Lewis Henry Morgan's revolution remembered

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Wed Nov 03 2004 - 21:01:45 EST


Washington Post
April 14, 2004

An Elastic Institution

By John Borneman and Laurie Kain Hart

Since its origins in the late 19th century, anthropology -- more than
any other field of knowledge -- has made the understanding of
marriage across human societies one of its central tasks. Today the
question arises: Can a scientific understanding inform current
debates about the meaning of marriage? Would homosexual marriage
destroy the principle of marriage as a social institution?

In the 1860s New York lawyer and anthropologist Louis Henry Morgan
attempted a systematic cross-cultural study of the institution of
marriage. Morgan's data were imperfect, but he was able to
demonstrate that the record of human societies showed a startling
diversity of socially approved forms of marriage. All societies had
some form of regularized partnership, but no single standard human
form could be identified. Generally, even within a society, there was
a certain elasticity of marriage forms.

The most famous of these unions were the ones most foreign to Western
Victorian society: marriage between a woman and several men; marriage
between a man and several women; forms of "visiting" marriage,
whereby a man might visit his wife but not live with her. As
anthropologists assembled more reliable data, they found it difficult
to produce a definition of human marriage that would hold true for
all its socially legitimate forms.

Marriage generally functioned to provide a "legitimate" identity to
children -- a kind of "last name." Yet, the structure of these
arrangements was extraordinarily diverse: Biological paternity was
not universally the basis of identity -- as, indeed, it is not in the
case of adoption in America. In many cases, the biological father
(the Latin term is genitor) was distinct from the legal father
(pater) produced by the marriage contract and ceremony.
Alternatively, it could be the mother's family and not the father
that bestowed identity on a child.

As for sex, rarely if ever has marriage been able to restrict its
varied practice to the relation of man and wife. In most cases,
anthropologists agreed, what counted was that some socially approved
form of marriage provided a secure place for the child in the social

But marriage has not been solely about children. In most societies
known to us, everyone marries; it is an expected rite of passage and
part of the normal life course of all adults. Only in post-classical
Western societies do we find high numbers of unmarried people. Unlike
other peoples, we consider marriage -- however desirable or
undesirable -- optional.

Claude Levi-Strauss, the father of French structural anthropology,
argued that it is only the "division of labor between the sexes that
makes marriage indispensable." It follows that if men and women are
granted equal access to jobs of similar worth -- as is often the case
today -- the meaning of marriage will change.

The cult of romantic love in a companionate marriage is a recent
innovation in the history of marriage. While romantic passion has
existed in all societies, only in a few has this unstable emotion
been elaborated and intensified culturally and considered the basis
for the social institution of marriage. Indeed, marriage has
traditionally been more concerned with -- and successful in --
regulating property relations and determining lineage or inheritance
rights than with confining passion and sexual behavior.

Marriage, in other words, is not only diverse across cultures but
also dynamic and changing in America's own history. We live in a
pluralist society, where marriage is not the only form of union or of
mutual care in our society. When individuals and groups can, under
certain conditions, choose their patterns of self-expression -- their
intimacy, child-care arrangements, sexual practices, place of
residence, partnership forms -- there will be increased variability.
The meaning of marriage -- and the value of marriage -- changes when
it becomes one of several options in a society of self-determining

This said, it is not the case that "anything goes." Every society
favors forms of union that conform to its ethical standards and its

Our society no longer approves of treating women as incompetent
minors and the wards of their husbands within the structure of a
patriarchal union. We do not approve, generally, of plural marriages
-- the basis of our disapproval being that they abrogate the rights
of women and especially of young girls. We no longer generally feel
that the sole function of women in society is to produce children and
serve men as domestic labor. In other words, when we censure certain
types of marriage, the basis on which we do so is our defense of
individual human rights. This is our ethical standard.

Marriage is, then, foundational because it provides a recognized form
of identity and security for children in society. Its function is not
universally to produce children but to provide legitimate forms for
their care. And marriage's primary accomplishment is not to regulate
sex (as a quick glance at American society would tell us). The
institution survives despite infidelity, and sex does not by itself
create marriage.

In addition, it is a system of exchange whereby families "give up"
their own offspring to make new alliances with others, and to enter
into broad networks of relationships, including and especially with
one's "enemies." Without such arrangements, we would have a world of
isolated, incestuous, biological clans -- and endemic warfare.

What, then, about restriction of the legal bond of marriage to a man
and a woman? Does marriage have to be heterosexual? The human record
tells us otherwise. While the model of marriage is arguably
heterosexual, the practice of marriage is not. In a broad spectrum of
societies in Africa, for example, when a woman's husband dies, she
may take on his legal role in the family, and acquire a legal "wife"
to help manage the domestic establishment. This role of wife is above
all social, and not contingent on her sexual relations. These
societies, which practice heterosexuality, take this woman-woman
marriage as commonsensical; they recognize that above all marriage
functions socially to extend and stabilize the network of care.

As for marriage as a legal institution, the ethnographic record makes
clear that law expresses the dominant ethics of the group. Our
history reflects the evolution of our values, and we as Americans are
most proud of our deepening tradition of civil rights. To deny
marriage to same-sex couples, as President Bush proposes, expresses a
rejection of this civil rights tradition and a regression to a
politics of exclusion.

John Borneman is a professor of anthropology at Princeton University.
Laurie Kain Hart is chair of the anthropology department at Haverford


Statement on Marriage and the Family from the American
Anthropological Association

Arlington, Virginia; The Executive Board of the American
Anthropological Association, the world's largest organization of
anthropologists, the people who study culture, releases the following
statement in response to President Bush's call for a constitutional
amendment banning gay marriage as a threat to civilization.

"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. Rather, anthropological
research supports the conclusion that a vast array of family types,
including families built upon same-sex partnerships, can contribute
to stable and humane societies.

The Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association
strongly opposes a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to
heterosexual couples."

Media may contact either of the names below:

To discuss the AAA Statement please contact: Elizabeth M. Brumfiel,
AAA President (847) 491-4564, office.

To discuss anthropological research on marriage and family please
contact: Roger Lancaster, Anthropologist, author, The Trouble with
Nature: Sex in Science and Popular Culture , 2003 (202) 285-4241

Media Coverage Includes:

Multicultural marriage, by Joshua Glenn, Boston Globe, Feb. 29, 2004.

Scientists counter Bush view Families varied, say anthropologists by
Charles Burress, AAA member Laura Nader was quoted, The San Francisco
Chronicle, Feb 27, 2004

Gay Marriages Fit into This Adaptable Institution op-ed by Robert
Myers, USATODAY, March 14, 2004

An Elastic Institution, op-ed by anthropologists John Borneman and
Laurie Kain Hart discussing marriage, Washington Post, April 14, 2004.

Anthropologists Debunk "Traditional Marriage" Claim, by Adrian Brune,
features AAA statement, Roger Lancaster and Dan Segal, Washington
Blade, April 16, 2004

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Roger Lancaster, an anthropology professor at George Mason
University, said the modern idea of marriage is only 200 years ago
and was developed at the time of the Industrial Revolution. (Photo by
Leigh H. Mosley)

American Anthropological Association
2200 Wilson Blvd, Suite 600
Arlington, VA 22201

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Anthropologists debunk 'traditional marriage' claim
Group claims Bush's arguments don't reflect history

Friday, April 16, 2004

Eager boy meets shy girl. Boy proves himself worthy. Boy and girl
fall in love, get married and have children. They all live happily
ever after.

It's folklore that appeals to many Americans - one that the media
facilitate and many politicians moralize, according to many
anthropologists. They say this timeless tale has one significant
problem: In a great many civilizations, at least until the present
era, marriages were arranged in the interests of kinship networks,
not at the whim of lovers. And, throughout history, they have taken
on a wide variety of forms, including same-sex partnerships.

President Bush similarly portrayed the union between male and female
as the only proper form of marriage, calling it "one of the most
fundamental, enduring institutions of our civilization" in his State
of the Union Address. By doing so, these anthropologists say, he
ignored a primary lesson of human culture and further perpetuated the
Western marriage myth.

In a statement released last month, the 11,000-member American
Anthropological Association gave Bush failing marks on his
understanding of world societies and criticized his proposed ban on
same-sex marriage.

"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," the association's executive
board said.

"Rather, anthropological research supports the conclusion that a vast
array of family types, including families built upon same-sex
partnerships, can contribute to stable and humane societies."

Modern marriage only 200 years old
Scholars of both texts and worldwide cultures agree that it is nearly
impossible to formulate a precise and generally acceptable way to
define the flexible nature of marriage, according to the AAA.

In his recent book, "The Trouble with Nature: Sex in Science and
Popular Culture," George Mason University anthropologist Roger
Lancaster argues that the notion of one-man, one-woman marriage crept
into the collective consciousness of American society only within the
past 200 years - a result of both the industrial revolution, and the
media's influence.

"Leaders often make global pronouncements about 'marriage,' as though
it were a self-evident institution," Lancaster said. "Depending on
its cultural context, marital unions can involve a host of different
persons in a number of possible combinations. People are inventive
and creative about the way they create kinship networks."

Marriage, as Americans envision it today, didn't exist during the
time of the Old Testament, or even as the Apostles spread the word of
Christianity across the Middle East and Europe. Rather, marriage has
consistently adjusted to religious, political and economic changes,
anthropologists said.

Throughout the pre-Christian world, most civilizations practiced
polygamy, until the Romans systematized marriage by establishing an
age of consent and specifying unions across socio-economic classes,
according to Lancaster. The Roman Catholic Church soon spread the
vision of monogamy, but it took hundreds of years to become the
universal axiom, he added. Even then, families arranged marriages,
usually as a business transaction with the bride accompanying a piece
of land to farm, or a livestock inheritance.

A polemical historian, the late John Boswell, concluded that in
pre-modern Europe "marriage usually began as a property arrangement,
was in its middle mostly about raising children, and ended about love.

"Few couples in fact, married 'for love,' but many grew to love each
other in time as they jointly managed their household, reared their
offspring and shared life experiences," he wrote.

Boswell was gay himself, as is Lancaster, who has contributed several
opinion columns to this newspaper.

Churches supported gay unions
Other academics didn't consider Boswell controversial for his
inferences on early marriage, but for his assertions that liturgical
ceremonies in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches sanctioned
gay unions. For a period of more than 1,000 years, between A.D. 500
and 1500, these churches in Europe performed the Adelphopoiesis, or
"the making of brothers," he determined in his 1994 book, "Same-Sex
Unions in Premodern Europe."

Even though these rituals celebrated a life-long union between two
men, historians disagree on the nature of the relationship. Some
state they did carry with them a homoerotic connotation, while others
contend they were friendship, or "blood-brother" accords.

Joseph Palacios, a Georgetown professor of sociology, who is gay,
said the more salient proof of same-sex unions in pre-modern Europe
lies within the vows of religious orders. When priests joined a
monastery or nuns entered a convent they organized their lives around
each other in a common "marriage" to Jesus Christ.

"The vows of poverty, chastity and obedience are technically
equivalent to marriage vows, and to me, these single-sex orders
provide the larger evidence of the sanctioning of same-sex unions,"
Palacios said. "They also procured children in the sense of
establishing schools, orphanages and hospitals, which mirrored or
paralleled the intent of marriage."

The American Anthropological Association created its statement
denouncing Bush at the suggestion of Dan Segal, another
anthropologist who points to the application of marriage to same-sex
couples in both a classical and modern context.

Centuries after the Greeks and early Christians sanctified same-sex
unions, Native Americans still practice a widespread same-sex
tradition known as the berdache, in which two spirit males - men who
are not tied to one gender - marry, provided they undergo a social
and spiritual transformation, Lancaster said. One spouse might
identify as female, but both remain biologically male.

Many modern societies don't even draw a distinction between
homosexual and heterosexual in their pairings, Lancaster said,
choosing a more free association regarding sexual or kinship ties.
The Nuer of Sudan, as well as other African societies,
institutionalized female same-sex marriages to preserve the lineage
of one woman's family. These same-sex unions also exist in the form
of cohabitation after an occasional "ghost marriage" of a woman to a
dead man.

Polygamy came first
Though some conservative politicians decry same-sex marriages as
opening the door to polygamy, polygamy is actually the time-tested
method of sexual bonding, anthropologists said. Outlawed in the
United States in 1879, it still survives among some Mormons and is
practiced consistently in the Muslim world.

Bush's model of marriage - the heterosexual nuclear family - actually
evolved during the Industrial Revolution, as transient populations,
mass education, the women's rights movement and the creation of
leisure time tested marriage's tradition, according to Lancaster.

Women also moved up in status from property to partner, and children
from a source of labor to the treasured outcomes of a loving bond.
Early 20th century magazines, such as the Ladies' Home Journal,
seized upon this idea and circulated it through mainstream America,
scholars noted.

Though all don't necessarily support same-sex marriage, most
anthropologists and social scientists agreed that the American
Anthropological Association correctly challenged what many called,
Bush's "ethnocentric view" of the union. A spokesperson for the
association said the president's narrow remarks struck a nerve among
those who study the culture through time and across the world.

"What happens in cultures is that people tend to see their culture as
the paragon, and then extrapolate its values out to others," said
Joanne Rappaport, a Georgetown professor of anthropology. "We see
what we do as the only way to do things, and the president's narrow
views on issues don't help in changing that perspective."

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