The Royal Wedding

How can anthropologists not be interested in the upcoming royal wedding? Centuries of globalization has wiped elaborate large-scale ritual off the face of the planet everywhere except the toffee-nosed bits of the UK. In my opinion, any one who loves a good public orchestration of symbols ought to be interested in this one. In fact, the media coverage itself ought be a little interesting — especially when one considers the way the event may or may not be scripted for the people in the church versus the people outside of it.

Plus, there might be a big fat cathedral anthem in it for us as well. For those of us not laboring under a millennia of an oppressive class system, what’s not to like?

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

18 thoughts on “The Royal Wedding

  1. The ease of access to pornographic imagery facilitated by digital technology puts some really warped ideas into people’s heads what about appropriate expectations for male/female relationships should be. And then you have the royal wedding. But I repeat myself.

  2. I respectfully submit that anyone who writes, “Centuries of globalization has wiped elaborate large-scale ritual off the face of the planet” needs to get out and around a bit more. National day celebrations, the Oscars, the Olympics, college and other forms of football, new product unveilings, change of command ceremonies in the military—lots of large-scale ritual, pomp and ceremony out there. Globalized media love this stuff.

  3. Rex, you need to also look at the subjectivity of participation in a global context for this wedding. Where I live, over ten time zones from London, hotels are priming sales by having a package “stay the night and wake at 4 am for the Wedding ceremonies”. Mostly the package is directed at mothers and daughters, indicative that watching the Royal Wedding is limited to the female gaze. Guests are encouraged to relax (after all it will be 4 am) in bath robes provided by the hotel–I guess this is the up-scale version of a slumber party. I wonder how many will be watching in Australia, a nation which has polled in high numbers in favour of renouncing Royalty in favour of Republicanism once Elizabeth II passes away?

    Most of the symbolism will be lost on viewers, but the notion of participation is fundamental to the interest this ceremony has stirred around the world. Interestingly, the British do this best. While there are still many countries with royalty, there is little fanfare, nor any such on such a scale, for weddings, christenings etc. in such countries. I suspect without the British Royals, we’d all be shifting towards republicanism or parlimentary government with elected heads of state. The Royal Wedding not only keeps interest peaked in the British Monarchy, but also sustains monarchies around the world.

  4. For those of us not laboring under a millennia of an oppressive class system, what’s not to like?

    While I agree that a marriage like this is fascinating from the perspective of kinship studies (not often that you get to see a real European hypergamic marriage, is it?), I’m afraid that, as a republican living in a realm ruled by the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, I have to request that you refuse to endorse the royal wedding, whether by watching it on television or otherwise. It allows the monarch and her relatives to believe that they have some kind of mandate for the continued existence of their institution, for the continuation of an established church, and so on. It would be nice if one day, all Britons (/Australians/New Guineans/Canadians, etc) could aspire to the highest office in their nations, which would be democratically-elected, secular, and backed by a strong constitution, instead of being hereditary (cognatic), constitutionally-jumbled, and the head of an established church.

    You know, the royal family can, if they wish, trace their ancestry back to Woden, as was the fashion for the earliest Anglo-Saxon monarchs. A seemingly-unbroken line of descent from a pagan god – not something they mention much, of course.

    That aside, I should think the wedding will be rather dull. Protest will be restricted to the Mall, and I doubt anyone will be eating communally like they reportedly did for Charles and Di. As for symbolic action, try this one on for size: the Archbishop of Canterbury, second highest figure in the established church, will be seated on a row of other religious heads, next to a relatively-unknown rabbi, to give the impression of secularism.

  5. I agree on the interest for anthropology but really disagree that:
    Centuries of globalization has wiped elaborate large-scale ritual off the face of the planet
    Just look at the various reenacments of power associated with travel by the US President. Or celebrations of Thanks Giving. (And that’s just the US).

    I’m more interested in what this ritual is about. It clearly isn’t the same as a wedding by a real monarch – one responsible for the fecundity of the realm. Sitting just a few miles away from Windsor, I don’t see any signs of what’s going on other than in the media. The insiders may think about it as some sort of a ritual of rejuvenation but for most loyal subjects it’s really just an excuse to get a day off work and no more a part of the rites of social cohesion than the latest soap on TV.

  6. [The royal wedding] allows the monarch and her relatives to believe that they have some kind of mandate for the continued existence of their institution

    While etiquette in general makes me roll my eyes and I thus find things like this royal wedding beyond silly, I do think the citizens of the Commonwealth realms should think twice before bashing an institution that not only allows for the separation of the duties of their head of state and head of government but also for the individual filling it to accumulate knowledge, experience, and relationships through her or his years of service. As paradoxical as it may sound, eight years with George W. as my head of state lead me to develop a new respect for monarchs.

  7. @MTBradley: Yes, as a Canadian I think I’d rather have a useless monarch than a useful President. Of course, unlike a citizen of the UK I don’t really have to pay for them…

  8. As paradoxical as it may sound, eight years with George W. as my head of state lead me to develop a new respect for monarchs.

    I see your point, but consider the following: George Bush did not get given millions of dollars/pounds in taxes for his personal use, and neither did his family. He may have used the system to give money to friends and family in tax breaks instead, but that’s quite a different thing. It’s certainly not mandated! Citizens of the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha realms pay a lot in taxes for the upkeep of people who, let us remind ourselves, do absolutely nothing. The Queen opens parliament; that is her major constitutional role, and it is entirely symbolic.

    As for the division of head of state and head of government – I think that’s quite a good idea as well, except that I think both should be elected. France, Israel, &c – plenty of modern nations manage to do that. Hereditary monarchy is inherently anti-democratic, and it is predicated on the idea that some people are different from everyone else by dint of birth. That is not rational, and while it may be forever out of reach, I would like the system with control over social facts relevant to me to be as rational as possible. That isn’t a ridiculous notion.

    Since we’re paying money to people who are already rich and don’t do anything to earn that money, but are simply born into it, I’d rather have a democratic system, even if that allowed for the occasional arseburger like Bush. The solution to problems like him isn’t structural, I don’t think, and abuses of the system happen over here too, including the fairly recent scandal over MP’s expenses.

  9. Since we’re paying money to people who are already rich and don’t do anything to earn that money

    I guess I take the more anthropological view point that there is more to ceremony than playing dress-up. As someone who can’t be bothered to iron his shirt I personally find the curling the pinkie stuff risible, but the diplomatic functions are important in the extreme. And while I feel that the Royal Family is overpaid by British taxpayers in a way not dissimilar to American taxpayers’ underwriting (via tax breaks) of professional sports franchises, I also know that Elizabeth doesn’t own the Crown Jewels in the same sense that Art Modell owns the Ravens.

    I don’t want to romanticize the Royal Family or take this thread off track. I just don’t buy that it is either parasitic or an anachronism. I do think the upcoming wedding is silly, but I also hate weddings in general. And no, I don’t kick puppies in my spare time.

  10. I just don’t buy that it is either parasitic or an anachronism. I do think the upcoming wedding is silly, but I also hate weddings in general. And no, I don’t kick puppies in my spare time.

    I’ll be in Oxford this Friday. It will undoubtedly be packed full of the only two types of people in the world who love this stuff: Anglophile foreign students who like the pomp and nonsense but wouldn’t have it in their own country, and upper crust public school kids who are brought up to love it. I shall have to find some republicans to hang around, or I will be accused of puppy-kicking at some point.

    But the monarchy certainly is parasitic, considering that their role is confined to one person but more than one person receives a stipend, and the role that the Queen has could be done by almost anyone. I have no problem with pomp, and while I personally find it a little pointless, I can see that pageantry is an important thing for a lot of people. However, giving positions on descent is wrong and irrational in the modern world. The USA manages to have a lot of ritual – in fact, I’d say it has a lot more than the UK, certainly at lower levels – without descent-based social structures. It’s the hereditary nature of it that I object to.

  11. The UK actually makes quite a tidy profit off the Royals. George III, I believe, was the one who sold a lot of the rights to the royal properties to the gov’t in exchange for a salary — and nowadays, the revenue from the estates to the gov’t is several times the salary paid to the royal house. Plus tourism, eh?

  12. Well, it wouldn’t matter if it were free, or gave us revenue – the principle of equality is quite important, important enough to lose pennies over. In terms of tourism, I think more revenue could be brought in by opening up those great big houses and letting people snoop around. And the places where tourism is really important – in Scotland, north Wales, Yorkshire, and the Lake District – there are either no royal sights to see or they are not why anyone visits those places. I think London would receive as many visitors if the royals were divested of their ‘duties’. Tourism is also no reason to prop up an archaic and anti-democratic institution: if overseas tourists had flocked to see the excesses of Idi Amin or the Ayatollahs, that would have been no reason to keep those institutions. I’m not saying that the royals are as bad, at all, but the principle is the same.

    In terms of the estates, they still have those. A very large proportion of land in Britain is owned by a Windsor, and has never been sold off for anything. Furthermore, the royal family receive a lot of money that isn’t even in their (meagre) job description. See, for instance, this: http://www.republic.org.uk/What%20we%20do/Republic%20Campaigns/Royal%20Finances%20Campaign/index.php

    They aren’t costing us billions, of course. But they are wealthy people who don’t do anything, own a lot of land, and receive money from taxpayers simply for being born. I don’t think there’s a rational justification for that.

  13. The rational justification is that they’re essentially harmless, while taking the symbolic power of the state out of the play of actual power, more or less. Lots of people like the aura that surrounds them, and that aura elsewhere accumulates to people who use it to abuse the rule of law, such as — well, every U.S. president ever, really.

    So it’s a more or less symbolic offense to modernist dignity that doesn’t meaningfully impact the public purse in a negative way. Not exactly material to send people to the barricades, is it?

  14. No, it’s not material to send people to the barricades, which is why Republic is a small movement, at least in the UK. But the important thing here is the principle of selecting the monarch. At present, there is a debate over removing primogeniture, but no one seems to be raising the possibility of removing inevitable succession through descent. Hereditary positions of wealth and power are irrational and, frankly, immoral, even if the power is nominal.* I’m fine with the rest of the system, except the expenditure (which is, after all, a ridiculous amount of money to spend on a couple of services that could be done by almost anybody).

    And again, a separate elected head of state would remove problems with the conflation of symbolic and actual power without endorsing the anti-democratic notion of hereditary succession, which is predicated on the idea that some people are simply and absolutely better than others as a result of their parentage.

    *I don’t let this colour my understanding of hereditary positions in other areas, though.

  15. The ultra-republican US has never fully abandoned the pattern of hereditary access to power. Among just forty-four presidents, three pairs of them (Adams, Roosevelt and Bush) shared a surname and were related. Other relatives have been viable presidential candidates (Kennedy, Clinton). It is not uncommon, if a congressman dies in office, for his wife to be appointed to fill out the term, and some of these appointees have gone on to be elected at the next opportunity. Families of those in power make connections, so it’s understandable that they would have the social capital to run for office, but it’s also the case that the electorate seems to give family ties a great deal of weight–it’s hard, for instance, to imagine that someone with the younger Bush’s limited abilities and obvious deficits could have been elected if he didn’t have a presidential name. Dynasty, it seems, lingers on, even among those of us who claim to think it’s a terrible way to select our leaders.

  16. which is predicated on the idea that some people are simply and absolutely better than others as a result of their parentage.

    Not better – simply born into responsibility, money and power. All our life chances are somewhat determined by that same right of passage – birth. Fact is we are all different from one another by ‘dint of birth’. Some of us get power, some of us get a whole load of money (and use it to become a President) and some of us get nothing at all.

    The Royals number amongst the tiniest of injustices in this world. If I had any confidence that the Government would take the money paid to the Royals and build hospitals, schools, improve public transport or any number of things that would be of real benefit to our country, I might care a whole lot more about the issue. But they’d probably just give it to the bankers or use it to fund more wars.

    I think one of the Americans rituals that the English do not understand is the pledge of allegiance to the flag.

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