Kathryn Edin, whose fine new book, Promises I Can Keep I wrote about earlier, was part of a panel on “Overcoming Barriers to Stable Marriage” at the Brookings Institution recently. In her Brookings testimony, Edin said:
“This is probably a profound cultural change[:] marriage and child-bearing among low-income men and women, white, black, and Hispanic, are no longer seen as decisions that necessarily go together. Here there are comparative ethnographic studies with middle class 20-somethings. And middle class 20-somethings almost never even consider having children outside of marriage. It's not that they're especially moral, they just literally can't imagine being able to sustain it, given all of the other things that fill their lives and make their lives so rich.”
Sociologists have a long-running debate about whether the basic family unit is mother-child, to which father is later added, or husband-wife, which then naturally produces children. I think nearly all human practices are a rich tangle of nature and nurture. As a rule of thumb, I assume those factors will be in a 50/50 mix. I incline to the view that the mother-child unit is what nature starts with in building families. The father-mother-child molecule is, I think, a great cultural achievement – perhaps the greatest single achievement of human culture. The couple-child family is so deeply embedded in all kinds of human civilizations that it seems natural. It has achieved “cultural hegemony” in Antonio Gramsci’s phrase – it is hard for us to even imagine an alternative.
However, as Edin notes, one American subculture has broken the cultural hegemony which connects children with marriage. The genie is out of the bottle. A generation of poor women – most especially African-American women – assumes kids, but only hopes for marriage. Realistically, though, few of them will achieve their dreams unless they change their ideas about marriage.
My point here is a different one, though. Some people look at the fact that one subculture has broken the link between children and marriage, and conclude that the whole culture should break that link. Since marriage is not naturally connected with childbearing, this argument goes, we should stop trying to impose a connection. Marriage is a personal lifestyle choice; having kids is a different personal lifestyle choice. Now that we are free from the unnatural hegemony of the idea that marriage and kids go together, freedom demands that we prevent the culture from imposing a connection between the two.
This is, I think, absolutely the wrong conclusion to draw. When we see that some part of the culture is not really required by nature but is, in some sense, socially constructed, that does not mean we should stop constructing it. On the contrary, the construction of a culture is a great human achievement. What we need is not a new naturalism, which only accepts what our (quite limited) animal nature imposes. Instead, we need a new, clear-eyed commitment to rebuilding civilization precisely because some social structures need to be socially constructed.
And the greatest of the socially constructed social structures, I submit, is marriage.