Institutional obsolescence, and other tales of romance and intrigue from the history book

Last week Adam cited a widely-shared “conservative case for gay marriage.” The argument as I understand it assumes that making marriage available to gay couples will (at least temporarily) increase the number of married households, which in turn will return marriage to its former role as a central organizer of social relationships. This is possible. But a better measure of marriage’s institutional health might be the magnitude of the work marriage performs on social formations, rather than the total number of marriages. And by this measure, more is not necessarily healthier: if marriage is doing less to organize the ways people pair up, live together, raise children, and organize their household affairs, even if there are for a time more marriages, the creep toward social irrelevance may continue.

In other words, I doubt if children on a deep level will take a pro-marriage message away from a married gay household. I think it at least as likely that they will take away an indifference to marriage as a social institution: whereas marriage once organized social practices of sex, parenting, and property distribution on the basis of race, class, gender and sexual orientation, it no longer consistently organizes any of those practices on any of those bases. Of course, many of us are pleased that marriage no longer performs quite so much social work: most of us are in favor of child-support legislation, legal interracial and inter-class marriage, and so on. (Assortative mating ensures that most people still marry within their race and class, to be sure, but it is no longer the institution of marriage that does the work of pairing likes together, and in that sense the institution has lost some of its clout.) And yes, of course, gay marriage is only the most recent—and probably not even the most serious—development in this deinstitutionalization of marriage. (For my money, the normalization of illegitimacy is the most serious).

So many times discussions of gay marriage must necessarily pit speculation against anecdote, an unpleasant and often unproductive rhetorical match-up. But in thinking about the deinstitutionalization of marriage, we can turn to the history books for some material. An historical analogy to the possible fates of institutional marriage might be found in the decline of service as a social institution. In medieval and early modern England (and elsewhere in Europe), the institution of service, wherein adolescents left their parents and went to serve in some capacity at a larger, higher-status household, was nearly as pervasive and at least as formative in the life-cycle as was marriage itself. Poor girls served in middling households as domestic help, poor boys as farm hands; children of the gentry attended at court. The social ties established during the serving years launched the child into adulthood from a network of mutual obligation. In this way, service organized social relationships and integrated individuals into the body politic on the basis of gender and social rank; the social work service performed in organizing and locating groups of individuals was immeasurable. But when structural changes in society made those social formations irrelevant, the institution itself inevitably declined in numbers, as well. Like marriage, institutional service came to be seen as oppressive and harmful—although the harm was understood to accrue to children, not women and gays. “Service” became “child labor,” and progressive crusaders effectively stigmatized the practice. Ironically, the decline of service itself gave way to the “woman in the house” culture of gender, so associated with 20th century marriage, that many women find oppressive; from service to servitude, as it were. Who knows what other future oppression some graduate student will one day trace to the decline of institutional marriage?

Of course, social history is anything but an exact science, and it’s difficult to know now which aspects of the decline of service will turn out to be relevant to the decline of marriage, and what sort of unexpected consequences will ensue. Perhaps in the end it’s better to formulate a position on the basis of a set of principled values, rather than on projected outcomes. (Not much easier to get folks to agree on a principled values than on projected outcomes, though.) In any case, the once and future history books will make for good reading.

17 comments for “Institutional obsolescence, and other tales of romance and intrigue from the history book

  1. That’s an interesting comparison, Rosalynde. On the other hand, service didn’t have quite the same biological imperative as marriage. I don’t want to go all biology-is-destiny or anything, but marriage provides a lot of people with an efficient solution to a number of reproductive problems. For humans to reproduce, eggs and sperm need regular opportunities to hook up, and many pregnant women require the assistance of another adult in the household, and babies need regular feeding with liquids similar or identical to breast milk, and small children often need 24/7 care and supervision for years at a time. For many people, marriage or something nigh unto it is a very efficient solution. This is not an argument that marriage, or the current American form of marriage, is the only solution for everybody, but the mere facts of biology dictate that marriage will be a convincing reproductive solution for a lot of people. If we did away with marriage, economists would re-invent it, except they would make it sound even more soulless than I’ve done here.

  2. I think little on Gay Marriage. Let it be, it has little to do with my life. I have had the joy of my marriage (41 years), and have shared the joy other’s happy marriages. I also have shared the pain of marriages that have failed. My efforts and thoughts go to how lower to the number of failed relationships, rather than stopping Gay ones. Yes, the price paid by Gays may be high. But if the relationship is based on love, the is hope is there for a good relationship.

  3. Jonathan and Bob, thanks for reading. Jonathan, I agree that there’s a fundamental bio-logic to the “natural family,” and for that reason marriage-like and family-like groupings may prove pretty persistent in the aggregate. On the other hand, those groupings don’t appear, in the absence of institutional marriage, to be very stable individually. Partner swapping, kid mixing and matching, extended female kin stepping in to play the father’s support role, etc. In American society, familial instability is most pronounced among the most disadvantaged (though which is cause and which is effect is hard to sort out). It would be interesting to know whether institutional service was phased out unevenly across social strata, too—I don’t know enough about it.

  4. “In American society, familial instability is most pronounced among the most disadvantaged”

    and often the most advantaged. That would be an interesting study, at least.

  5. “…which is cause and which is effect is hard to sort out.”

    Are you sure, Rosalynde??

  6. Rosalynde, you start with an assumption that the modern Western Nuclear Family, (parents + their kids), is the norm throughout the history and scope of Humankind. I am not sure this is true. I would say it ‘Takes a Village’ or a Clan is more the norm.

    “In American society, familial instability is most pronounced among the most disadvantaged”. Again, this is only true, if your norm is a Nuclear Model. The ‘norm’ in my family is extended, mixed, yet very stable. Where I live, I see many disadvantaged families that find stability using this Model.

  7. re: 6 I don’t think Rosalynde starts with that assumption at all, Bob. I think you’re misreading her, but will let her clarify.

  8. As usual, another concise, thoughful, and well-written post from Rosalynde.
    I realize that this comment really adds nothing to the coversation but I have to state that this post is indicative of why Rosalynde is one of my favorite bloggers in the bloggernacle.

    Just sayin’…

  9. Rosalynde said: “I doubt if children on a deep level will take a pro-marriage message away from a married gay household. I think it at least as likely that they will take away an indifference to marriage as a social institution”

    What makes you think that? As long as marriage carried with it legal rights and entitlements, anyone entering into marriage sends the message that those rights and entitlements are important. So what if not every married couple–gay or straight–gets sealed in the temple? That doesn’t send a message that married couples are uninterested in a long-term outlook for their relationship, nor does it devalue temple marriage. Likewise, marriage does not become socially irrelevant simply because not every child learns a “Families Are Forever, Fathers Preside with the Priesthood, Mothers Stay Home and Nurture” message from their parents.

  10. #7: Mike, you may be right, it could be me who is making the assumptions. But I don’t see the nuclear family as the most stable model. Nor the most used model.The nuclear family can weaken when the child becomes an adult. Larger models, to me, are more stable (Clans,*think Braveheart, The Godfather, etc.*), and can go on for hundreds of years.

  11. I would agree that an extended family is more normal, historically, with grandparents, adult siblings and their spouses, and their children. And there is a role for the next level of organization, a village.

    What the LDS Church creates for each family is that village experience, in which we spend a good deal of our time with a limited universe of neighbors with various kinds of relationships, including leaders of the ward and of subsets (Relief Society, Priesthood quorum, etc.), in which there are both peer relationships among adults and among children, and mentoring relationships between adults and children. We become related to other families through our children’s relationships and through home teaching and visiting teaching relationships. We establish close relationships in presidencies of each organizational unit.

    The fact that our LDS term for this village is a “ward”, based on a subdivision of a city, is an historical accident but very appropriate. It is more than a list of people who sit in pews for an hour each Sunday listening to sermons. It makes demands on my time almost on the level of my work and my immediate household. Both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were very conscious of creating not just congregations of members, who lived most of their lives outside the context of the Church, but actual communities and cities that could require us to exercise our religion 24/7.

    The ward environment has us interacting with each other not just individually but also on the basis of husband and wife and family. We are expected to sustain the ward, and the ward is tasked to sustain us, not just individually but also as a married couple and as a family with children. If marriage gives us each a witness to our lives, the ward gives us a witness to our families. The ward shares grief and joy, provides food and comfort, calls us to forget our own pain and ameliorate the suffering of others.

    The randomness of the creation of a ward, the accident of where we collectively choose to live, is like the randomness of the children who arrive in our families. Apart from our spouses, we have no choice in our parents and our children, our brothers and sisters. We learn loyalty and love in relationships that begin with simple duty and dependence. Love grows toward the people we serve, people who have a relationship with us solely because a quorum or Relief Society leader matched our names on a list.

    For that matter, while we choose our spouses, they are always strangers to us at first in so many ways, and we come to know each other as we live together through the ups and downs of life. Marriage is a pledge that we will maintain the relationship as a duty even when we realize we don’t fully know our partner, and will give love the opportunity to grow over and around this new facet of the other’s personality.

    It seems to me that, whatever we want to say about marriage, it needs to be placed in the context of the larger relationships that a married couple are embedded in.

  12. Mike, re: your #5, yes, I personally am unsure. Does familial instability cause economic hardship, or does economic hardship cause familial instability? I can imagine scenarios either way. If the social science has answered this question definitively, I don’t know about it. But if you know of research that answers the question, by all means, share! I gobble that stuff up.

    Bob, I’m not sure where you find the presumption of a transhistorical nuclear family lurking in the observation that the decline of institutional service may be in some ways analogous to the decline of institutional marriage; if anything, I’m trying to emphasize the historical contingency of the family, in order to stress that it may disappear under changing conditions. As I remarked to Jonathan, there’s a certain logic to the father + mother + child arrangement, but as I said, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the “natural family” will always persist as the favored social arrangement.

    Tony, thank you very much for the high praise. Wow!

    And Raymond, thanks for your contribution. Nice points made.

  13. #11: On some, I agree. The Ward did, for me, fill in for a dysfunctional family as I grew up. But I am not sure the Ward and the Mormon Village did the same in the 19th C. I don’t believe Joseph Smith was even into ‘ congregations (?). Nor am I not sure the Ward or the Village, was as powerful as the Mormon Clans. The Church is far more into it’s clan histories, than it’s ward histories. As for picking your spouses, This was done by the ‘Clans’ for my Grandparents.
    I do not see the ward doing daycare for it’s working single mother, or taking in foster children. I don’t see it doing much for it’s elderly.
    I guess my point is that relationships should fulfill the needs of the individualists, not the other way around.

  14. #12: Rosalynde: Wow! You uses a 60 word sentence to clean up my thinking. I don’t even own a 60 word sentence. I am honored. The only challenge left for you is to beat Raymond’s 900 word paragraphs.
    Your “natural family’, usually only last, if at all, only though infancy for a child, or the birth of the next child. I don’t know, even in higher Mammals, the animal has a family for more than a year or two.

  15. LOL, Bob! I get the feeling you’re trying to say “bish plz.” See, I can be concise!

    I don’t disagree with your substantive point (see my #3).

  16. #15: Thank you for your kindness. When faced with Word Masters ( like you, Nate, Raymond), I know I can get my head knocked off. It’s like I am a kid again, being faced down be the big kid, and my only defense is “Your shoe’s untied”.

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