Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Marriage is Not a Luxury Good, But a Transformative Practice

Two of my fellow sociologists, Laurie Essig and Lynn Owens, offer an attack on marriage that is fairly typical of what they call "critical" sociology. They view marriage as a kind of magic that the privileged add to themselves. They conclude that

When there is broad, seemingly unanimous support for an institution, and when the institution is propped up by such disparate ideas as love, civil rights and wealth creation, we should wonder why so many different players seem to agree so strongly. Perhaps it’s because they are supporting not just marriage but also the status quo.
This is almost completely backward. Marriage is a formative institution. We make ourselves and our society more loving, equal, and richer through marriage because marriage leads people to act differently - especially men. The worst off groups are the least married. This is not because marriage is a luxury of the best off. It is because people who don't make the transformative commitments of marriage tend to end up badly off. And what is likely to individuals is nearly certain for groups.

When there is broad, seemingly unanimous support for an institution, and when the institution is propped up by such disparate ideas as love, civil rights and wealth creation, we should wonder why so many different players seem to agree so strongly. Perhaps it’s because they are trying to build up civilization and benefit everyone.


10 comments:

VA said...

I'm not disagreeing, but I'm curious as to what you mean when you say marriage makes society more "equal." Are you talking about equality across social classes, racial groups, gender?

Gruntled said...

I was perhaps using too much shorthand there.

In the Essig and Owen article they say that marriage is for rich white people, but not something that poor and non-white people can do.

Because marriage does make people richer, it would equalize the rich/poor gap. Because marriage rates are among the biggest differences between African Americans and everyone else, equalizing the marriage rate would eliminate many gaps between black Americans and other groups.

Thomas said...

They do have a point about the meaning of marriage changing over time, and I would think a strong case could be made that the institution of marriage itself is in need of being reformed.

ceemac said...

I thought that you might "enjoy' that bit of reading.

They sort of stuck me as acting like the 2 "cool kids" back in the day sitting at the back of the class saying things that they were sure would get a rise out of the teacher: "Isn't marriage just a tool that "the man" uses to perpetuate unjust social structures and impose his will on the people?"

randy said...

gruntled, i think maybe your own PRO-marriage bias is leading you a bit astray; causing you to see the institution in a too-rosy light.

i'm 46, male,straight, and have never desired marriage-not one bit. i'm happy too live in a culture where this factor does not in and of itself cause others to view me as a creepy misfit.

marriage is great for those who want it-as most do. but it aint for everyone. and it's not a societal cure-all. there are reasons why divorce was made easier.

Gruntled said...

A rich and varied culture has room for all kinds. Marriage, like all cultural goods, do not have to be practiced by everyone. But I do think that most people are best served by marriage, and society needs most people to marry to be healthy.

Black Sea said...

Magnum Opus, Part I

I realize that this is an opinion piece (in other words, as disposable as most other examples of the genre) but still, I wonder what the standards are for use of empirical evidence in sociology.

Marriage makes you rich:

Does anyone claim this? "Rich" implies a level of wealth significantly above average. Marriage makes you "richer" (than you would be otherwise) might be more accurate. An even better way of putting it would be that raising children in a married home (or at least, a home in which both parents live together) is much more cost effective than raising children in a single parent home. I suspect that the data will support this claim.


"Nor will moving into marriage necessarily increase your earnings or earning potential. If you’re poor and have little education, saying “I do” won’t get you off welfare or make minimum wage any less a dead end."

Again, a red herring, since the issue is really whether a two-parent household costs less to form and sustain, thus allowing for more discretionary spending (or saving) elsewhere.


Marriage is traditional:

True, though Essig and Ownes are correct to point out that its particulars vary between cultures and eras. Nevertheless, this is a neutral point. It neither supports nor invalidates the benefits of marriage. Cusines also vary between cultures and eras, but eating is still a pretty good idea, at least as compared to not eating.

"That might have seemed reasonable in 1900, when the average marriage lasted about 11 years, a consequence of high death rates."

I want to see the data for that. And please don't tell me that in 1900 the average age at marriage was 25, and the average lifespan was 36, and thus the average marriage lasted 11 years. In 1900 the median age at first marriage was around 24. The average lifespan was 47. But obviously, the average life span of those lving long enough to get married was much higher than 47. In 1900, the annual divorce rate was 4 per thousand married couples. I'm curious as to how they calculated the average length of marriage in 1900 as 11 years.

"Although the nuclear family is idealized as “natural” and “normal” by our culture (Leave It to Beaver) and our government (“family values”), it has always been both a shockingly new way of living and a minority lifestyle."

False distinction. Point to an advocate of marriage who opposes the extended family. Obviously, extended family households can and frequently do exist within a married houshold. Extended and nuclear familes aren't exclusive categories.

Black Sea said...

Magnum Opus, Part II

Marriage makes you healthy

"With all that marriage supporters promise — wealth, health, stability, happiness, sustainability — our country finds itself confronted with a paradox: Those who would appear to gain the most from marriage are the same ones who prove most resistant to its charms."

I wonder what Essig and Owens tell their students. Most of the above claims have been made for higher education, and yet "Those who would appear to gain the most from [it] are the same ones who prove most resistant to its charms."

Perhaps high education, or education period, isn't what it's cracked up to be.

"Instead of “blaming the victims” for failing to adopt the formative lifestyles of the white and middle class, we should consider that those avoiding marriage may know exactly what they are doing. Marriage is not necessarily good for all of us, and it may even be bad for most of us."

I agree that marriage is not good for all of us. I wouldn't even include the "necessarily." I don't really care whether the childless get married. I'm all for letting people find their own routes to happiness (or hell).

From a social perspective, marriage is mostly about raising kids. Other benefits may accrue to the parents, but I suspect divorce rates would be significantly higher if our children were conceived in test tubes and reared in laboratories (though we're well on our way.)

Show me the data indicating that children of single parent homes fare at least as well as those of married households, controlling for parental (not household) income, IQ, race, and other relevant factors, and I'll be much more inclined to their argument. Show me that they are no more likely to suffer physical or sexual abuse (new boyfriends are particularly hazardous in this regard). Demonstrate that they are no more likely than any other children to become a problem and/or burden to me and others, and I'll happily say "To each his own . . ."

Gruntled said...

Fine opus, Black Sea. I particularly like "I wonder what Essig and Owens tell their students. Most of the above claims have been made for higher education, and yet "Those who would appear to gain the most from [it] are the same ones who prove most resistant to its charms."" I need this counter-argument way more often than I should.

AmericanOwl said...

Hi Beau. I agree with you here. I would add that too many people enter into marriage thinking about what they will get, and not what the need to give. Good things take work. I thought of you when writing my column last week about the Maine Gay Marriage Law Repeal. Perhaps you and your readers might be interested.
http://centermovement.org/social-issues/silencing-the-cannons-in-the-culture-war-the-meaning-of-the-maine-gay-marriage-defeat/