace when there is trouble at home.)
It’s easy to see, then, why marriage is so important in this kind of society. What is difficult is to understand what function it retains in a society such as ours (“we” here being post-Industrial Westerners, especially urban Westerners) where labor and trade are organized through market, not kin, relations. Under the logic of industrial capitalism, marriage is not only unnecessary in many ways but can even be counter-productive. Unlike the agricultural and pastoral societies I discussed above, where people’s relationships to their kin remain strong throughout their lives, in Western industrial nations (and perhaps especially in the United States) a good part of the enculturation process is directed towards preparing children to eventually separate from their kin, with the end of childhood marked by leaving our parent’s houses to strike out on our own. Marriage obviously does not function to bond families together in this setting; in fact, much of our popular culture is dedicated to the proposition that in-laws are a pain in the ass, a proposition that obviously has great resonance.
Close bonds between families are precisely what you do not want in an industrial society dependent on the mobility of labor to survive. Anthropologists have long noted that modern Westerners have much more similarity to foragers such as the Ju’/huansi and Hadza of Africa than we do to our pre-industrial ancestors of just a few generations ago. Foragers are typically organized into small, highly mobile groups whose membership fluctuates as the availability of resources changes – groups may swell during times of plentiful resources, and break up into smaller when resources get scarcer. I once read (though I forget where) that a typical Ju’/huansi group might have a completely different membership when they rejoin their tribe for their annual coming-together than they had when they left the previous year’s.
Like contemporary foragers, people in modern industrial societies live in a world where resources (in our case, jobs) are in constant flux. Consider the city I live in, Las Vegas. About half the current population of Las Vegas has come here in the last 10 years, as a new wave of mega-resorts sprang up offering hundreds of thousands of new jobs. Now, when people move to Vegas or anywhere else in search of work, they don’t bring their aunts and uncles and their cousins and their in-laws and their grandparents and their uncles’ spouses’ in-laws and… No, they come alone, or with their spouses and children. The small nuclear family is well-suited to the need for mobility in search of resources.
Time was when the nuclear family – a man, his wife, and their 2 – 3 children – was the natural ideal for life in an industrial society. The needs of the household – income, procurement of goods, child-rearing, food-preparation, social involvement, housekeeping – were split up between the husband and wife, allowing the man to participate as fully as possible in the labor market while passing the responsibility for reproduction of both his labor (feeding, clothing, and taking care of him so he can go back to work the next day) and of society as a whole (creating a new generation of labor so the society can continue to function) to the woman. But this ideal was scarce – peaking at just over 50% of American households in the ’50s and ’60s and accounting for only a quarter of US households today – and dependent on a whole range of social, economic, and political interventions in the operation of the market that today are branded by many “un-American”: strong labor unions, strong government regulation of business practices, heavy government investment in education, legal limitations on divorce and adultery, government-subsidized housing development and welfare systems, and so on.
The nuclear family, propped up by New Deal-era legislation and older notions about women’s place and propriety, made industrial capitalism livable for many (though by no means all; minorities in general were largely excluded from this living standard, and it was, as noted, not particularly easy on women, either). But it was a fleeting, almost accidental configuration – America’s post-War prosperity being largely contingent on the economic and political vacuum left by the destruction of European infrastructure in WWII – and it was somewhat against the grain of the logic of capitalism (which explains why workers had to fight so hard for the supports that made it possible). Within a couple of decades these supports began to be eroded away, generally at the request of business-owners, for whom the notion of paying both wages high enough to feed a family and taxes high enough to provide the services that held everything together was considered an excessive burden on business, an obstruction to the free functioning of the market.
As wages fell or stagnated, the feminist movement experienced a victory by default: where a generation earlier women fought for the right to enter the labor force, by the ’80s women’s work had become a necessity. At the same time, the nature of work itself was changing, as our economic base shifted from industrial production to one based on information and services. Where particular regions once offered a steady supply of work – Detroit’s auto plants, Pennsylvania’s steel mills, New England’s textile mills, West Virginia’s coal mines, etc. – the information and service economy is scattered and constantly recentering (again, consider Las Vegas, whose growth is dependent on changing ideas about tourism and leisure; should those notions shift – maybe Bible Belt tourism takes off next year – then jobs will quickly dry up in Vegas while a new wave of movement to the South takes off).
In this new economy, even the minimal tie of one worker to another is beginning to seem too limiting. As academics of my generation have discovered, all-too-painfully, marriage may not just limit one’s prospects but eliminate them altogether. I’ve known a fair share of married academics that live across the country from each other, sometimes for years, as they wait for positions to open up for them. This isn’t limited to academics, though – married couples across the professional spectrum are finding that limiting one’s job search to the city in which one’s spouse lives is a sure path to frustration. Anyone with any degree of specialization may find their career needs and marriage needs at odds. Marriage is, ultimately, a limit on the free movement labor, and in the battle between emotional satisfaction and economic need, doesn’t seem like much of a long-term contender.
If we run down the functions that anthropologists typically cite for marriage, we see that other institutions in our society meet nearly all of them, often better than marriage itself does. For instance, establishing paternity is done with almost no margin of error today thanks to fairly simple DNA comparisons. Although our legal system provides a loose framework for inheritance, this can be rather sloppy and most people who have anything worth inheriting choose to dictate inheritance via a will, rather than counting on the institution of marriage to make inheritance flow smoothly. The huge number of single mothers (and much smaller number of single fathers) show that child-rearing can be performed quite effectively outside of marriage, and much of our child-rearing is handled by schools and other institutions anyway. Sexual access has already moved far beyond the bounds of marriage, with nearly every American having sexual relations outside of marriage at some point in their lives. Finally, the emotional satisfaction and sense of security that can be provided by marriage is apparently fleeting, with half of all marriages ending in divorce, and a goodly number of marriages harboring psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. Many people today find just as satisfying relationships with partners to whom they are not married, whether by legal restriction (e.g. same-sex partners) or by choice.
It is telling that few mainstream defenses of marriage appeal to any necessary function they see marriage performing; rather, the appeal is almost always a symbolic appeal to “tradition”. For instance, in his speech earlier this month backing the drive for a Constitutional amendment banning “gay marriage”, George Bush said
Ages of experience have taught us that the commitment of a husband and a wife to love and to serve one another promotes the welfare of children and the stability of society… Marriage cannot be cut off from its cultural, religious and natural roots, without weakening this good influence on society.
I’m reminded of a joke that went around during the Internet bubble:
- Give stuff away
- ? ? ?
Bush’s promotion of “loving and serving” each other sounds similar:
- Defend marriage
- ? ? ?
- Good influence on society!
Bush’s appeal is not to how “the commitment of a husband and a wife” might “promote child welfare and the stability of society” but rather to the idea that it should, because in days of yore, it did.
The symbolic value of marriage is, I grant you, still very strong (obviously, or “protecting it” wouldn’t be a tried and true election-year gambit). And there’s certainly something to be said for holding onto practices and institutions simply because they are our traditions, because they provide us with some kind of meaning. I’m not arguing against that – I just don’t think it will work. Marriage – and probably any long-term commitment – is more and more an empty form at odds with the needs of both individuals and of our society as a whole. I’m not arguing that marriage will disappear this year, or even in my lifetime, but I don’t see much future for the institution in the long-term. Stripped of any function, it is possible that people will continue going through the motions for a while, but eventually I can’t see marriage holding onto its significance, especially as it interferes with individual and group survival. And I can’t see people getting too worked up over an empty ritual that provides little or nothing of value.
One final note: None of this is meant to belittle the efforts of same-sex marriage advocates to legalize marriage for all Americans regardless of sexual orientation. That battle has an importance quite distinct from the question of what marriage does or does not do in our society.