Politics & Policy

The Marriage Debate Goes Multicultural

Anthropologists jump in--and distort the history of their field.

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.”

Since the executive board cites the history of anthropological research, let’s oblige. An upstate New York lawyer, Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881), published the first modern systematic ethnography in 1851. Morgan’s League of the Ho-De’-No-Sau-Nee, Iroquois offered an admiring account of how the Seneca and the other Iroquois tribes had built up an entire Indian confederacy based on extensions of their ideas of kinship and family. Anthropology has covered a lot of ground in the 154 years since, but Morgan’s insight remained central during most of that time.

Morgan, though largely unknown outside anthropology, was one of America’s greatest 19th-century scholars. He virtually invented the study of kinship; published a massive worldwide comparison of kinship terminologies; mounted his own expedition to visit the Indian nations east of the Rockies; and in his spare time published an exceptional natural history book, The American Beaver. In the United States, by historical mischance, anthropology came to be dominated by the German immigrant Franz Boas (1858-1942) and his numerous students, including Margaret Mead, who emphasized the particularity of individual cultures. (It was, in fact, Boas who first added the “s” to culture: a small addition that continues to exact a large cost.) But while Boas and his students were busy popularizing cultural relativism in the U.S., Morgan’s stature was growing in Europe. His methods were taken up by both British and French anthropologists, who emphasized the bases of social order common to all societies.

The rift between American and European anthropology never completely healed, especially as the Morgan-inspired European approach proved far more intellectually powerful. At mid-century, for example, an American anthropologist, George Peter Murdock (1897-1985), launched a blistering attack on the British social anthropologists of his day, but to no avail. To the contrary, many American anthropologists began to take a more serious interest in kinship and marriage.

But the old Boasian preference for viewing each culture separately never died out, and it made a grand re-entrance in 1984. That year American anthropologist David Schneider (1918-1995), known for his studies of matrilineal and American kinship, was suddenly overwhelmed by doubt. Schneider’s A Critique of the Study of Kinship accused anthropologists of projecting Western ideas of kinship everywhere they looked and thus failing to discern the actual, local definitions of how people relate to one another. The arguments in Schneider’s Critique are not all that impressive, but they landed like a match in dry tinder. The study of kinship had grown baroquely complicated and was beset by arid scholastic debates. Schneider’s essay gave an excuse to anthropologists who were already eager to move on.

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 Minangkabau situation indeed looks favorable to women, but it does not exactly look like a challenge to the idea that men and women marry to form key social units. But Blackwood says otherwise: “I found that the normative model of conjugal relations is absent. In this particular case, intergenerational ties through women, rather than heterosexual conjugal bonds, are constitutive of households and kin groups.” Translation: Marriage happens among the Minangkabau, but it doesn’t have any genuinely important consequences.

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?

Obviously these are not the terms in which the debate is going to play out in Congress and in the states. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the degree to which these seemingly arcane academic disputes play into the larger debate. Last April, John Borneman, an anthropologist at Princeton, and Laurie Kain Hart, an anthropologist at Haverford College, published an essay in the Washington Post purporting to find in the history of anthropology a mandate for gay marriage: “Does marriage have to be heterosexual? The human record tells us otherwise.” As proof, they cite a well-known East African case, in which a woman pays the brideprice of another woman and officially claims her as a “wife.” The trouble is that this “marriage” is only a legal fiction, not a lesbian coupling. Borneman and Hart clearly knew that, but buried the explanation in an opaque observation that “This role of wife is above all social, and not contingent on her sexual relations.”

Borneman is also among the contributors to the American Ethnologist forum, and he commences his essay by telling how his Washington Post article resulted in an invitation to appear on Nightline, which was unfortunately cancelled at the last minute.

So offering reckless distortions of the ethnographic record in support of gay marriage may indeed feed into the national debate. Neither the Washington Post nor Nightline is likely to factcheck East African marriage customs. And I would not be much surprised to see the Minangkabau matrifocal family cropping up in future mainstream-media pronouncements to the effect that “marriage” is just one of a myriad of cultural forms, and is of no essential significance. Some tribes shrink heads; some drink reindeer milk; some marry. All is flux.

In her article, Evelyn Blackwood takes a moment to congratulate John Borneman for using “insights from queer theory to destabilize the dualism of married-unmarried.” This is the typically obtuse jargon of contemporary anthropology, but surely Blackwood has it right. Borneman aims to knock (heterosexual) marriage out of its “privileged place in the replication of our present social order.” But he is one among many anthropologists engaged in this ideologically motivated demolition disguised as social science.

The difficulty they face is that the factual record is overwhelmingly against them. That is why Blackman, among others, are straining after ethnographic gnats and propounding tendentious interpretations of gnat anatomy.

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.

Peter Wood, a professor of anthropology at Boston University and provost elect at King’s College, is the author of Diversity: The Invention of A Concept.


The Latest