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July 13, 2010



Hmmm. It seems to me that you are equating tradition and living under the thumb of nature (and "subsistence agriculture"). I think that people, as long as we are able to consider them such, are able to evaluate whether their traditions are bad or good. Maybe some groups are poorer and more tied to eking out an existence, but that doesn't make them any more or less traditional. In fact, it seems to me that many traditions, like marriage for example, are based on taboos set up to keep us from feeling that we have sunk to the level of animals. (Then it seems like to me you are similarly buying into this perhaps unnecessarily derogatory view of the natural world in your analysis.)

Justin Smith

Why do you put 'subsistence agriculture' in scare quotes? Is it because you think such a thing does not in fact exist?

All people can evaluate their traditions and decide whether they are good or bad, but the way they decide is going to depend on sociocultural and environmental factors on which they cannot decide. For example, pre-contact Inuit could not have decided to be vegetarians. This strikes me as obvious.

Can you give me an example of an agrarian society that has recognized same-sex marriage as having exactly the same status as other-sex marriage? If you can give me an example, then I will take back what I said. If you can't, I will continue presuming that there is a link between modes of production, sociocultural organization, and kinship rules.


But there has been lots of homosexuality. The fact that there has been no gay marriage seems to have more to do with the way that marriage has been understood, and people want to change that now and have more egalitarian marriages. Whether or not a society is materially prosperous doesn't seem to be connected to their traditional understanding of marriage. I agree with you that homophobia is "traditional" but I don't agree that it is more natural or biological or more primordial or whatever you want to call it. Although there's probably a relationship between industrialization and egalitarianism, the nature of it is probably a separate topic.
And my other point is that being traditional and being poor are inversely related in my mind.
I put "subsistence agriculture" in quotes because I was quoting you.

Justin Smith

But who ever doubted that there's always been homosexuality? The subject here is kinship systems, in which it is not just the expression of sexual desire that is at issue, but also the organization of society. For this reason, it's just naive to think that any society is free to institute a new kinship system that is based on the accommodation of previously excluded forms of sexual desire, without in so doing altering its own fundamental structure. On this, there's a very interesting comment from a certain AZ on my follow-up post on cousin marriage, which I copy here. I agree entirely with the connection he/she makes between the marriage-equality movement and the expansion of market liberalism.

"I wondered why there’s nothing explicit in your comments about the political economy of gender equality or inheritance and traditional kinship structures. The distinction of stuff versus love made me think of this. Of course, two debates underlying arguments over radical marriage reform are about: 1) the social construction versus innate character of sexual/gender inequality and 2) gendered reproductive versus productive roles. Very broadly, you’re arguing that, on a “worldwide” scale, the categories (and categorical implications of) male and female have been, and thus are, immiscible. (In this sense, late modern squeamishness about first-cousin marriage is kind of a distraction.) But when traditionalists argue that marriage is only between a man and a woman, part of what they’re invoking is not just the centrality of reproduction or that there is a long cultural history of intextricable hierarchically structured relations, but also that such inequalities are microcosmically modeled and reified in the family.

"In other words, the male-headed family is the foundation of the state and if the family changes, then the state will be transformed. What would it mean for the state if homosexual marriage becomes universally legalized? Or to use legal scholar Ariela Dubler’s spatial metaphor, what are the implications for governance if the periphery and the core of traditional marriage and property relations merge into an undifferentiated homogeneity? That seems to be a crucial question in this debate that requires a legal, political, and economic historical/anthropological perspective. Putting aside racial/eugenic anxieties, the key context for understanding (or maybe even neutralizing?) debates about marriage reform is the expansion of capitalism and the liberal state. (From this perspective, too, it seems that the worthwhile comparison isn’t between agrarian peasants versus urban cosmopolitans, since agrarian societies have also been commercial societies, but between societies with alternative forms of stratification, e.g. matriarchal inheritance; fictive or mythopoeic kinship, and most of the societies we know about.)

"The normative nuclear family model of one man-one woman has until very recently assumed women’s dependence and women’s financial vulnerability as unchanging, unchangeable and thus women were crucial for family/social reproduction but they were an economic burden on the liberal state. The nuclear family privatized this financial burden—a mutually reinforcing arrangement whereby the family supported the social, economic, and political functions of the state and the state legitimated the social, economic, and political order of the male-headed household. But in the age of globalization and the intensifying commodification of everything (since the early modern period, in which the distinction between ‘stuff’ and ‘love’ is blurred), it seems that extending marriage rights to same-sex couples would further privatize financial burdens or risks, so that, for example, female and male widows of all sexual orientations are enfranchised within the scope of marriage benefits. So that what seems to be a radical shift is, in terms of the history of modern liberalism, a deeply conservative one, except that male/female and provider/dependent are more interchangeable. Legalizing same-sex adoption—that is, disentangling the ethics of heterosexual sex from its consequences and legitimating a free market of child exchanges—also addresses the issue of caring for children, an inalienable category of dependents. This is the main argument of small government and Log Cabin Republicans who support gay marriage rights, not on the moral principles of human rights but on the ideological principles of market liberalism (and what distinguishes them from Christian Right Republicans). As you say, these considerations apply to only some societies and are articulated/enforced by an elite minority within them. On a world-wide scale then, it seems that it's not so much gender/sexual fundamentalism so much as the limits of globalization and resistance to market liberalism that explain the limits of and resistance to marriage reform."

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