The End of Marriage

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:

  1. Give stuff away
  2. ? ? ?
  3. Profit!

Bush’s promotion of “loving and serving” each other sounds similar:

  1. Defend marriage
  2. ? ? ?
  3. 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.

73 thoughts on “The End of Marriage

  1. “. 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.”

    Where is your source(s) for these statistics. I’m not doubting them. It’s just that this information would be useful when debating others about this subject.

  2. I suppose I should add that one major difference between now and the \\\’50s is that the average age of marriage today is around 26; in the \\\’50s, it was 16 or 17. So many teen pregnancies in the \\\’50s took place in (or just on the cusp of) marriage. Just want to make clear the distinction between \\\”teen pregnancy\\\” and \\\”unwed pregnancy\\\”.

    However remember that the argument most people make against teen pregnancy today is not that teens suddenly become responsible when they get married but that teens are not responsible enough to raise children well.

  3. The world viewed from Las Vegas – it isn’t quite the same everywhere!

    I suppose your argument works quite well, as far as it goes – but it doesn’t go far enough. I’ve been married for almost thirty-three years, and I like it. For me the deal is about commitment to a defined kind of relationship, entered into before witnesses drawn from the society I inhabit. As I have experienced it, this marriage has been a structure in which a family has learned how to be with others, exactly as seems to be required in the world we now live in – especially Las Vegas?!

    But I didn’t marry for any of the reasons you describe, having actually led the highly mobile kind of life you describe. The marriage has been one of very few constants, offering stability to the parties to it, and their children. I still think it offers the best basis for learning the skills today really demands, but they’re not about career advancement and the like.

    I prefer a little spirit with my life, but let’s see how your way works out…

  4. An interesting thought, but I have a problem with this dichotomy between social organizations where kinship ties are essential to production and those where they are not. If I understand the argument correctly, there are societies where production is mediated by the market and other societies where it is mediated by kin relations. While the reification of discreet social units with their own disentangled modes of production is problematic, I want to draw attention to something more subtle, and perhaps more interesting: The idea that in ‘our’ societies, food production is not labor intensive.
    While the kind of labor–it’s value and, perhaps most significantly, it’s visibility–may be different in post-industrial urban settings (be they of the ‘west’ or the rest) that does not mean it is non-existent or irrelevant. To say that say that post0industrial food production is not labor intensive is to privilege (or even romanticize) a particular kind of agricultural labor. Furthermore, there are innumerable colonial examples of the significance of heterosexual, monogamous, bi-lineal kinship forms to the imposition of a capitalist market and the disciplining of desire that is necessary for the construction of ‘modern’ (i.e. radically individual, and individually autonomous, consumer/citizen) subjects.
    Call me a Neo-Marxist, but I don’t think we can separate the particular vision of marriage that is being defended (or imposed) by the right from the neo-liberal project of subject formation that displaces the ethical culture of the state with the entrepreneurial culture of the individual. The Malthusian couple of the New Deal may have lost out to the demands of business, but the New Right is just as dependant on the nuclear family, not as a social support, but as self sufficient unit that can excuse the provisioning of the state rather than require it (as it did in ‘days of yore’). Also, lets not forget that what is liberated in Neo-Liberalism, is not the individual, but the market (and food-production is part of this market). The flip side of this coin as it is minted in the U.S. is not the shrinking of government that characterized the begging of the current pendulum swing in the late 1970 and 1980s (the truly laissez faire model), but an increased, and increasingly precise, government intervention in the affairs of the family and, concomitantly in the creation of the conditions in which this particular form of capitalism can thrive.
    All that to say, no matter which side of the ‘marriage debate’ you fall on, it is important to remember the matrix of materialism within which forms of marriage, no matter what the mode of production.

  5. One thing that I think your analysis ignores that I keep coming back to in this argument is the resources available to the two provider household. How would this be accomplished in your marriage-free future? Would every father be taxed according to paternity to support his progeny? Any such system would of necessity be very inefficient and burdensome, would it not?

    From an economic standpoint marriage just makes sense in present society as a way for two people to effectively redirect their efforts and energy towards things other than mate selection and all the trouble involved therein. (The limited number of pregnancies a single woman can carry will always make this is limited resource that will come into play, now if we all just spawned like salmon then maybe not.)

    How do you see interests of men and women individually being propagated in this coming marriage free world. How will mate selection happen and who will be propagating their genes forward? In any animal model that I can come up with there will almost certainly be a large group of men excluded as the “super males” father a disproportionate number of children (women selecting the best fathers for their children and all). What will become of them? That is a recipe for disaster in my mind as it is fully in the best interest of that group to totally disrupt the social order to gain some reproductive advantage. This is my biggest question about the whole polygamy issue? What do you do with the excess men? (And there will always be excess men even with the presence of polyandry.) In Utah the basically excommunicate a vast number of them and kick them out of the society. That works for small communities but not for the whole of western society.

    Even though I might sound like it I don’t have a dog in this fight, I just think that there is a set of structural issues that are not being addressed in your future world (and at present as well).

    Well I gotta meeting to run to so talk later.

  6. Let’s leave aside for the moment the current political debate, as it is clearly a front to shore up support from traditional conservatives in the face of plummeting polls.

    While your argument has a snappy intellectual appeal, it misses the fact that marriage can provide significant symbolic and material value to people with the discipline, perseverance, and emotional intelligence to enjoy its.

    I’ll focus on marriage as a support of childrearing to make three arguments for marriage from my personal experience:

    Material: Raising children is costly. My extended kin group provides goods and services that might otherwise be unavailable to our child. These resources provide additional opportunities for our child and buffer against hard times. Because all my known ancestors had successful marriages and the same is true for my wife, the effects of this have been amplified over time.

    Cultural: An extend kin group acts as ‘error correction’ for a bad parent. Parents transmit key cultural information, necessary to succeed, to their children. This information is strong in my kin group. Were I to have an errored set if this information, my children have access to ‘backups’ of this cultural data in our kin group.

    My third argument regards the emotional (maybe spiritual) impacts of broken households. I’m going to generalize wildly from my personal experience, so take this with a grain of salt. I, of course, realize that it would be easy to find counter-examples. The following is a stereotype, with all the limitation that are inherent to a stereotype.

    Emotional: I have many friends who were raised in culture of successful marriages. We can easily spot people raised by single parents. They are deeply emotionally wounded and insecure. To us they seem emotionally unavailable. The females are often on antidepressants. The males’ actions are rooted in anger and fear.

    Without a strong self confidence, they are easily swayed by advertiser promises that consumerism will provide what they are missing. They misunderstand the importance of successful relationships to happiness. They put careers first and then puzzle why they are emotionally unfulfilled.

    This effect is so strong that my friends who were raised in culture of successful marriages say they wouldn’t consider someone raised by a single parent for a spouse.

  7. Nicholas, Zoe, Uko, Jim,

    Good comments, all. Just a few comments:

    a) Nearly all the financial benefits described by Jim and Ukko are benefits of two (or more) adults living together, not of marriage per se.

    b) Same thing with the emotional benefits described by Nicholas and Jim, although as Nicholas points out, there is a huge symbolic value in publicly attesting to a lifelong commitment that is absent from most non-married situations. That said, given that half of those lifelong commitments aren’t as lifelong as they were intended to be, I think it’s fair to say that some of the symbolic cachet is fading.

    c) We already do tax fathers according to their progeny; it’s the keystone of Clinton’s welfare reform. In order to receive welfare, a single mother must know who the father of her child is, and the father pays a special tax to reimburse the state for its support of his children.

    d) A goodly number of mate selections already take place outside of marriage, and have for some time.

    e) I do not deny the labor-intensivity of modern agricultural production. However, only about 1% of Americans are involved in agriculture, and corporatization has for the most part replaced kinship in structuring agricultural production. None of what I’ve written can apply directly to non-Werstern contexts, though — in societies where agricultural production is still what most people do, we’d expect to find the large, closely-knit kinship networks that are characteristic of intensive agriculture, regardless of colonial status.

    f) Again, my bottom line argument is not that marriage is a Bad Thing, but that given the trends that seem to shape modern capitalism, it will be increasingly stripped of function and, ultimately, meaning. I wouldn’t advise someone not to get married because it doesn’t feed the capitalist machine as well as single-hood, and I would pr’y marry if the opportunity arose (although that I and many others like me have lived to my mid-30s without marrying, enjoying a string of long-term committed relationships in which marriage was not a necessity, does not say much about the necessity of marriage). The point is, marriage is becoming increasingly optional, and it’s hard to say something optional is all that important to the ongoing survival of a society.

    g) I’ve avoided here the many legal and social benefits that accrue to married couples because of the way the law or institutional regulations favor married couples, things like being able to insure one’s partner. I’ve avoided them because they’re not inherent to the marriage bond itself, but rather form part of the network of supports that I see dwindling away (e.g. I’m sure many employers would love to get rid of insuring hteir workers’ spouses).

  8. Nicholas is right — anthropology in the service of Las Vegas! I agree with you that arguments about the universality of marriage are ethnographically bankrupt. That said, I do think it is really problematic to say that “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”

    What is your evidence for this statement? It seems far too simple to me both in terms of the ethnographic evidence and the Marxist-cum-ecological determinism used to explain this supposed correlation?

  9. Are there solid statistics for the proportion of married men and women who have an outside sexual relationship? My sense is if 50% of marriages end in divorce, one or both partners have cheated in the other 50%.

  10. Jim Masterson writes,

    This effect is so strong that my friends who were raised in culture of successful marriages say they wouldn’t consider someone raised by a single parent for a spouse.

    This, if true, is an interesting observation, quite apart from old-fashioned functionalist debates over whether marriage is necessary. Imagine, for example, a society increasingly polarized between the marrying type and the singletons. Let us suppose, too, that the former have an edge that contributes to a higher likelihood of upward mobility or retaining middle or higher-class membership. What would be the outcome?

    Here I have only hearsay evidence to offer; but this scenario may not be so far-fetched as many might like to believe that it is. My wife informs me (based on sociology now nearly four decades old) that the best predictor of higher SAT scores is, get this, the grandparents’ level of education. I recall, too, that around the time my daughter was entering Annapolis in 1994, we saw statistics indicating that the likelihood of admission to Ivy League and other elite colleges was growing up in an intact family. I also know from personal experience that my maternal grandfather provided the loan that allowed my parents to buy a large piece of Virginia waterfront that went into a family trust that will play an important part in securing an comfortable retirement for my wife and I, and that when I think what to do with our investments, I think primarily now of making sure that my daughter will be able to pursue whatever career she likes when she leaves the Navy and that our new grandson will also be well-launched and well-educated when he grows up.

    I do know, of course, that not everyone enjoys the kind of advantages that come from being part of families with my families peculiar values. I also know that there is nothing automatic about people with long-lived marriages producing children who will be as successful as they were, in marriage or anything else. In our family, the difference between my father’s sister’s children (the Campbell clan), who have mostly done very well for themselves and his older brother’s kids who have been a largely feckless lot, is legendary.

    Still, reverting to Masterson’s observation, I wonder if the division between the marrying type and the singletons isn’t a social division whose effects may be growing, with consequences as yet largely unconsidered.

  11. i agree with a lot of these points. i however do question the basic notion that would break a lot of these arguments and its that humans are not good with too much change. think about it: most of us stay in the same areas that we were raised. changing partners thoughout life may disrupt trust and loyality and may make children feel unstable if not done with great care.
    there is an innate need to be loved and to feel loved. ego is a very delicate thing and so is security. humans are jealous creatures by nature and tend to grow lonely if not nutured long enough. does this mean that marriage is the answer: not exactly, but i understand it. we can put in writing statistics all day long and discuss religion all day long, but i dont think marriage is really going anywhere anytime soon. i think civil unions would be a better solution…i also think women must rethink having children for the right reasons and not just because you are married (as i find most people do).
    interesting article it has a lot of very good points-

  12. As a resident of the marriage capital of the nation, I have to say I’m totally flummoxed by the repeated reference to Las Vegas. What exactly is supposed to be different about Vegas from Elsewhere?

    And finally someone hits on the functionalism of the post! It’s true — marriage is more than function. But how much more? One of my reasons for writing this post is to put forth the question of how important symbolic meaning is; granted, meaning is also a function, but I think it’s a function of a different order than, say, organizing production.

    Given John McC’s and other’s comments about the importance of a strong family, again let me point out that marriage is neither essential nor constitutive of a strong family. Some 80-odd percent of African-Americans are raised in women-headed households, and yet the African-American communities I’ve had contact with have had a pretty strong sense of family. (For instance, even in the relative absence of marriage among African-Americans, some 50% of fathers remain significantly involved in their children’s lives.)

    Meanwhile, abuse rates within marriage remain high, lending neither stability (not the kind I think most of us see as a social good, anyway) nor emotional security.

    Rex, I admit I simplified the ethnographic material quite a bit — for instance, I cited rural China as a place where marraige bonds tend to be stronger, but the Nayar of China don’t even have marriage. But I think the general premise is sound: the kind of life-long, monogamous marriage we think of as “normal” inthe West is associated ethnographically with intensive agriculture; the kind of sporadic, short-term marriage we actually practice in the West is much more common among foraging peoples. These are generalizations, not laws, but I think they help wrap our head around the way people talk about marriage in our society.

  13. Beth, people may be resistant to “too much” change — I’m not sure about that, but maybe. But there are good ethnographic records of societies in which marriage bonds are weak and individuals change partners throughout their lives, and nobody (not social scientists, anyway) has suggested that this has a deleterious effect on the society or on child-rearing. The Hopi are one example (and another exception from the agriculture = strong marriage argument), the Ju’/huansi I mentioned before another. Part of my argument here is that the nature of our society is such that, in the absence of economic and social supports, we too would have (and do have) weak marriage in the style of the Ju’/huansi.

  14. Oneman clarified his position thusly

    a) Nearly all the financial benefits described by Jim and Ukko are benefits of two (or more) adults living together, not of marriage per se.

    In my haste I most likely did not make clear that I totally agree with that, modulo the parenthetical “(or more)” with I do not agree with in general. The added pressures of a polyamorous relationship just strike me as too great to operate on a societal level. That said it certainly does not mean that society should actively dissuade such people, just that they have so many overwhelming problems of there own that they will not be a “threat” to marriage in the general populace.

    c) We already do tax fathers according to their progeny; it’s the keystone of Clinton’s welfare reform. In order to receive welfare, a single mother must know who the father of her child is, and the father pays a special tax to reimburse the state for its support of his children.

    Yes, but you are taking an extremal case and using it to argue for change in the majority. In those cases would not the children in question receive a larger share of their fathers resources in the context of a marriage with pooled resources. If for no other reason than the administrative cost of enforcement and redistribution will be removed. Presently marriage plays the role of funneling resources into child rearing, if you abolish it what will play that role? How will it be fair enough to those involved to make it a viable approach?

    d) A goodly number of mate selections already take place outside of marriage, and have for some time.

    I am a bit confused by this since it can be read more than one way. Roughly are you talking about adultery, shacking up, or just sleeping around? They represent different facets of the mate selection game. A date with my wife today is vastly different than when we were first dating, it is much cheeper and we enjoy ourselves 1000x more. How many men have gone into hock and how many women have spent hours primping to raise their perceived value in the dating pool. Marriage again allows the participants to get off that particular treadmill.

    f) Again, my bottom line argument is not that marriage is a Bad Thing, but that given the trends that seem to shape modern capitalism, it will be increasingly stripped of function and, ultimately, meaning. I wouldn’t advise someone not to get married because it doesn’t feed the capitalist machine as well as single-hood, and I would pr’y marry if the opportunity arose (although that I and many others like me have lived to my mid-30s without marrying, enjoying a string of long-term committed relationships in which marriage was not a necessity, does not say much about the necessity of marriage). The point is, marriage is becoming increasingly optional, and it’s hard to say something optional is all that important to the ongoing survival of a society.

    One issue that I think needs to be touched on here is that there is a clash of terminology between you and I here. I spent a number of years “living in sin” with my present wife in Scandinavia and we were what is loosely translated as “openly married”. That kind of common law marriage afforded us the social benefits of marriage, like access to the equivalent of married student housing, but we did not get officially married until later. About the only difference is that paternity is not assumed when you have children but nobody really looks down on it. I include that sort of a relationship in my definition of marriage, since if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck. That also means that the gay couple down the street with the three kids are married in my eyes, legal machinations notwithstanding.

    I don’t see marriage as going away in Scandinavia where now more that half of all children are born outside of official wedlock, and I do not see it going away here either. There is just so many benefits (and not those mandated by the state an society at large) that if there was no marriage it would have to be invented. Now that does not mean that it needs to be state sanctioned or consecrated (although those things might still serve a useful social purpose).

    As for the influence of capitalism on marriage and the perfect worker, I don’t think we should fret much. Because for that particular dystopia to come to be you would need large numbers of people to be making decisions that harm their immediate kin over a long period of time. It just seems that the imperfect workers will be more reproductively successful and push the perfect workers out of the system.

    I guess that also you could be arguing different thing about the “ultimate meaning” of marriage that are different than the facts on the ground support. If you are arguing against marriage as espoused by the radical right, then that is just an imaginary straw man. Have fun kicking it over 😉

  15. I’m so sorry.

    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.

    Is it that you’ve personally divorced recently? Or you saw your parents’ marriage breakup? Or you just have a problem with committment?

    I’m recently married and it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. But it’s because we were friends first, and genuinely love and nurture each other.

    Recent studies show that married men live longer, and that when husbands and wives hold hands, it lowers blood pressure, and lowers stress.

    Being alone makes people sad, lonely, and die quicker.

  16. ” the average age of marriage today is around 26; in the \’50s, it was 16 or 17.”

    Correct about current conditions (27 for men, 25 for women), but the median age of first marriage has never been lower than 22 for men (from the late 1940s into the mid-1960s) and 20 for women (from the late 1940s into the early 1970s).

    Of course, in a society where marriage at 20 was typical, there were a lot of 16- and 17-year-old brides, but it wasn’t the norm.

  17. Thanks for the correction, penalcolony — though, if the median age of marriage was 20, doesn’t that mean half of all those married were teens?

    Ukko, I’m not sure polyamoury has the goods to become a society-wide institution, but note that this is hardly the only situation in which two or more unmarried adults might live together — consider extended families, roommates, divorced parents co-habiting because neither can afford to move out, etc. Many situations provide the same economic benefits (in terms of splitting costs and/or securing resources) that marriage does.

    Is it that you’ve personally divorced recently? Or you saw your parents’ marriage breakup? Or you just have a problem with committment?

    I’ve never been married, may parents were married for 23 years and remain good friends, and I’ve been in an 8-year-long monogamous relationship which ended several years ago, so no, no, and no. But I do resent the idea that an analysis that differs from yours must necessarily be the result of personal trauma. Marriage may well be the greatest thing that’s ever happened to/for you, but at least 50% of your co-Americans find otherwise (that 50% is just the number that decide to un-marry; how many continue in unsatisfying marriages?) — and as far as I know, none of them have consulted with me about my personal trauma before deciding to end their marriages.

    So, finally, a question: I don’t think I’m wrong that there’s a definite trend away from strong, enduring marriages in Western nations (that’s not the question part) — what would it take to reverse that trend? And why would we want to?

  18. Excellent post.

    I am strictly opposed to marriage. I do not believe it provides any added value to the individual. You do not need to be married in order to be/live with someone that you deeply care about.

  19. What about Schneider’s old argument that kinship relations are understood partly in opposition to market relations (as based on “blood” and characterized by “love”): might not marriage in our society be important precisely because it creates a space “outside the market”? And in any case, how exactly is that that something around which there is huge political controversy in any sense “not meaningful”?

  20. Oneman I know its your _impression_ that that there’s a correlation between ‘intensive agriculture’ and monogamy. But do you have any evidence for this — a comparative study you’ve read, for example? And what is ‘intensive agriculture’ anyway? Does it count sweet potato farming in Papua New Guinea? Because cultivation there can be quite intense. Alternately look at Eastern Polynesia, an area which was enormously cultivated, including both heavily irrigated and terraced agriculture as well as fishfarming, etc. — yet Hawaii is not exactly a place with austere sexual or marital practices.

    As for China, which China are you talking about? The one where family relationships are, in some sense, also (and perhaps primarily!) relationships controled by your workgroup? Or are you thinking about divorce rates in Qing China? Or are you thinking about normative statements within these cultures rather than the actual rate of divorce within them?

    Overall I think the entire discussion very strange since I think of marriage as a contract entered into between two groups who exchange individuals, not two individuals who exchange rings!

  21. There are two big “elephants in the room” that are sort of being touched upon by all posters but aren’t being discussed: 1. The assumption that “normal” people marry (and by extension nont ‘normal” people don’t marry). 2. Pronatalism in the West.

    Before I discuss hese two issues, I will state that my parents have been married for almost 30 years. In addition I would like to get married some time in the future and eventually have children (whether “naturally” or adopted). It annoys me that I have to provide this background in this discussion because being married or the product of two parent household doesn’t give you special credentials to understand what marriage is “really” about. Even within the “West” there are a variety of ways in which marriage plays out and your personal experiences don’t necessarily represent the whole.

    Back to the issues I raised at the beginning.
    1. Within the “West” and especially in the United States (I don’t know enough about European views on marriage), many seem to have the belief that “normal” people should get married and that for most people marrige is necessarily a good thing. This is true of both men and women. Women are often depicted as strange or “old maids” if they haven’t married after their late 30’s. Men on the other hand are protrayed as adult adolescents who haven’t really grown up.

    Underlying both portrayals is the assumption there is something wrong with people who haven’t married or who have come from non-two parent households (i.e. their parents divorce explains why they can’t be “normal” marry like “regular” people should)). This assumption seems to be the basis for many of the people who are “defending” marriage in response to Oneman’s original. I disagree with oneman’s contention that marriage is antithetical to capitalism but that doesn’t mean that non-married people are broken, depressed, not really adults or not normal.

    I suspect that this emphasis on marriage as “what normal people do” would explain the high divorce rates in the US. Many people who don’t want to marry, who aren’t willing to put the emotional work into marriage or who are nearly too old might be getting married for the sake of appearing “normal.” Of course getting married because its what people are “supposed to do” is a horrible reason for getting married. There are other factors which probably are more important (there’s been a lot sociological and anthropological work looking at what factors ensure a stable marriage).

    2. Directly tied to the assumption that “nromal” people get married is the assumption that “normal” people have children (i.e. a pronatalist view). I think that for many people the fifties depiction of the mom, dad and two kids represents the ideal that all people should aspire to. This is directly tied to white, middle class values and the idea that one hasn’t “made it” unless one has a husband or wife, and kids while living in a middle class neighborhood.

    Buying into the idea of the “perfect family” has three consequneces. First, it blinds us to other forms of childcare that could be just as stable for children. I don’t see why a group of single mothers couldn’t collectively get together and share childcare responsabilities while different mothers are at work or for that matter gay parents couldn’t raise children. (While I don’t think that other posters are necessarily arguing against gay marriage, those who are “pro-marriage” seem to be focusing on heterosexual marriagse). I find it strange that anthropologists would assume that there is only to properly raise children and appear to by into this aspect of the “perfect family” myth.

    Second, this myth causes some people to look down on childless couplss. Underlying this myth is the assumption that the most improtant function of marriage is raising kids. Childless couples are looked down upon or looked at with pity. There are numerous depictions in the media of childless couples as unhappy or mean spirited people.

    Third, this myth causes some married couples to have what I would call “trophy kids”. Trophy kids would be children that a couple has not because they want children for the sake of having children but because they want the “perfect family.” These would be the parents that care more about how their children’s actions are perceived by others than what is actually good for their children. (e.g. The parent who wants their son or daughter to be a lawyer so they can outdo the occupations of other parents that they know)

    Perhaps I’m wrong in my analysis but I don’t understand how anthropologists of all people are on the edge of arguing that marriage is the best form of social organization for all people in the West. I find it especially strange that people can respect a variety of practices in other cultures but that when it comes to their own, they take an almost universalistic view. It seems overly moralistic and arrogant to me (and possibly a tad bit disengenous).

    Finally, I don’t agree with oneman that capitalism inevitablely will lead (or does lead) to the breakdown of marriages. Since I have such a long post I don’t really want to get into that at this point.

    I apologize for any typos or grammar mistakes. I have to go and don’t have time to proof read.

  22. Rex, you may be right — I’m dealing with a subset of possible forms of marriage, based on ethnographic and historical work on Europe and Central and South Asia; I probably shouldn’t have included China at all (by the way, what is the divorce rate in rural China?) and have little background at all on Micro/Mela/Polynesia and SE Asia. I would have put all that into the “horticulture” bucket, but I see that would be wrong. The real issue here is peasantry, which perhaps can’t be generalized as “agriculture” per se.

    Comet — I’ve used “meaningful” in two ways, one to describe the functional importance, the other to describe symbolic importance. It is the first area where I see marriage as losing meaning, not the second. It is the second sense in which the current debate in the US is grounded — marriage as tradition, marraige as religious commandment, marriage as a bedrock value. I would argue that marriage is *not* a bedrock value in the US, but that’s not what I’m arguing here; here I’m asking how and whether symbolic meaning can sustain a social practice that does not seem to serve the needs of our society’s members or of our society itself very well. I would argue that the intensity of the debate around marriage is precisely *because* marriage is in danger of becoming unnecessary. This is where the point you raised about Schneider comes in: marriage and family have, for the last hundred-odd years, been depicted precisely as refuges from the alienation and depersonalization of the workplace and/or urban living. But does marriage do this anymore (if it ever did)? Can it do this at all without recreating the kinds of gender relations that feminists have worked so hard to undo? What I’d have liked to do, and maybe will when I can get some material together, is look at the symbolic side of the equation; here I’ve focused mainly on the functional side. For instance, the modern information workspace seems to demand a much higher level of identification with one’s employer than was common 50 years ago — during the Internet boom, workers often stayed at work for days at a time. The ideal situation for workers is that the workplace is where employees want to be, even during their downtime — whether this is where the economy as a whole is headed,or whether this is a particular quirk of specific industries, I couldn’t say. If it is a general tendency, though, we’d expect to see less consideration of the family as a “refuge” and perhaps more worry about the family as a distraction from work or an unwanted responsibility.

    GSG, agreed. This is the kind of thinking I was hoping to elicit. One thing, though — I don’t want to pin this all on “capitalism”, that’s a short-hand for a bunch of different (but related) factors, one being worker relations, another being the rise of a consumption-driven identity, another being the consolidation of populations in urban centers, etc. I could’ve said “urban” instead of “capitalist”, then Rex’d think I was less a Marxist-cum-ecological-determinist and more a Redfieldian continuumist. Or I could’ve said “postmodern”, since capitalism as I’m discussing it here is really Harvey’s postmodern condition, and then I’d be a Harveyan political economist cum Stewardian cultural ecologist. The point is, I’m talking about capitalism as a social and cultural process, not so much as an economic process (though that obviously plays a part as well).

  23. Oneman you say you are focusing on Europe and Central and Southern Asia, and don’t know much about S.E. or East Asia or Oceania. Have you thought about Africa, Australia, or Native North and South America? Because your generalization is growing increasingly more particular…

  24. First, amen to GSG and I would add a third elephant (or maybe just an extra appendage to elephant number two) which is heteronormativity. And amen also for pointing out the annoyance of the self conscious self positioning that some postings have compelled (if post-modern ethnography has taught us anything its the difference between self positioning and self indulgence; between reflexivity and defensiveness).
    Now, I’ve got annother question about another distinction–the distinction between functionalist importance and symbolic importance.
    Can we really separate the two (especially in the late/advanced/flexible capitalist context were looking at here)? I suggest not that symbolic importance is also functional (oneman rightly preempted that one) but that in this regime of practice/truth–as the two always come together (whoops, now you know I’m also a bit of a foucaultian!)–the symbolic and the functional are becoming less and less discreet (I think Harvey would agree, no?): In an economy that is heavily tertiary, where forms of self are increasingly commodified, the state’s relationship to citizens becomes less and less distinguishable from the relationship of producers to consumers, and acts of self making (such as marriage in the symbolic sense) become more and more subject to those forces of market/state.
    I guess what I’m saying is if the discussion is about the legal institution of marriage we cannot divorce it (mind the pun, it’s a nasty habit) from the neo-liberal matrix within which it sits. If, on the other hand, we are talking about acts of marriage that are non-legal and there for probably don’t involve the state, then we can embrace ‘marriage’ in any and all its forms (including those that are not, or not efficiently or primarily, reproductive).

  25. oneman writes,

    let me point out that marriage is neither essential nor constitutive of a strong family. Some 80-odd percent of African-Americans are raised in women-headed households, and yet the African-American communities I’ve had contact with have had a pretty strong sense of family. (For instance, even in the relative absence of marriage among African-Americans, some 50% of fathers remain significantly involved in their children’s lives.)

    Realizing full well that I am taking a serious risk of being accused of racism and a dozen other moral failings as well, I must point out how utterly illogical this argument is. We move from

    1. A statistic–80% of African American families are headed by women to
    2. An impression–the African American communities that oneman has been in contact with have a strong sense of family, to
    3. 50% of African American fathers remain “significantly involved” in their children’s lives.

    Consider first how dubious the relationn of 2. to either 1. or 3. is since, unless oneman is superman, the proportion of African American communities with which he has been directly involved is surely a minuscule fraction of the universe to which he is generalizing.

    Consider second the importance of the undefined terms “strong sense of family” and “significantly involved” in 2. and 3. What do these mean in different types of socioeconomic circumstances?

    This question demands attention to other assertions often heard in discussions of race and class in America, the high proportion of African-American men who wind up in prison, the high proportion of African-American children who live in poverty (in part because single mothers tend to live in poverty), the very low per capita wealth of African-American families compared to non-African-American families. None of which is, by the way, a denial either of the racism that underlies these sorry fact nor of the fact that there is , on the other hand, a small but flourishing African-American middle class whose circumstances are very different from those envisioned in racial stereotypes bandied about on either the right or the left.

    What parades itself as anthropological analysis turns out, on consideration, to be a mishmash of anecdote, political correctness, and dubious statistical reasoning that takes no account whatever of household composition, education, income-level or any other not very hard to find quantitative data. It doesn’t begin to explore in any serious terms the proportions as well as the range of different marriage types. And it doesn’t even begin to answer the question McCreery raises concerning the material and/ or other (educational? emotional?) advantages that intact families appear to confer disproportionately on their children. Oneman can and should do better.

  26. You should not sweep the father’s rights movement under the conservative rug. It is not conservative, although many conservatives align themselves with and pay lip service to the father’s rights movement.

    In your model, you say children are able to be raised by mommy-only households effectively. Thanks! One more person relegating fathers to the trash bin. Why don’t we make all of them wage-slaves since that is all they seem to be these days.

    I suppose you are all nurture and no nature in your philosophy?

  27. John, I can’t remember the metric used in the study that the father involvement came from — it was something like “x hours per week of contact”, but I heard it on a Public Radio International interview (the guests were Orlando Patterson and Ronald Mincy) and don’t have it to refer back to. Whether the statistical data correlates with my own experience, I can’t say — seems like an anthropolgoical way to think about stuff, though. I mean, I’ve got these statistics, and I’ve got several years of working in both the South Bronx and in North Las Vegas (the working-class black and Latino part of Greater Las Vegas) that have left me with the impression (yes, an impression) of incredibly strong family bonds between brothers and sisters, as well as between generations, but not so much between fathers and mothers (I’ve rarely met a father, actually; I’ve met a lot of uncles). That my impression also seems to accord pretty well with the standard sociological view suggests that it isn’t too far off the mark, but I’m not all that interested in whether or not that’s the case. What *is* the case is that 80% of African-Americans today live in woman-headed households and many of them will grow up just fine; what is also the case is that those children are much less likely to use or take drugs, and much less likely to own or use guns, than their white counterparts in the ‘burbs. (I suppose I’ll have to do a post on this, too — in the meantime, check the U of MI Institute for Social Research’s 2000 report “Monitoring the Future”.) I’m not suggesting that unmarried parents do a better job, I’m saying that marital status is not a good indicator of whether parents will do a good job or a bad job. One might even infer that I was suggesting that “household composition, education, income-level” might have more to do with child-raising outcomes than marital status.

    As to the advantages that intact families confer, I don’t see that you’ve actually proposed any, other than the SAT/grandparent connection (when I was working for the College Board, it was pretty clear that the only significant correlation was between SAT scores and parental income; I’ve never heard this one before, but I worked at CB a long time ago and not for very long). I’ve also seen no reason to assume that married parents constitute an “intact” family (does that mean having unmarried parents makes you a “broken” family?). ANd I’ve also also seen no reason to assume that a lack of marriage implies a lack of family. I’d even venture that children whose parents are divorced might still have grandparents, and may even have contact with those grandparents!

    What I did see in your post way far above this one is a question about the possible effects of a possible cultural division between “marrying types” and “singletons” which is somewhat beyond the scope of my post. I suppose it’s possibly an intriguing question, if there really is such a split, but it’s not something I’m prepared to speculate on.

  28. DadOfTwo says:

    In your model, you say children are able to be raised by mommy-only households effectively.

    I also say children are able to be raised effectively in father-only households (they\’re jsut much rarer). And I imply children can be raised effectively in two-mommy households, two-daddy only households, and what the heck, 4-mommy-6-daddy households. And I think the ethnographic record supports that.

    I suppose you are all nurture and no nature in your philosophy?

    Irrelevant, but that just about hits the nail on the head. And I suppose you are too — if you thought masculinity or femininity were inborn and not produced by nurure, you wouldn\’t worry about what kind of environment boys and girls and others were nurtured in, would you?

  29. Society needs a new model:

    1) Train kids to find mates well. Thus making love more easily replaceable. — Yes, its more to learn, but we’ll deal; plus it’s unavoidable as (real) psychologists learn more about human relationships.

    2) Let women have kids younger (early 20s), but have either the government or grandparents ought to raise them (for free), while the women moves on to live her life. — Government/corporate parenting seems unavoidable as the natural progress towards specialization of careers continues, and as the amount of training reuired to parent naturally increases. But I throw out grandparents as an option since they may want the hoby once they’re happy with their achievments in their first carear.

    No reason to tie people to the cities where their old loves, parents, or children live.

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  31. oneman, sorry if I sounded a bit rude. On my side I am plainly biased because this has been, between the death of my father in January and the birth of my grandson 10 days ago, a very family-intense year, and I also take considerable pride in the fact that my parents celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary and that Ruth and I made it to 37 years this June.

    Perhaps, though, we both need to back up and consider the lesson implicit in Stephanie Coontz’s title The Way We Never Were. That marriage and family arrangements have varied enormously throughout American history and that ideal types have rarely, if ever, been in the majority. This raises very interesting questions, indeed, about the relation of ideal types and changes/debates at the cultural significance level to actual social relations on the ground.

    If you will forgive another of my way-back-when references, I note that similar issues had already become a very big deal in the anthropology of China by the 1960s. Earlier ethnographic accounts had described a Chinese ideal, a big, multigeneration, patrilineal family, with in-marrying daughters-in-law, ancestor worship, Mencius’ dictum that failure to produce a son was the worst of sins, the whole nine yards. These had given way to the recognition that for numerous reasons, including poverty, war, and mass male emigration to escape poverty and war, the ideal was frequently not realized. So earlier accounts gave way to a simplistic class analysis:the rich and fortunate enjoy those big families, the poor and unlucky do not. Around the time I was in graduate school, the simplistic class analysis was giving way to Africanist-influenced cyclical models of family and household development: The idea was advanced that big families would fission at the death of the senior patriarch or matriarch (yes, it could be either), leaving behind multiple smaller families, some of which might then endure and multiply to become big families again. In some versions of the model, a surprisingly large proportion of individuals would spend some portion of their lives in big families that approximated the ideal. That was the state of play when Arthur Wolf began analyzing household records from all over China and discovered variation beyond the scope of even the household-cycle cum economic factors models to account for. That, unfortunately, was when I went off in other directions and stopped following this literature.

    What I came away with was, however, an enduring predisposition to look at households as economic units and to ask how relations of production and consumption affect the endemic stresses and strains of family life. It is, in my view, by no means simply the case that shared property holds families together. Fights over property are a classic motive in murder mysteries and a very live concern in real life as well. Family life can also have other, emotional rewards or be very nasty, indeed, depending on the personalities rubbing up against each other.

    I do take it as a given that Victor Turner is right, and conflict and contradiction are endemic in human life and that particular outcomes reflect both economic conditions and how well conflict and contradiction are managed by those most directly concerned.

    Thus, reflecting on my own experience, I note how one of my mother’s deepest anxieties was that my brother and I would fight over the property that she and my father would leave to us. I count myself very lucky, indeed, that while my brother and I fought like cats and dogs as kids and went very different ways as we grew up, his respect for out mother’s wishes is ironclad, so I don’t have to worry about his being the estate’s executor.

    As an anthropologist I note reflexively how specific our situation is to a place and time in history, with a father who worked as a machinist in a shipyard for most of his life but had a father-in-law who was willing and able to provide the loan that enabled him to buy the land that his sons would inherit, that his sons were the children of people deeply, romantically in love but also of a generation to whom divorce was, if thinkable, unmentionable, and thus inclined to stick together even when the going was rough, which it was at times. I know many, many people who have grown up in different ways, in different kinds of families, some of whom have achieved success beyond my wildest dreams (Bill Clinton, for example).

    Anyway, I much prefer discussions of marriage and family that take full note of variations and avoid the casual stereotyping to which even we, the anthropologists, are so often inclined.

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  33. Anyway, I much prefer discussions of marriage and family that take full note of variations and avoid the casual stereotyping to which even we, the anthropologists, are so often inclined.

    Fair enough, John. But here, I\’m not attempting to describe the wide range of practices that make up \”marriage\” in the contemporary US, but rather speculating on what such practices might look like in the future, based on current trends. And here I run into a problem — marriage is a very poorly defined concept. It\’s very much a \”I know it when I see it\” kind of thing. By the traditional anthropological conception of marriage (along the lines of \”a publicly sanctioned relationship in which each partner has certain rights and obligations, including sexual access to each other\”) a lot of practices end up looking like marriage that most of us wouldn\’t call marriage. So it may well be that something called \”marraige\” continues to exist even should the most dystopian tendencies within modernity become dominant. It just might look very, very much different from the practice or set of practices currently at the center of American political debate.

    So, yeah — as it turns out, what I\’m talking about isnecessarily an ideal type, and that ideal type, as it turns out, is an ideal of someone — basically, it\’s a white, middle-class, heteronormative, Judeo-Christian, pronatalist ideal. And that ideal form is, I think, increasingly irrelevant to the lives Americans live, rooted as it is in the religion and culture of people whose lifestyles demanded very different sorts of inter-personal and inter-familial relaitionships than ours do.

    This is interesting because it might help resolve an issue that I only touched in passing above: why non-traditional forms of marriage might scramble for legitimacy at the same time that traditional, ideal marriage seems to hold less and less appeal. And not just same-sex marriage; the two-career marriage has struggled and still struggles to be recognized, the childless marriage also. Those struggles are getting fiercer, and as I suggest above, I think the fierceness of this struggle is a clue as to just how irrelevant that ideal is becoming.

  34. Overall, I see weddings, marriage, and partnerships as 3 different things, with different implications and benefits; social, financial, or personal.

    A wedding is a ceremony that surrounds the act of marriage, often religious in nature. To me, marriage is a contract, just like a business partnership and the benefits of a marriage contract in the U.S. today are purely financial. Anyone can have a life-partner, and the benefits of finding a partner to share your life with, inside or outside of a marriage can be emotional and physical.

    Marriage is neither holy nor perfect: it’s a contract. Notice that we didn’t hear much about the rights of same-sex-marriage until after the government gave tax benefits to married couples? Until then, there wasn’t as great a financial benefit to being married in the eyes of the government, and many of the other benefits can be settled with contracts.

    I feel that weddings have become wastes of money and time for all involved. I am generalizing, but it has become an industry getting every bride to spend outrageous amounts on lavish dresses, fancy foods, and hundreds of guests. (I actually got married in Vegas; a small, cheap ceremony to legalize a strong, loving relationship.) Church weddings can still be holy ceremonies, but less and less people are attending traditional churches and following their doctrines.

    These days the idea of marriage can provide some security for children, thou with divorce more common, who knows how secure any child can feel in that their parents are married. I also would like to say that anyone can raise a child, but it takes a bit more work than one person can provide to raise a child to be a competent adult. Society may provide schools and assistance, but these are not ideal. Ask almost any child, and they’d prefer to stay home with mom/dad than be sent off to day-care while mom/dad works 2 shifts to put food on the table and pay for day-care. I had been taught that feminism would allow me to be anything I wanted to be when I grew up, but there’s one thing I probably can’t be: a stay-at-home mom. These days for most families it takes 2 incomes to support children up thru college while still saving enough for one’s own retirement.

    I feel that I would have gotten married even if there were no financial benefits to it, and even if we never have children. There is something to making our commitment to each-other official and meaningful, with a certainty that neither of us are still looking for someone better to come along. But a contract really isn’t required for that, trust and love are.

  35. There is something to making our commitment to each-other official and meaningful, with a certainty that neither of us are still looking for someone better to come along. But a contract really isn’t required for that, trust and love are.

    Good comments. Just let me point out that, as a marriage contract isn’t required to establish that one’s SO isn’t looking for someone better, a marraige contract traditionally hasn’t been much of a guarantee, either. Trust, commitment, love — these are all things that happen independently of the act of marriage itself.

  36. oneman writes,

    Trust, commitment, love—these are all things that happen independently of the act of marriage itself.

    How incredibly romantic—and forgetful of basic social anthropology, i.e., the need to explore the relationship of marriage to property, child custody and group membership. Even in today’s USA, marriage is, first and foremost a jural relationship sanctioned by the state. Thus the performative act of marrying has legal consequences based on entry into a legal contract—which is precisely why proponents of gay marriage want marriage, something over and above the trust, commitment, and love that may already exist.

    They want, for example, to be able to inherit from each other and enjoy the tax benefits of married status, to have the right to visit each other in hospital and, if necessary, make critical healthcare decisions; to have the spouse of a US citizen entitled to live in the USA; to adopt children and, in case of divorce, to demand alimony.

    There is also the question how realistic it is to see marriage as a dying institution, much as, I recall, social scientists of many stripes used to regard religion as a dying institution. Listen to the wisdom of Stephanie Coontz in the introduction to the 2000 edition of The Way We Never Were.

    There are many social and cultural consequences of a rising age of marriage, and I agree that rates of nonmarriage are probably on the increase as well; but we cannot evaluate these trends realistically if we exaggerate them to suggest that marriage is on the verge of extinction. For one thing, a woman’s chance of getting married at an older age has grown in comparison with the 1950s and 1960s, with especially dramatic increases in the chance of a woman aged 40 or above getting married for the first time. For another, today’s rates of nonmarriage are not unprecedented. In 1900, the percentage of unmarried women 18 and older was 20.4 percent, virtually identical to today’s rate of singlehood. Mid-seventeenth-century England had even higher rates of nonmarriage.

    As for the decline in married couples’ reported happiness since the 1970s, some of this may be a transitional phenomenon associated with the strains of renegotiating marital norms and household roles in reaction to women’s new economic and cultural leverage. It may also reflect people’s greater candor with pollsters, along with their increasing reluctance to embrace the definitions of happiness accepted by the 1950s couples I describe in Chapter 2

    Sounds about right to me.

  37. How incredibly romantic—and forgetful of basic social anthropology, i.e., the need to explore the relationship of marriage to property, child custody and group membership.

    John, I already dealt with those aspects — the main contention of the post is that most of the sociological functions of marriage are eitehr not necessary or can be carried out, often more easily, by other practices (such as “shacking up”). Several people have commented that, regardless of those functions, marriage still gives us that warm fuzzy feeling. The comment you responded to simply addressed that, saying sure, marriage gives us warm fuzzys, but we can have warm fuzzies independently of marriage. Your post doesn’t challenge that, it says the same thing: “marriage is first and foremost a jural relationship sanctioned by the state”. No warm fuzzies there…

    Now there is a weak point in my argument (just one, Dustin?) which is the 1400-odd legal sanctions that benefit married persons. Right now, at this moment, it makes good practical sense for some people to get married — which of course gay and lesbian couples are painfully aware of. These sanctions flow fromwhat I think is an increasingly misguided notion that marriage somehow benefits the state, and so must be encouraged. If I’m right (and who knows?) then we’d expect to see those sanctions either denied married couples or offered to non-married couples; that is, they would no longer be incentives to marry. That’s a long-term prediction, but I think we can see at least some tendency in that direction in the present.

    Hell, maybe I’m wrong. What would make me wrong?

  38. What would make you wrong, oneman? How about this (thought is only makes you part wrong). You’ve suggested that

    These sanctions flow from what I think is an increasingly misguided notion that marriage somehow benefits the state, and so must be encouraged. If I’m right (and who knows?) then we’d expect to see those sanctions either denied married couples or offered to non-married couples; that is, they would no longer be incentives to marry.

    As I see it there are two problems. First, the notion that marriage benefits the state is not misguided. And second, that these benefits are ones the state would want to extend willy nilly. These benefits are a way of sanctioning certain kinds of subjects; this is the same reason they benefit the state. In addition to that, since the benefits are largely financial, it does not behoove the state (in it’s neo-liberal form anyway) to extend them too broadly.

    I would suggest that arguments about the defense of a ‘traditional’ definition of marriage, while couched in a rhetoric of universal morality are actually about protecting a mechanism that aims to produce properly productive and reproductive subjects (alliteration; another nasty habit).

  39. “Now there is a weak point in my argument (just one, Dustin?) which is the 1400-odd legal sanctions that benefit married persons. Right now, at this moment, it makes good practical sense for some people to get married”

    I was under the impression that in some states “common law” marriages exist. From what I understadn, the state legally treats two unmarried as functionally equivelent to a married couple if they meet certain requirements (e.g. have lived together for a certain number of years, share fincances, etc.).

    That being said, I still think the symbolic legitimacy of being “officially” married is sometimes more important than the economic benefits. As I noted earliers there is still the strong belief that “normal” people get married. This is a difficult belief to challenge. As long as marriage is directly tied to the idea that it represents the ultimate expression of “American” values (read: white, middle-class values), I don’t think it will be going away any time soon. (However, it is possible there will be an even greater increase in the number of people who have multiple marriages and/or divorce because they have trouble meeting the ideal.)

  40. Zoe, I’m not sure that marriage is the most viable way of creating the kind of subject that is in the state’s interest these days, that’s the issue. My argument is that the single, unmarried (yet reproductive) worker is becoming the ideal, which is why we can debate all this, and why we debate it so viciously. If the straight married couple was clearly the perfect subject-maker, this debate would be shot down in a second, but nobody seems to be able to make that case.

  41. Perhaps we need to broaden our conversation and consider both the indisputable facts and intellectual origins of the ideas that we are discussing here. The facts are indisputable. In all the advanced industrial countries (which are, coincidentally, those in which consumerism is most advanced), both the average age of marriage and the proportion of the population that remains unmarried for life are rising, the predictable results being subzero population growth and aging populations (unless, of course, the decline in the base population is offset by immigration).

    Turning to the ideas with which we began. I submit that the general thrust of the discussion is nicely captured in Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society, Part II Chapter 1.

    It will soon be perceived that low down in savagery community of husbands and wives, within prescribed limits, was the central principle of the social system. The marital rights and privileges, (jura conjugialia,)[1] established in the group, grew into a stupendous scheme, which became the organic principle on which society was constituted. From the nature of the case these rights and privileges rooted themselves so firmly that emancipation from them was slowly accomplished through movements which resulted in unconscious reformations. Accordingly it will be found that the family has advanced from a lower to a higher form as the range of this conjugal system was gradually reduced.

    In sum, as society evolves the scope of marriage is gradually reduced. To Morgan the endpoint may have been the nuclear family composed of one husband, one wife and their children. It is only a small step further to imagine the endpoint being freely contracted relationships between individuals, with such services as socialization, education, healthcare, and burial provided as a matter of right by the state, leaving parents unemcumbered to continue their relationships only so long as the transactions involved are mutually satisfactory.

    In the 19th century, two strands of thought explore these possibilities. Wikipedia describes them as follows,

    Free Love

    The term free love has been used since at least the nineteenth century to describe a social movement that rejects marriage, which is seen as a form of social bondage, especially for women. Much of the free love tradition has a civil libertarian philosophy that seeks freedom from State and Church interference in personal relationships. In addition, some free love writing has argued that both men and women have the right to sexual pleasure.

    While the phrase “free love” is often associated with promiscuity in the popular imagination, especially in reference to the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, historically the free love movement has not advocated multiple sexual partners. Rather, it has argued that love relations which are freely entered into should not be regulated by law. Thus, free love practice may include long-term monogamous relationships or even celibacy, but would not include institutional forms of polygamy such as a king and his concubines. Laws of particular concern to free love movements have included those that prevent an unmarried couple from living together, and those that regulate adultery and divorce, as well as age of consent, birth control, homosexuality, abortion and prostitution, although not all free lovers agree on these issues. The abrogation of individual rights in marriage is also a concern — for example, some legislatures do not recognise spousal rape, or treat it less seriously than non-spousal rape. Free love movements since the 19th century have also defended the right to publicly discuss sexuality, and have battled obscenity laws.

    In the 20th century, some free love proponents extended the critique of marriage to argue that marriage as a social institution encourages emotional possessiveness and psychological enslavement.

    Group Marriage

    Group marriage occasionally occurred in communal societies founded in the 19th and 20th centuries. An exceptionally long-lived example was the Oneida Community founded by the Congregationalist minister John Humphrey Noyes in 1848. Noyes taught that he and his followers had undergone sanctification; that is, it was impossible for them to sin, and that for the sanctified, marriage (along with private property) was abolished as an expression of jealousy and exclusiveness. The Oneida commune practiced sexual communalism and shared parental responsibilities, and in effect functioned as a large group marriage until sometime in the period 1879-1881.

    The Kerista Commune practiced group marriage in San Francisco from 1971 to 1991.

    It is difficult to estimate the number of people who actually practice group marriage in modern societies, as this form of marriage is not officially recognized in any jurisdiction, and illegal in many; however, it seems likely that its practice is limited to relatively small numbers of people. With the legalization of Same-sex marriage in some parts of the United States and Canada, some members of the polyamory movement are talking about a reform movement to also allow group marriage.

    There are, however, good reasons why social anthropologists no longer accept Lewis Henry Morgan’s thinking unreservedly. The ideas of progress and unilineal evolution have long been out of fashion. Free love and group marriage are generally regarded as utopian ideas that led to a variety of 19th and 20th century social experiments, none of which have survived for very long, despite their recurring popularity among people seeking alternatives to what they see as the oppressive character of current institutions.

    I was serious, too, when I likened oneman’s arguments to those I heard concerning religion, when most educated opinion bought into the secularization thesis and “God is Dead” even made it to the cover of Time Magazine. Robert Heinlein’s future history, in which 21st century America is ruled, albeit briefly, by a radical theocracy seemed only the wildest of wild imaginings. That was before megachurches, televangelism, the Christian Coalition, Promise Keepers, Focus on the Family.

    I, for one, do not expect that family and marriage will remain unchanged, let alone that moves to invent a tradition that idealizes what was, for most Americans, a non-existent Ozzie and Harriet past will succeed. But neither do I imagine that the future of the American family will be either free love or group marriage. Projecting my own experience, I see the possibility that those of us who do marry successfully will work out new arrangements in which women are wage earners and equal partners, arranging for child care will continue to be a serious issue for families with young children, and long-married couples will gradually acquire a penumbra of unmarried friends for whom the mating game has soured, offering a kind of stability, albeit at one remove, that dyadic relations do not offer.

    Among those who marry successfully (and hopefully one day legally) I include gay couples like our friends Pat and Akira, who have been together for over twenty years, taken care of each others’ parents and attended their funerals together, share a passion for Butoh dancing, and have just built a marvelous modern Japanese style house in the Shitamachi neighborhood of Tokyo where Akira grew up (building on land that has been in Akira’s family for at least two generations).

    Turning, however, to a darker prospect, I am too impressed by the fragility of our current fossil-fuel powered economies to be able to ignore the fact that the singles life they make possible is unlikely to survive their collapse. After all, who is more likely to survive that collapse? The Sex in the City crowd or the peasants? My money is on the peasants and thus patriarchy, which in various forms has been dominant through most of recorded history.

  42. John, you make two good points. Your last paragraph is important — everything I’ve written here is premised on the continued intensification of modernity (by which I mean capitalism, (neo-)colonial resource extraction, urbanism, consumerism, an ideology of personal freedom, etc.). You’re talking about a drastic interruption of that process, a neo-peasantry if you will, that would, I agree, re-intensify the functional importance of marriage and, more widely, kinship relations in general.

    The other salient point is the comparison with religion. As you point out, not so long ago social scientists were making bold predicitons about the end of religion, and instead we’ve seen an era of incredible religious revival — something like 28,000 new religious movements in the ’80s and ’90s (that figure from memory — it could be way off, but I think the order of magnitude is correct). On one hand, marraige may be like that — reintensified as an institution as other institutions cease to provide meaning. Jason Godesky responded to this post at Anthropik, describing his upcoming marriage as a “strike back” against the alienating tendencies of modern living, in essence the very forces I describe as weakening the institution. I think that this is an important motivating factor for the “defending marriage” Right as well (which isn’t to say Jason is on the wrong side of this; if both radical feminists and righty Christians can attack pornography for very different reasons, I see no reason why a whole range of sorts might embrace marriage as well). On the other hand, religion has been reinvigorated by social and scientific changes that pose questions that religion is especially well-suited to addressing: should we experiment on fetal stem cells? should we use our medical knowledge to termintate pregnancies? should we alter the genetic code of plants? Science provides the know-how and can evaluate, to an extent, the physical consequences of various decisions, but science cannot really address the ethical consequences, like whether the type of society that all allows abortion is a desirable one to live in. I see no real parallel in the case of marriage, nothing that marriage does particularly well that, in our society the way it is, would put a premium on marriage such as religion has enjoyed. As I’ve said, a lot of what marriage does can be done better or as well by other institutions, and that isn’t really the case with religion.

  43. On that note, it might be worth going beyond Oneman’s analogy between the institutions of marriage and of religion, and instead looking at marriage as a potentially religious and social institution rather than a solely legal one. I’m not an anthropologist, but here are a few thoughts:

    I know a pair of gay Vermonters who are also committed liberal Christians, who lived together for decades in the kind of committed and faithful long-term relationship that, Oneman rightly points out, represents the ideal of marriage but is not dependent on actually having a marriage license. When Vermont passed its civil unions law, they asked each other, “if it is now possible for us to marry, are we living in sin if we don’t?” It’s an essentially religious rationale, but one that hinges on a point of civil law. So mightn’t it be too simplistic to judge the value of marriage solely in terms of its function in civil society, without considering the sanctions of religion?

    For people who marry within a religious tradition (admittedly not everybody), there’s an odd disjuncture between the civil institution of marriage and the religious institution. We in the US try to elide that disjuncture by making sure that the regular leaders of religious institutions are also certified by the state to perform marriages. But where that’s not the case, a couple may have to have two weddings, one civil and one religious. At what point are they “really” married? The functionalism of Oneman’s initial post would seem to suggest that it is only the sanction of the state that matters here, and certainly there are real legal repercussions that proceed from the civil marriage; but equally so there are religious and social repercussions to the religious ceremony.

    I happen to be in this position myself at the moment, having had my civil marriage last week and awaiting my religious marriage (the one attended by family and friends) next week. I do not consider myself to be a married woman, though the state would disagree. This is because I could not consider myself properly married without a religious ceremony *and* the witness of family and friends. Granted, I’m only one data point here, but I can’t imagine that I’m completely alone among religious people in having the sense that the state’s sanction is necessary but not sufficient for marriage.

    This makes me wonder if the problem with Oneman’s original proposal lies in equating “US civil society” with “society” at large. As far as I can see, I am a member of three groups whose sanction is required for my marriage: US civil society, the Jewish people, and my own family and friends. Each of these has different ways of negotiating and validating a marriage (and the difficulty of organizing a wedding ceremony seems to consist primarily in making sure they’re all represented). More importantly, there are repercussions that follow on “doing it right” in each of these groups, and on doing it wrong. I’m not personally prepared to say that the civil repercussions outweigh the personal and religious ones. So why should the civil function of marriage outweigh the other functions adduced above by other commenters?

  44. oneman writes,

    I see no real parallel in the case of marriage, nothing that marriage does particularly well that, in our society the way it is, would put a premium on marriage such as religion has enjoyed.

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. What I do know is that oneman speaks from the position of someone who is in his thirties and has had, he tells us, a series of relationships, none of which has turned out to be permanent. I write from the position of someone who has been married for 37 years, whose parents celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, whose daughter and son-in-law have been married for five years and have just produced the grandson who is sleeping in his grandmother’s arms.

    If he wishes to point to the rising age of marriage and the growing proportion of permanently unmarried individuals in advanced industrial societies, I can hardly deny the facts. I can also provide theory to explain why, in advanced consumerist societies, both the task of finding a permanent partner and maintaining a permanent relationship have become more difficult. As marriage becomes treated as yet another consumer choice, the endless search for perfection is more likely than not to fail and the habit of disillusionment followed by the search for another, better choice makes relationships harder to sustain. The decline in standard of living suffered by those who give up two salaries or have to divert resources from lifestyle to childcare adds strain, particularly for those who buy into consumerist propaganda that says “You deserve it” and “We do it all for you,” to whom the prospect of sacrifice for another generation is impossible to contemplate.

    But to those who have found good partners, those who have stuck it out through the rough patches that every enduring relationship encounters, who have tasted the sweetness of watching children grow up and seem well-launched on the way to following their parents’ example while pursuing new lives wholly their own….I can only imagine them feeling what I feel.

    How do you explain to someone who has only drunk rotgut the taste of a great single malt Scotch that gets better the longer it ages? It’s that kind of problem, I guess.

  45. How do you explain to someone who has only drunk rotgut the taste of a great single malt Scotch that gets better the longer it ages? It’s that kind of problem, I guess.

    No, that’s a little too facile. And no serious anthropologist should ever be satisfied with “You have to have been there to understand it.”

    So I ask myself what is one thing that a marriage (or a similar enduring relationship) provides that society can’t. What pops into my mind is….stories. Let me give you an example.

    I’ve mentioned that my parents were married for sixty years. What is really unusual by current standards is that they were engaged for seven years before they got married. They grew up during the Great Depression, and my mother’s father, a pharmacist in Savannah, Georgia, refused to allow his daughter to marry until both she and my father were able to support themselves.

    But that’s just background to explain why, when this story happened, my mother was in training to become a nurse at Philadelphia General Hospital and my father, a machinist, had only recently graduated from the apprentice school at Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock, Co. In those days, neither nurses in training nor shipyard apprentices were allowed to be married, and transportation was still slow and expensive, so my mother and father had rarely had a chance to see each other.

    But that, too, is just background. The story my father loved to tell is this. One day his boss gave him a special assignment. He was to travel to Philadelphia with an older machinist being sent there to examine a ship on which the shipyard was being asked to make repairs. The older machinist was known to be fond of his liquor, and dad’s role was basicallly to serve as chaperon and make sure the estimate got done.

    Dad and the older machinist embarked on the steam-powered overnight ferry that then ran between Newport News and Baltimore. From Baltimore they took a train to Philadelphia. The assigned job was completed with a few hours to spare before they would have to board the train to start their return journey. The older machinist invited Dad to go off for a beer, but Dad declined. He said, “You know, I’ve got a girl here. I’d like to try to find her. I’ll meet you back at the train.” He was, he says, walking up the avenue toward the hospital when who should he see coming the other way? Mother and two of her friends. They all went off for ice cream sodas, and Mom and Dad had a couple of precious hours together.

    Boy did my Dad love telling this story, and you could watch Mom grin when he did. He, being a bit more prim, would blush when she told us about how she noticed him dressed in a toga for a Roman-themed Jr. College pageant and admired his legs when the toga fluttered in the breeze.

    When I think about my own marriage, what comes flooding back are Ruth’s and my stories, the stories we share because we were there together for events that only we remember, except perhaps for our daughter, who has probably heard them too many times.

    I’d have to ask oneman, if our stories are our lives (and I do believe they are), how could society provide anything even remotely as valuable?

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