Redefining marriage: Queering up Anthro Textbooks

Montreal Pride 2005 has come and gone and, in the midst of post-pride blues, I’ve managed to use the experience of my 4th year as a participant in these events to tie up some loose ends with regards to blog topics that had been spinning around in my head for a while without any specific direction. This posting is therefore the first in a short series of posts that will take a look at queer-related phenomena in an anthropological framework.

The recent event that stands out the most in the queer world is probably the legalisation of same-sex marriage (yes, same-sex marriage as opposed to gay marriage, please) in Spain and Canada. Anthropologically (and yes, personally) I find this quite interesting.

I haven’t done a quantitative study on introductory anthropology textbooks, but it seems to me that many of them, with some exceptions of course, persist in defining marriage as a “insert series of qualifiers here” union between a man and a woman. This is usually followed by explanations of the various forms of marriage, including polygamy which contradicts the “a” in the above definition already (but whatever. . .)

I remember feeling very confused as an early undergrad because of this. I never spoke up because I was far from being out as queer at the time and I figured that maybe same-sex attraction was, after all, some kind of European/North American phenomenon and that I, a lowly undergrad, shouldn’t start messing around with the Established Ones.

One woman in my intro class, who fit the butch-stereotype almost to a T, dared to denounce the definition as heterosexist and I stared at her, wide-eyed, as she blushed and as her voice trembled, knowing that all eyes were on her and that everyone was branding her as a lesbian. The professor brushed her off, saying that in all other societies, marriage was between men and women and for the main purpose of reproduction. Any aspirations that I had at the time of someday being as brave as that young presumably lesbian woman were smashed.

It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I learned that the ethnographic record contains examples of recognised same-sex unions and that the standard anthropological definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman was flawed. And it wasn’t until a few years into my studies that I had the gumption to say “well, even if it were just a North American / European thing, we’re part of the ethnographic record too, ain’t we?”

As it stands, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Canada have legally sanctioned same-sex marriages. In addition to that, a host of small-scale societies around the world have, at some point in time, recognised same-sex unions that would qualify as marriage according to an anthropological definition (except for the man-woman part, of course) in various forms and for various reasons. Whether they all still recognise these after contact with Christian missionaries is unclear however. Of course the irony is that many people who are from societies that recognised same-sex unions “once upon a time” are probably appalled by the recent moved toward this very recognition in Western nations.

In any case, with this turn of events in the queer world, I am curious to see how many textbook authors will alter their definitions of marriage. Some already have, of course, even before these high-profile cases in recognition of the above-mentioned same-sex unions that were noted even by early anthropologists. The benefit for anthro teachers and profs is that it will make it easier to discuss same-sex marriage in the classroom without appearing to have an “agenda”, which is often a risk for an openly queer academic. The benefit at large is that fewer queer students will feel cornered and marginalised in the classroom because they will finally see themselves represented in the discipline that specialises in humanity in all of its aspects.

Of course, these textbooks would run the risk of having stickers put on their inside covers saying something like: “This book contains material on queerness. Queerness is only a theory and . . .” Well, you know the drill.

9 thoughts on “Redefining marriage: Queering up Anthro Textbooks

  1. Borneman, John. 1996. “Until Death Do Us Part: Marriage/Death in Anthropological Discourse.”
    American Ethnologist 23(3): 215-235.

    I like Borneman’s work on this. One question to ask first is whether there *exists* a universal category of marriage that one then defines. What you’re seeing in textbooks, I suggest, is not that marriage is being defined through heterosexuality but that heterosexuality is being defined through marriage … along the lines of David Schneider’s _American Kinship_. Incidentally how is kinship taught in grad anthro classes these days?

  2. Incidentally how is kinship taught in grad anthro classes these days?

    Ha! … if only it were taught. Fortunately I had some good training on this in undergrad, or I wouldn’t know anything. I think most grad students know more about Zizek than cross-cousin marriage.

  3. Thanks for the reference Colin. Looks interesting. You make a good point about heterosexuality being defined through marriage although I would say that it’s true in addition to the reverse rather than “instead of”. I think it would be fair to say that heterosexuality and marriage are assumed to be intertwined and inseperable. We see this a lot in anthropological discourses on women and gender as well where female sexuality is seen as dependant on heterosexual intercourse in the context of marriage. This scheme overlooks many possibilities.

  4. Kinship taught in grad school? I’m with Kerim on this one; we didn’t touch it in grad school and Kinship I and II courses were option as undergrads. We did cover it to quite some extent in intro courses and in other courses such as Gender, Symbolic anthro, Understanding Myths, and courses on particular regions though.

    Mind you, I have only completed a Master’s degree so far so I’m not yet in a position to comment on what it’s like in a doctoral program and when I do it, it will be in a different university so . . . time will tell.

    In any case, I remember that in all those discussions of kinship and drawing diagrams with little triangles and circles, the issue of whether two triangles or circles could be placed in a marital relationship came up only once, and jokingly. Our professor had us draw a diagram of our own families and I placed two triangles representing my brother and his partner of (at the time) 4 years in a marital relation. Some people thought that was amusing whereas I was quite serious (especially in Quebec, the land of common-law arrangements, another interesting phenonenon for anthros).

  5. For what its worth, my basic anthropology programs (200 level courses) all dealt with kinship with what seemed to be reasonable depth. We went over a variety of marriage systems, including polygamy, polyandry, and what we’d call gay marriage. It never seemed to be a big deal.

    I know that’s just intro type classes, but its getting taught somewhere. Although, exactly how analogous some of these alleged gay marriages were to western style gay marriage wasn’t made clear. That is, it was explained that in certain listed cultures, two males or two females might link up in some way, but whether that cultural thing in question where two males or females live together and so forth was sexual, was never really addressed.

    At the time, I kind of assumed that what was being described was sexual. But in retrospect, it wasn’t explicitly said, and I don’t really know. Unfortunately, I also forget which cultures were being discussed, so I don’t know enough to ask good questions on the subject.

  6. Patrick;

    Here’s the thing: same-sex (as opposed to gay) marriage in many of these societies sometimes happen(ed) for economic or practical reasons just like hetero marriages. There might be a lack of a male heir and a woman might take that palce and marry a woman.

    However, this does not preclude the sexual nature of the relationship, although I’ve seen examples of scholars who have written that there was no sex in these relationships. I’m suspicious of these claims, though, as I’m very aware of the heterocentrism of early scholars in this area.

    There is the example of occasional recognized female unions among Azande co-wives that is of particular interest; I would have to dig up the reference but I remember reading that the union is sometimes made in spite of the husband’s protests.

    Then, of course, there are gender variants among Aboriginal North Americans who would occasionally marry someone of the same sex (but of a different gender).

    Of course, in all these cases, the meaning and conceptualization of the same-sex relation has little to do with “gayness” as described in Western terms. In most of these cases, people don’t identify themselves according to the sex of the people they have intercourse with or marry in the way that North Americans (and I imagine Europeans) do.

  7. Thanks — I try to read this stuff, but I have no idea what the grad-study culture is around these topics. For me, at least in terms of denaturalizing the way “family” is used in economics, the work of people like Schneider, Yanagisako, Errington, and Borneman has been very helpful. One thing that interests me is to what extent Schneider’s critique has been absorbed or deflected in anthro — Nancy’s reference to a professor’s “main purpose of reproduction” statement suggests that an old-fashioned naturalism retains its hold in some quarters.

    I would still like to trouble the way we slide between “union” and “marriage” in a way that might suggest that we are talking about local variants of a single master pattern. It’s hard — conventions of social science language push us to use general language, and while often you-all may be using that general language in a purely provisional pointing-at way, it still gets heard as though you’re discussing universal categories. Surely it’s clear that what people understand by being married, and what it means in practice vary a lot. E.g. in some situations the main new dyadic social relationship following marriage may be between a young woman and her mother-in-law. Without necessarily going back to full Levi-Straussian exchange-of-women, spotlighting dyadic sexual ties seems questionable.

    To extend what I take to be Nancy’s last point, ““gayness” as described in Western terms” should be only a provisional stopping point in understanding places like the United States too. Queer Theory has shown the need to destabilize this and pointed to the various kinds of exclusions that are created by a single notion of gayness. (At some point on this blog we also need to have a go at what “Western” means and what work it is doing in people’s utterances, but probably not now.)

    P.S. If anyone would like to have a go at critiquing me, I’d be delighted to get comments (possibly on this forum if directly relevant to Nancy’s original post, else to on pages 8-10 of
    which attempts a summary of the kin-crit anthro lit, in the course of some remarks on heteronormativity in economics. I’d be happy to get comments on the rest of it too, but it’s kind of a long paper.

  8. Colin; Thanks for the link. I checked it out but am busy packing for a trip to Massachussets. When I get back, I will certainly read it and get back to you as the topic is of interest to me.

    Your comment re: union/marriage is interesting. The way I understand it, in the anthropological sense, is that marriage, in its broadest sense, is a type of union among others. Many unions that fall under the anthro category (as opposed to the lay category) of marriage might not look anything like what a North American would recognize as a marriage (I’m thinking particularly of societies where there may be no ceremony marking the beginning of marriage . . .I can’t remember which, but I know it exists). So when I talk about socially recognised (within a particulat society) union, I’m talking about what an anthropologist might categorise as marriage.

    Another example is the common-law arrangement so typical in today’s Quebec where, after 1 year of cohabitation or the birth of a child, two people have pretty much the same official recognition as a couple that gets a civil or religious marriage. I always felt that, from an anthropological perspective, this type of arrangement might fall under the category of marriage, even if a segment of the population does not hold it in the same regard.

    And, yes, “gayness” (or lesbianism or bisexuality or transgender) are all terms that become problematic in a cross-cultural and historical perspective. In my forth-coming posts in this “queer” series, I will be touching on that, especially with reference to the Two-spirit identity in Aboriginal North America.

    As for the whole “Western” thing; yeah, I have problems with that too and I’m not sure where to begin on that one. I try to avoid it and when I can’t, I try to put it in quotation marks.

  9. Thanks Nancy! One thing that interests me is the way a lot of relations we think of as *essentially* dyadic maybe aren’t e.g. getting married often means acquiring a rather large set of new kin, not just one person. One of the problems of heteronormativity is the impulse to zero in on the dyadic tie, and to see it as the essence of what’s going on. This is not to say we don’t experience dyadic ties, but that 3rd and 4th parties have a lot to do with them. It’s interesting that a lot of lesbian and gay thought stresses friendship and establishing and maintaining larger networks. This is probably a pretty obvious point to anthropologists, who are more accustomed to thick sociality, but it’s difficult to transport this kind of insight to places like philosophy or economics which are more used to beginning with individual consciousness.

    What I want to figure out re “Western” is what is the thing, or what are the discursive situations, that make us want or need to use the term. Often in anthro it’s in order to make a warning: don’t extend the “Western” concept of X to someplace else. Anyway, maybe one of you all can start a topic on it some time.

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