Polygamous Families in Contemporary Societies

Article excerpt

Altman, I., & Ginat, J. (1996). Polygamous Families in Contemporary Societies. Cambridge MA: Cambridge University Press. 512 pp. Paper ISBN 0-521-56731-9.

Does polygamy exist in a contemporary Western society such as the U.S.? If polygamy exists, what form does such a marital arrangement take, especially when viewed against the fact that plural unions (bigamy) are unacceptable under American law? What kind of woman would want to share her husband with another especially in a society that treasures individualism and freedom? And when it happens, what is the nature of the intra- household, and inter-household family relations? What are the dynamics behind such alternative forms of living arrangements? For instance, how are conflicts within and between different family members resolved? These are some of the issues addressed in Altman and Ginat's book, Polygamous Families in Contemporary Societies, based on observations of 26 fundamentalist Mormon families in two rural and urban communities in the U.S.

Polygamy, or in this case, polygyny (a practice where one man marries more than one wife) is a common form of living/ marital arrangement found in many societies often characterized as "developing" or traditional. In studying these societies in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, researchers have shown that polygamous marriages are typically common in rural areas, occur among the less educated, and reflect larger differences in spousal age, all of which suggests that relationships within them may also be more traditional than in monogamous marriages (Caldwell & Caldwell, 1987; Clignet, 1970; Pison, 1985; Lesthaeghe, Kaufmann, & Meekers, 1989; Dodoo & Seal, 1994; Saucier, 1972; Takyi & Oheneba-Sakyi, 1994).

In the western world, on the other hand, while there are a variety of living arrangements (e.g., co-habitation, gay and lesbian unions, etc.), the issue of plural marriages is often viewed with contempt and disgust. This contempt for polygamous unions may be related to a number of issues that cut across some of the value systems of American society. Foremost among these is the fact that Americans and other western societies tend to cherish their individualism. Since by their nature, non-monogamous unions seem to contradict these values (e.g., individuation and romantic love), such marriages tend to be viewed with disdain. Second, the existence of plural marriages is often viewed in some circles as one of the means through which male dominance and advantage (especially in the sexual realm) are maintained and perpetuated. Third, some Western feminist social thinkers often equate plural marriages with the oppression of women. If women are to be free from male dominance and their status in society is improved, then it is fair to assume that monogamous unions offer the best option for female emancipation.

In spite of these reservations, Altman and Ginat point out that in contemporary American society, polygamous marriages still exist. The existence and persistence of such "unacceptable" forms of marriage, they argue, results in part from the fact that polygamous partners view their form of marriage as a religious act-a "calling" in Weberian terms. According to Altman and Ginat, the realization that this form of living arrangement is often considered unacceptable by the larger society has created a "siege mentality" among the practitioners. Consequently, the fundamentalist Mormons who practice polygyny, they argue, have been less willing to express their beliefs in public.

After establishing the existence of polygynous unions among contemporary Mormons, the authors go on to trace the historical background of the Mormon Church from their "sojourns" in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois to Utah, where they finally settled. Altman and Ginat also detail the intrigues that went on within the group before the formal acceptance of the polygyny as an official theology. The writers are quick to point out, however, that even during this early period, not all members of the church accepted the doctrine of polygyny. …