From the May 2004 Anthropology News

Gay Marriage and Anthropology

Linda S Stone
Washington State U

Politicians and the public in the US today are raising a question once pursued by anthropologists in the 1950s, namely, what should we mean by marriage? The politically charged issue concerns whether or not a constitutional definition of marriage can exclude same-sex couples. With over a century of experience in the study of kinship and marriage worldwide, anthropology can offer perspectives on this debate that may be of interest to our students or the general public.

Can Marriage Be Defined?
Many politicians claim that those advocating gay and lesbian marriage are trying to redefine marriage. But what anthropologists have learned is that from a global, cross-cultural perspective, “marriage” is in the first place extremely difficult, some would say impossible, to define. One anthropologist, Edmund Leach tried to define marriage in his 1955 article “Polyandry, Inheritance and the Definition of Marriage” published in MAN. Leach quickly gave up this task, concluding that no definition could cover all the varied institutions that anthropologists regularly consider as marriage. Rejecting Leach’s conclusion, Kathleen Gough attempted to define marriage cross-culturally in 1959 as an institution conferring full “birth status rights” to children (The Nayars and the Definition of Marriage. Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 89:23-34). Gough’s definition of marriage was convoluted—notable, in her own words, for its “inevitably clumsy phraseology”—since it covered monogamy, polygyny, polyandry and same-sex marriage. But most important, its core feature—conferring of birth status rights on children—does not hold up cross-culturally.

It is true that virtually every society in the world has an institution that is very tempting to label as “marriage,” but these institutions simply do not share common characteristics. Marriage in most societies establishes the legitimacy or status rights of children, but this is not the case, for example, among the Navajo where children born to a woman, married or not, become full legitimate members of her matriclan and suffer no disadvantages. “Marriage” around the world most often involves heterosexual unions, but there are important exceptions to this. There are cases of legitimate same-sex marriages as, for example, woman-woman marriage among the Nuer and some other African groups. Here, a barren woman divorces her husband, takes another woman as her wife, and arranges for a surrogate to impregnate this woman. Any children from this arrangement become members of the barren woman’s natal patrilineage and refer to the barren woman as their father. Among some Native American groups, males who preferred to live as women (berdache) adopted the names and clothing of women and often became wives of other men.

Marriage usually involves sexual relationships between spouses. Yet this was not true of Nuer woman-woman marriages and we find in European history cases of “celibate marriages” among early Christians. Often spouses are co-resident but very often this is not the case. A separate residence of husbands in “men’s houses,” away from their wives and children, has been common in many places. Among the polyandrous/polygynous Nayar of India, wives and husbands remained in their own natal groups with husbands periodically “visiting” their wives and with children raised by their mothers and mothers’ brothers. Indeed the only feature of marriages that is apparently universal is that they will create affinal (in-law) relationships, or alliances, a fact that Lévi-Strauss and others considered to lie behind the origin of human marriage. But even here, affinal relationships are themselves quite varied in their nature and importance across societies. Thus, in terms of child legitimacy, sex of spouses, sexual activity, residence and so on, what we see around the world in terms of marriage is most notable for its variation.

Variation and Change
Anthropologists have accounted for this variation in a number of ways, looking to economic, ecological, demographic and historical processes. For example, polyandry, especially in Himalayan regions, is now well understood as in part related to the benefits of low population growth in areas of scarce environmental resources (Nancy Levine, The Dynamics of Polyandry, 1981). On a broader scale, Jack Goody has contributed to our understanding of marriage variations by drawing comparisons between Eurasian monogamy (with dowry) and sub Saharan African polygyny (with bridewealth). His work, published in Production and Reproduction (1976), has shown important connections that marriage forms have with agricultural practices, the development (or lack of development) of socioeconomic classes, marriage payments and patterns of property inheritance throughout the history of Africa and Eurasia.

Anthropological studies of kinship and marriage can also provide an understanding that within any society, marriage and the family will change over time. Whereas in the US legal marriages have been traditionally monogamous unions between a woman and a man, the nature of marriage, the domestic economy, husband-wife relationships, parent-child relationships, family structure and household structure have seen considerable transformation since the 1700s (Stephanie Coontz, The Social Origins of Private Life, 1988). Relevant transformations of marriage and the family have been in particular occurring in the US since the 1960s. Here we have seen rising rates of divorce, resulting in greater numbers of single-parent households. A rise in remarriage following divorce has additionally brought about the growth of so-called blended families, consisting of various combinations of step-parents, step-children and step-siblings. Many US children today are raised in two separate households, where one or both may consist of a previous parent and a newer set of step-relations.

The development of New Reproductive Technologies (such as, surrogate motherhood, in-vitro fertilization, frozen embryos) meanwhile has conceptually fragmented motherhood. We can today distinguish a birth mother from a genetic mother from a legal mother; all three “mothers” may be one, two or even three separate women. By contrast, fatherhood, once considered “uncertain” compared with motherhood, can now be made certain, one way or another, through DNA testing.

From Biology to Choice
Perhaps the most profound change of all, and one undoubtedly linked with the above transformations of kinship and the family, is a perceptible change in the cultural construction of kinship in the US. An earlier emphasis on kinship as based on biological connection (what David Schneider termed “shared biogenetic substance” in American Kinship, 1980), is giving way to a new conception of kinship as a relation based on personal choice and commitment (Linda Stone, Introduction, Contemporary Directions in Kinship, Kinship and Family, 2004). The US is in many respects culturally embracing a wider variety of family forms and an expanded construction of kinship through choice and self-definition as much as through biology.

It is within these new dimensions of family variation and choice as a basis of kinship that, I think, we can best view the movement for legalization of same-sex marriage. From an anthropological perspective that focuses on the whole of humanity, what same-sex couples seeking legal marriage in the US are trying to do is not to redefine marriage. They are seeking legal recognition in the US for doing what people around the world have always done, that is to construct marriage for themselves.

Linda S Stone is Professor of Anthropology at Washington State University. She is the author of Kinship and Gender: An Introduction and editor of New Directions in Anthropological Kinship.