Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

What Anthropologists Know About Single People

Why anthropologists offer only two cheers for marriage equality.

As American media and American politics harangue us with their relentless matrimania, it is invigorating to throw open a tall window and let in the fresh air of anthropologists, whose view is a big as the world.

A recent article offered by the American Anthropological Association, authored by Roger Lancaster, provides some much needed context to contemporary discussions of marriage, family, marriage equality, and single life.

Whereas the conventional wisdom of our time offers mindless platitudes about marriage as the bedrock of civilization, anthropology instead lets us know that:

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“Marriage, family and kinship are not timeless institutions written in the eternal heavens and handed down to humankind with other basic moral values. They are variable and ever-changing social relations, and they change along with other changing social conditions. They are what we make of them, and it does them no dishonor when free men and women remake them from time to time according to their changing needs and their desires for a better future.”

Anthropologists recognize what advocates of marriage equality do – that marriage is an exclusionary institution and by letting gays and lesbians in, it is, appropriately, less exclusionary. Importantly, though, they also see beyond the specific group of people knocking at marriage’s door. Even with more people included in marriage, there are still many who are excluded from the “standing, economic access, and material goods” that marriage confers. As Lancaster notes, “This may well give us pause.”

To the purveyors of the popular belief that marriage provides the truest and stickiest social glue, anthropology counters with a bigger, better, broader perspective:

“…the facts of the present scarcely support the idea that marriage is the one institution that will sustain varied forms of social life. Some women (and a few men) are single parents not by circumstance but by choice; in either case, they strive to provide love, connection and a good life for their families. Their labors have earned our support, not moralizing lectures about how they should get married. Some people never couple up and never have children, nor do they wish to do so, but serve as caregivers for family members; others maintain long-term networks of mutual support with friends that resemble kin relations. Their contributions are worthy of respect, not sympathy.”

Few, if any, other disciplines are as strong as anthropology in recognizing diversity:

“There's more than one way to live, love and set up households…It would be a net loss if we, or at least some of us, were to join the institution of marriage in order to offload the symbolic and material burdens of queerness onto someone else: unmarrieds, single parents, divorcees, the nonmonogamous, etc. It would be far better if…gay marriage could lead to the consolidation of more forms of support for more forms of social mutuality.”

A link in Lancaster’s essay led me to some other anthropological articles on marriage. In one, by John Borneman, I learned that even anthropologists have been a bit too enamored with marriage and that the discipline has suffered because of it. In a 1996 paper, Borneman “argued that empirical neglect of the nonmarried in anthropology impoverished our ability to theorize human sociality.” Okay, so anthropology can be just as jargon-laden as psychology. Still, I like his point, and I would have been hard pressed to find a similar argument in any leading psychology journals in 1996.

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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