Debatable terms: “marriage”

Posted on February 5, 2012


This one is going to be very meta: the focus of my discussion is my own writing in another blog.

In response to a provocation from a politician with a loose hold on historical facts, yesterday I posted (on What Makes Us Human) a deconstruction of his claim that “marriage” had been a relationship between one man and one woman since “the beginning of human history”.

It was actually difficult; I knew it would be, because every time I read that generic claim (and in variants it comes up a lot) I try to think about how to even begin to address it. This time, the way I found through was to stick to the specifics of this particular politician’s claim. Since this particular version of the general claim equated human history and “civilization”, I felt that it was likely that “history” here did not mean what I would mean– the entire record of our species– but what a naive freshman means until they learn better– written documents. So I could start with what “marriage” had been since the earliest written records we have.

Responding also required, of course, my defining “marriage” but there again, I was able to rely on the implicit definition behind the politician’s words: a sanctioned legal and/or religious institution which he, offensively, claimed was a “social benefit” only due to the potential it provided for childbirth.

So I am happy with the post, in general. You cannot please everyone, and getting too scholastic would impede making the point that even within the narrow confines of the documentary record for a legally or religiously sanctioned relationship for the purpose of reproduction, the former senator has his facts wrong. I think the post worked for its purpose.

But it has gotten me into a side exchange with a critic who has accused me of giving ammunition to opponents of gay marriage in the US today by mentioning that polygamy was a valid form of marriage in “human history” aka the documentary record in Mesopotamia and the Levant, and the ethnographic record pretty much all over the place.

Reflecting on the sidebar conversation, I realize that one of the problems with the original post– one I decided to sidestep on purpose– is that it doesn’t tackle head-on the question that has, up till now, made it impossible for me to write anything like this: what is “marriage”?

As an anthropologist trained in the rich line of social theory that began with Emile Durkheim and the parallel line leading from Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown, I know that where once we took comfort in the cross-cultural validity of categories like “marriage”, already by the 1950s these terms were under question. Compare Marcel Mauss in his Manual of Ethnography (originally published in 1947, based on a text compiled from lecture notes) to Rodney Needham in Remarks and Inventions (1974), an extension of arguments from his classic Rethinking Kinship and Marriage (1971):

Mauss: Marriage is the legal bond uniting two persons with a view to founding a family, de facto or de jure– in principle a family in the legal sense, but there are all possible degrees between marriage proper and a factual situation which ends up as a legal one so far as concerns the children. It is the sanction for a certain sexual morality.

Needham: Strictly speaking, such theory [of kinship and marriage] does not exist: there are forms of social life from which it is deduced. What typically happens is that social forms are more or less adventitiously correlated in particular societies, and the correlations are then generalized; but the more we test the resultant conclusions the more we find they are vitiated by contrary instances or by category mistakes.

A true theory would call in the first place for a vocabulary of analytical concepts that were appropriate to the phenomena under consideration but would not be merely derived from them. For this purpose the terms of common English are worse than unserviceable.

“Worse than unserviceable”.  What Needham is urging is that we not make the mistake of lumping together practices shaped by very different circumstances under a modern covering term that by definition is rooted in a contemporary experience. Talking about “marriage” means we will inevitably end up talking about the regulation of “sexual morality”, and the legalization of children, not because there is universally a single institution that does those two things, but because that is what marriage does or did in France and Great Britain (and the US) in the 20th century.

Every anthropologist, archaeologist, and historian in the world knows this. But what’s the alternative? when a bigoted senator wants to claim that “marriage” has always been just the way he wishes it were today, do we say “well, you know, first we have to define marriage, and you know, there isn’t always something we can identify that way…” Walk away from any chance to intervene in public policy debates? Give way on the argument that what we do is esoteric and divorced from contemporary life?

I think not.

Instead, what we do and must continue doing is to break down the terms, denaturalize, historicize, and yes, relativize. So I give you not marriage but something else as a challenge: under what circumstances do the different strands taken for granted today when journalists write about “marriage” emerge?

What I tried to do over at What Makes Us Human is situate the institution of marriage understood by an ignorant politician as timeless within its own specific history. Break it down: the claim being made is that one male and one female are sanctioned to engage in sex by a broader group because the children they will produce are a social benefit. “Marriage” here is thus a covering term for heterosexuality; monogamy; social sanction; and procreation. Where that got me in the post was to pronatalist policies, because that is what is being espoused: people deserve recognition in their sexual relationships only because these produce children. As I noted there, pronatalist policies are strongly associated with states.

But I also pointed out that the history of social approval of particular heterosexual liaisons, because they will produce offspring, that lies behind the senator’s fantasy that “it was ever thus” is historically rooted in inter-familial contracts directed at the persistence of family property– estates, names, and histories. There is a rich historical and anthropological literature on family strategies, even just for European societies, that shows that the interests of family persistence may not always lie in producing children; having an heir is critical, but having too many potential heirs can be problematic. David Kertzer and Caroline Brettel, in a classic review “Italian and Iberian Family History” (1987), discuss practices that limited the number of heirs, including child abandonment; permanent celibacy; regulation of remarriage; and illegitimacy, childbirth resulting from sexual relations not sanctioned legally. When we note that historically, polygamous marriages were legal in Mesopotamian societies but remained rare due to the economics involved, we are talking not about regulation of sexuality, but of property rights.

In the contemporary world, although property rights transmission is still sometimes relevant, debates about rights to marriage more often mobilize what Mauss added in his final, almost throw-away sentence: marriage “is the sanction for a certain sexual morality“. Here we have at the very least three different perspectives to examine. First, there is that matter of “sanctioning”: sexual relations need not be formally sanctioned to take place. Second, we have what “morality” implies: approval or disapproval of sexual partner choice. This includes, but is of course not limited to, prescriptions about expected enlistments of sexual anatomies that will be recognized jurally or socially. Finally, number of participants is also a source of social and legal interest in those situations where institutions we can translate as marriages exist. The peculiar position I find myself in, having a queer activist upset because I mention polygamy and same sex marriage in the same post, demonstrates that the question of number and the question of anatomies and desires need not be aligned.

As an anthropologist, I will continue to insist that we cannot rule on either of these last dimensions of variability in sexual relations, sanctioned or not, as more or less natural. In my blog post, I noted recent research suggesting on comparative linguistic grounds that monogamy emerged as a normative form of sexual relationship relatively recently (between 10,000 and 5,000 BCE) in those social groups speaking languages ancestral to Indo-European. Whether we accept this specific analysis or not, the point is that human sexual relations are unlikely to have been static, and anyone trying to argue for modern social practices by locating them in a timeless past is simply abusing the facts.

What I will support, and do argue in my professional writing, is that there are plenty of historical examples of socially recognized and celebrated unions between people whose sexual anatomies were similar, not different. If anyone reading this post is unfamiliar with this fact, I can recommend “A History of Same-Sex Marriage” by William Eskridge, published in 1993 in the Virginia Law Review. He opens with the figures of We’wha, the Zuni lhamana (a third gender status person); Ifeyinwa Olinke, an Igbo woman, a “female husband” with nine wives and a husband she overshadowed with her own wealth described by anthropologist Ifi Amediune; and the fourth century Christian Roman soldiers Sergius and Bacchus, who died for their religion, and who historian John Boswell controversially argued exemplify a tradition of Christian sanctioned same-sex marriage. While from an anthropological point of view this merges very different forms of social position and sexual subjectivity, the point in each case is that these were relations recognized as normal within their respective societies.

Institutions like “marriage” have not always and everywhere been limited to one man and one woman. But to say this requires us to analyze what we mean by “marriage”. As Eskridge writes

First, marriage is not a naturally generated institution with certain essential elements. instead, it is a construction that is linked with other cultural and social institutions, so that the old-fashioned boundaries between the public and private life melt away. Second, the social construction of institutions like marriage is not and cannot be neutral, for it involves the playing out of a society’s power relationships….Third, the social construction of marriage is dynamic. Linked as it is to other institutions and attitudes, marriage will change as they change. (emphasis added)

This is to me the most important point: no matter how one wants to slice history, social institutions regulating associations among persons, to sanction sex, to legitimate children, to determine the passage of property, or for any other reason we might imagine, are not timeless frameworks. If I have to reduce the scope of my discussion to address a more popular audience, I will do it to get this one simple fact across: things haven’t always been the way they are now, and there is nothing to dictate that humans cannot change the way we do things.

Posted in: gender