Marriage “American Style”
Not the Only Way to Go
by Peter S. Cahn
Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Oklahoma
© March 12, 2004, Peter S. Cahn
Defending his decision to support a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage, President Bush declared that the “union of a man and woman is the most enduring human institution, honored and encouraged in all cultures and by every religious faith.”
Well, not exactly.
Several religious leaders rushed to confirm Bush’s claim about the universal definition of marriage, but what qualifies them as experts on cultures outside their own?
When social scientists get together to talk about this issue — and that’s frequently these days — we cringe at the way opponents of same-sex marriage attempt to justify what may be personal beliefs with anthropological “evidence.” Believe what you wish, but let’s keep the facts straight.
The American Anthropological Association, the national professional organization of teachers and scholars who study human organization across the world, denounced the proposed amendment. They know that over a century of research has shown that marriage between one man and one woman is not the only or even the most successful way to organize a family.
I teach an introductory class in cultural anthropology, and one of the first things students hear is to examine marriage not as an institution that predates culture, but as a dynamic, flexible contract that responds to the demands of each culture.
Although monogamy between opposite sexes is the most common arrangement for joining spouses around the world, few societies find it beneficial to restrict marriage only to this form.
Polygyny, the marriage between one man and two or more women, is often found in societies like the Egyptian Bedouins, who live with scarce resources and find large families an asset. Where it occurs, polygyny is associated with high status, since only a wealthy man can marshal the resources necessary to provide for several wives.
Rarer is polyandry, a marriage between one woman and several men. Still, this form of marriage is considered desirable in Tibet, where arable land is at a premium. Rather than dividing the family’s plot among several sons and their wives, all the brothers marry a single woman, keeping the land intact and maximizing economic resources.
The Inuit of northern Alaska practice a form of group marriage in which two monogamous couples swap sexual partners. The foursome does not live together, but comes to establish a bond of reciprocity that ensures mutual aid in an unforgiving environment. Children born to either couple consider each other siblings, further extending the pool of potential support and avoiding any sense of jealousy.
Where monogamy — just one spouse — is the norm, there are nevertheless examples of marriage between two people of the same biological sex: two men or two women. This is the case in many Native American societies that recognize a third gender, the berdache, who is anatomically male but spiritually neither male nor female. A berdache may live with a man, fulfilling the role of wife.
In societies where descent is traced through the males of the family, keeping the lineage going is more important than restricting marriage to one man and one woman. Among the Kwakiutl Indians of the Pacific Northwest, a man may marry the male heir of a tribal chief as a means of inheriting certain privileges from his father-in-law.
Similarly, a Nuer father in Sudan who has only daughters may ask one of them to adopt the social role of a man and take a bride. The female “husband” then selects a male mating partner for the wife. Any children born to the wife refer to the “husband” as father and become heirs of the paternal grandfather.
Contact with missionaries, changing work patterns and the integration of once-distinct communities into national states have diminished some of the diversity of marriage forms present in the world today.
Still, what remains constant is the relative novelty of the romance factor: affection between one man and one woman as a motivation for marriage is not the rule, or even the ideal in many places. No matter what shape they take, marriages across the world generally transcend the relationship between two individuals. They enhance solidarity between two groups.
While pastors may say same-sex marriage violates sacred tenets, neither they nor President Bush have the weight of world cultures on their side when they say that marriage has always been between one man and one woman. Anthropologists can attest: there is nothing natural or preordained about marriage “American style.”
© 2004, Peter S. Cahn
Peter S. Cahn teaches at University of Oklahoma. He authored
“All Religions are Good in Tzintzuntzan: Evangelicals
in Catholic Mexico” (University of Texas Press, 2003).