Does Marriage Have a Future?

By Lewin, Ellen | Journal of Marriage and Family, November 2004 | Go to article overview

Does Marriage Have a Future?


Lewin, Ellen, Journal of Marriage and Family


Key Words: culture, family, identity, marriage, same-sex marriage.

Who would have guessed that the institution of marriage was in so much trouble? In the midst of the battle over same-sex marriage, which seems to be all about declaring marriage something worth fighting for, everyone else seems to be worrying about whether the family as a social institution, and marriage along with it, are collapsing into nothingness, dragging with them all that we value in our daily lives. Most of the articles prepared for this issue try to address this issue, arguing that marriage is evolving out of existence, that it is being replaced by cohabitation or some other domestic configuration, or that it can readily adapt to any challenges being thrown its way. Reading these essays was a bit like being surrounded by children battling over their mothers' virtues-"your mama's never getting married," versus "she is too." So is this a real issue, or are academics who specialize in the study of marriage and the family just trying to drum up business? A number of themes present themselves in these contributions, and I tackle them one by one, adding my comments to the mix as I proceed.

I come to this topic from two perspectives, first as a cultural anthropologist, and second as a specialist in U.S. cultures, particularly in ethnographic studies of lesbian and gay families. That background colors my reading of the articles in a number of ways. As an anthropologist, I find it problematic to universalize from patterns that obtain in U.S. cultures, or to assume American cultural formations as normative in any way. Even when studying middle-class Americans, the questions I ask are filtered through the cross-cultural lens that is the hallmark of anthropology as much as they are shaped by a commitment to an ethic of cultural relativism. Although this relativism is not absolute and can permit for public intervention, it does mean that I assume that people's real lives and their accounts of those lives make sense in some way, particularly if one takes the time to understand them contextually.

My location in cultural anthropology also commits me to research methods that are based in ethnographic fieldwork and that depend on long-term participant observation undertaken in natural settings. It generally precludes experimental methods and particularly leads me to question the validity of research that occurs in artificial locations such as laboratories. Although some anthropologists conceptualize their work as social science and make use of forms of measurement and statistical verification that are familiar to sociologists and demographers, I consider myself a practitioner of an interpretive discipline, and, insofar as the ethnographic product is highly contingent and situationally variable, emphatically not a scientist.

I also come to these articles after a long career of studying family formations that seemingly hover at the margins of culture, and with a commitment to understanding how agency and pragmatic action motivates conditions often taken to be simply "natural." My first book, Lesbian Mothers: Accounts of Gender in American Culture (Lewin, 1993), compared the narratives produced by lesbian mothers and heterosexual single mothers, locating their stories in themes that revealed shared cultural phrasings of motherhood. In that work, my concern was to understand how lesbian mothers, who most people saw as a bundle of cultural contradictions-if not outright oxymoronic-constructed their identities and made sense of their dual position as lesbians and as mothers. I sought to document the narrative strategies they used in this process, and to describe how they responded to the varied challenges they faced as mothers, particularly as lesbian mothers. What I found was a story far more embedded in what might be considered the hegemonic ideology of motherhood than I ever anticipated, a story that allowed lesbian mothers to claim motherhood as a source of personal goodness and as an identity to which they had an entitlement grounded in nature. …

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