Friday, April 29, 2005

An anthropologist's view on gay marriage

Peter Wood, an anthropologist, has a concise, scholarly article on the importance of heterosexual marriage. His article contains an excellent history of how anthropology as a discipline developed starting from Lewis Henry Morgan who studied kinship and familial ties vs. the "cultures" slant of Franz Boas and Margaret Mead and how the Boasian view of cultural particularity came to be ascendant in the US.

Last year the executive board of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) joined the controversy over gay marriage by issuing a statement that declared:

The results of more than a century of anthropological research on households, kinship relationships, and families, across cultures and through time, provide no support whatsoever for the view that either civilization or viable social orders depend upon marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution.

Ideologically, I suppose this is what one has come to expect from the AAA: a reflexive affirmation of leftist pieties. But still, it is surprising to see a professional organization propound such a breathless lie. As an AAA member for some 25 years, I am embarrassed.

In fact, some 150 years of systematic inquiry by anthropologists leaves little doubt that heterosexual marriage is found in nearly every human society and almost always as a pivotal institution. Homosexual marriage outside contemporary Western societies is exceedingly rare and never the basis of "viable social order."
Postmodernism was in the air, and so were exciting political ideologies including feminism and gender studies. Suddenly anthropology was ablaze with repudiations of the idea that the family, kinship, and marriage were the organizing ideas of human society.

Eradicating the central concept of an intellectual discipline, however, is not that easy. Anthropology departments proceeded by eliminating courses in kinship. Where the forest of kinship studies once stood, now grew the gardens of women's studies, and soon gender studies. Anthropologists who began their careers studying kinship redefined themselves as specialists on "inequality." The perspective that kinship holds a society together made way for the perspective that, at bottom, societies are "contested sites," where men and women strive against each other, the powerful oppress the weak, and the weak seek ways to subvert their oppressors.

In the last few years, the study of kinship has made a modest comeback in anthropology. Partly this is the product of young anthropologists with little or no training in kinship who go off to do fieldwork and discover themselves ignorant of the basics. But kinship studies are also heating up because anthropologists committed to feminist and gender studies have realized that to connect their ideological advocacy with the real world they too need to study kinship. Without a hint of embarrassment they have therefore announced the re-birth of the field they spent the last 20 years deconstructing. The new field is distinguished from the old as critical kinship studies, implying I suppose that Morgan and the five or six generations that followed him were practitioners of credulous kinship studies.

For an instance of the new critical kinship studies at work, consider the forum, "Are Men Missing?" in the newest issue of the journal The American Ethnologist. The lead article, "Wedding Bell Blues," is by Evelyn Blackwood, an anthropologist at Purdue University. She complains that anthropologists have assumed "heteronormative marriage" as "a foundational model for human society" and thereby treated "matrifocal families" as a weak alternative. Once we get rid of underlying "constructs" of "masculine domination," we are free to see the alternatives. Blackwood's principal example is a group in Western Sumatra, the Minangkabau, for whom descent is reckoned through women, a man moves upon marriage to his mother-in-law's household, and women hold both real estate and political clout.
The non-anthropologist who reaches this point may well ask, "So what?" Does it matter how a small ethnic group in Western Sumatra arranges its household affairs? Do the Minangkabau matrifocal households have any bearing on whether the United States should legalize gay marriage?

I don't know whether the editors of the American Ethnologist (published by the AAA) or the AAA's executive board really think that "The results of more than a century of anthropological research...provide no support whatsoever" for the importance of marriage as "an exclusively heterosexual institution." Maybe they are so trapped in contemporary ideology that this strange assertion seems plausible to them; or maybe this is just an attempt to throw dust in the eyes of opponents of gay marriage who might think (correctly) that the anthropological record does lend support to the view that heterosexual marriage is very likely a foundational human institution. Perhaps it is best to assume good faith, even though that implies dismal scholarship.

In any case, what the anthropological record really shows is that a society's decisions about marriage are among its most consequential. Political regimes and economic systems are, deep down, the results of particular ways of organizing families. Until Scandinavia and the Low Countries, Canada, and Massachusetts began their experiments with gay marriage, humanity appears to have steered away from this particular option. Possibly gay marriage will be a step forward for humanity; but it is a step into the dark. Civilization as we have known it, even on the western coast of Sumatra, has depended until now on exclusive heterosexual marriage.

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