Anthropological Authority and the Marriage Debate

Box Turtle Bulletin, the blog that previously published a letter from Bill Maurer and Tom Boellstorff responding to a statement from Focus on the Family that there is anthropological consensus as to the definition of marriage, is currently hosting a debate about the matter. Patrick Chapman has posted a lengthy response to a ‘white paper‘ by Focus on the Family’s Director of Family Formation Studies Greg Stanton. It’s a fascinating debate to me not necessarily because I am interested in definitions of marriage (though I am) but because of the way that anthropology is invoked by both sides as having authority on the subject. As Chapman writes: “What is particularly important with Stanton’s report is the recognition that anthropologists are the experts when it comes to understanding and defining marriage.” Anthropologists: Do not despair! Someone still cares what we have to say. Anthropologists are seen to have the last word on human nature and therefore as potentially having knowledge that could settle debate on the topic. The typical ‘pro’ gay marriage stance in relation to anthropology is to emphasize the diversity of world cultures and to emphasize that human nature exists in and as this diversity or adaptability. The typical ‘anti’ gay marriage stance emphasizes the fact that nothing quite like gay marriage has really been seen before in the ‘anthropological record.’ To me what’s interesting is how a moral question appears to be disguised in these debates as a ‘scientific’ one, and therefore the real nature of the conflict gets displaced. If in fact some tribe somewhere had/has a custom literally called ‘gay marriage,’ where two men or two women and their families celebrate their union through ritual and exchange, do we imagine that that would convince Focus on the Family of the validity of the institution? I actually think that these arguments are, at the core, about the moral legitimacy of modernity — and I think our very own Oneman has brilliantly guided discussion on this matter previously here at SM.

12 thoughts on “Anthropological Authority and the Marriage Debate

  1. Marriage is a basic civil right that should be attainable by all Americans if they choose. For the truth about gay marriage check out our trailer. Produced to educate & defuse the controversy it has a way of opening closed minds & provides some sanity on the issue:

  2. While it is heartening, as you note, to think anthropologists are being accorded the last word, it’s pretty disheartening to me to hear just how pre-packaged and predictable those words are on all sides. Surely, the scientific point is not whether a particular form of marriage exists in human society (why aren’t the relativists out there stumping for group marriage?), but that marriage is everywhere a communal institution. It is not a covenant between (or among) marriage partners, but between marriage partners on the one hand and their community on the other. This, to me, would seem to be key, and the reason the question of same-sex marriage is not the simple matter of basic rights or principles already enshrined in law that both sides seem to insist.

    I believe anthropology would indeed have a great deal to offer in an open discussion of the issues involved, if finding/building consensus were the goal. Your question, who would it convince if anthropologists were to show the existence of “a custom literally called gay marriage?” is an excellent one for reflecting on the utility of that line of argument for actually opening and changing people’s minds.

    I realize these comments could be read as anti-modern in the appeal to community standards (ala Michael Sandel), but what could be more modern than suggesting an appeal to reason, and using anthropology to elucidate the deeply human concerns that marriage raises universally.

  3. Jenny, I completely agree. As an example, when I teach my gender class I can occasionally get some students to see that some of the wackier PNG (Sambia) gendering practices are not simply child abuse. Their minds are surely opened to the wide variety of normative practices in human societies. But this does not mean that any of my football players become eager to personally get them some direct masculinity injections from their elders (steroid jokes follow). Just because other people do something and it’s OK for them does not mean we’re going to adopt that ourselves.

    Communities do decide what counts as acceptable practice. That’s what community means and it’s a human principle worth defending. Therefore the language of human rights about marriage or anything else tends to be either the product of a particular community sneakily trying to universalize its own norms or an attempt to put individuals before communities to the obvious destruction of the latter (and eventually, the former via anomie). Such a dilemma, with elucidation and discussion our only recourse.

    Btw I’d like to reiterate Strong’s recommendation of Oneman’s previous guided discussion on this topic. It really is excellent.

  4. In a rush but I thought I’d add a couple quick thoughts.

    As someone who’s always been an activist and “theoretical” anthropologist (and sees them as mutually informing), I think there are several issues going on here.

    One is this interesting pattern in contemporary anthropology (by which I mean the last 30 years or so) where there are all kinds of insecurities and hand-wringing about relevance, being public etc.

    This despite the fact that: #1 anthropology is actually quite relevant and influential in a range of domains, and not simply based upon claims to being scientific.

    #2, despite the fact that in any case, what would count as sufficient influence is rarely clear.

    #3, anthropology also has an important role to play in the academy, and despite the anti-intellectualism you often find in the U.S. (including, ironically, amongst some U.S. intellectuals), the academy remains an important place. In fact, it is a key aspect of “the public.”

    I think Thomas is right that a lot of what’s going on here has to do with notions of modernity. In my GLQ piece last year (“When Marriage Falls”: see my website), which is a queer theoretical argument in favor of supporting the possibility of same-sex marriage, I develop a notion of “straight time” to think through how heteronormative temporality is literally predicated upon a notion that time is linear, that is, “straight.” It’s a longer (and hopefully interesting) argument but the overall claim is quite consonant with what Thomas is saying about the often implicit place of modernity in these debates.

  5. Thanks Strong and Carl for your kind words about my marriage piece. When I posted it last year (the year before? It’s all such a blur…) I was condemned as a fat four-eyed freak probably living in my mother’s basement who’d never seen a girl in the flesh before and was possessed by an insane jealousy of the married; I’m glad to see that cooler heads have prevailed in the elapsed time since I posted it. There are a few things I might have said differently, and a couple points I’ve been convinced were off the mark, but by and large I thought it was an important argument, and I’m glad to see Strong has picked up the “morality and modernity” point that I didn’t have the wits to present so clearly myself at the time.

  6. I notice you’re pay for play now. Ah, the routinization of charisma. Good luck with all that. It’s been fun.

    I’ve saved the previous marriage blog for future reference. Thanks again.

  7. I used my credit card to buy access to the site, but I’m locked in some loop and can’t seem to differentiate the signfier from the signified–and my password doesn’t seem to work here.

  8. SM+WB! Finally a business model that makes sense. How can I provide free labor and content so as to maximize shareholder returns?

  9. Heehee! Brilliant. Got me with the link to the W-B pay page. Fortunately I smelled a rat when I tried to delete your bookmark and my browser kept telling me that premature withdrawal would be an admission of defeat.

  10. Jenny, I think the way the ‘anthropological record’ is invoked in the debate at Box Turtle Bulletin and elsewhere, is actually a way of circumventing to the question of ‘community’ that you invoke and that Carl endorses. If on one terrain the question of gay marriage gets caught up in civil (or ‘human’ I guess) rights, on another it gets caught up in questions about nature. Of course, since ‘natural law’ is one origin for contemporary ideas about rights (human, civil, property, or otherwise), then we are perhaps talking about different claims to, yes, the ‘universal,’ a domain that often encompasses law and nature. Advocates and opponents seek to zoom their interlocutors by moving ‘up’ a notch, to transcend the claims of the other and lay claim to a higher authority (either right or nature, or both).

    Anyway, so maybe an alternative strategy is situational, pragmatic, attendent to concerns of actual communities and negotiated solutions. Which is why it’s delightful to realize that there are these days many ‘communities’ that really do recognize same-sex marriage, and where it’s really not a big deal. LIke, Amsterdam!, where I am presently sitting, looking out over the IJ River.

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