Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Teaching Sister Wives: An Exercise in Contextualization

Look!  Pretty, happy, polygynous women!  Sisters....belonging to one mister.  I don't know how many of you have been dealing with this one in your classes this past year.  I guess the show is now in its second or third (?) season on TLC.  I know that this past year, as we have covered the kinship/marriage chapter in both my Cultural Anth and General Anth classes that students have been bringing it up in class discussions (and to a lesser extent that Big Love show on HBO).  Of course, being as students are all unique and individual they have different takes on it but it does seem that by that point in the semester, most are afraid to be too judgmental because of me snarking at them about that whole cultural relativism thing for a few months.  There, also, seems to be a bit of that interpretive drift stuff involved:  the more you watch it the more you think that it seems reasonable.  Anyway, I have quite a few students who watch the show and find themselves wondering….”wait, is this good or bad?” 

Full disclosure:  I admit to being more than a little irritated by that smug, self-centered husband Kody the few times I have watched it.  (The things I do for my students.)  Dude is driving a two-seat Lexus convertible while his wives are making do with broke-down Suburban things.  But, except for those gosh-darn pesky feelings that the wives, occasionally, allow themselves to feel but then quickly tamp down; they are all so gosh-darn happy.  Get the point?
Anyway, Sister Wives has caused me to speak a bit more about polygyny both in my online and in my face to face classes.  What follows in the paragraphs below, more or less, are the issues I try to bring up to explain things.  But then I, eventually, realized after explaining all that in those paragraphs below, that it is a good moment to add two additional points to push them beyond a simple view of the role of cultural relativism in our discipline.  First, you can't really understand complex issues like polygyny (of for that matter polyandry) by only looking at the emic perceptions of the participants of from only the views of one extended family unit:  its is the society-wide perspective that, also, most be understood.  Let's all chant:  cultural context; cultural context; cultural context.  Second, maybe...just is okay to judge or, at the very least, it is okay to explore the consequences of some behaviors on that wider group.  And then we can all be happy hating on Kody.  Works for me.

Here goes (and feel free to correct me when I am wrong.  I probably am.)

Polygyny has some interesting consequences for a society.  Since male/female ratios tend to be about 50/50 in the world when left to "natural" forces.  (Edited for clarification:  interesting aside:  the full complexities of human sex ratios still have some mysteries to be uncovered.) When one man marries say 4 wives, then three men, theoretically, do without.  If this is a repeated pattern in a society this tends to drive up the marriage age for men--they have to wait to get married and drives down the marriage age for women--they are married off young because they are in short supply and, thus, desirable.  Society-wide over time you get a pattern of older men with multiple wives and younger men without any wives.  This is what you see with the Maasai, for example.  And some men will, always do without.  Powerful older men end up dominating the society and women (girls) get apportioned to them.

The societal problem that often results (and all societies have problems that they deal with because of their structural organization; one of ours, for example is the race/poverty issue) is a large number of young men who can, potentially, cause trouble for their elders.  After all, the women may find them more attractive than their elder husbands.  The solution of the Maasai for many years was to send the young men away to do other things; cattle raiding/warfare, for example.  This used to work better for them in the past but now that you can't go out to kill a lion because of that whole endangered species thing, there are issues.  Thank goodness, there are jobs available for Maasai moran with American Express.

In America, there are a few areas where some Mormon sects (not part of the mainstream church) still illegally practice polygyny; like you see on the show Sister Wives.  Interestingly enough, those areas end up with a surfeit of young men.  These young men tend to be viewed by their small, local groups as "bad"; a convenient view for the elder men to encourage because they threaten those elders.  Social workers in Salt Lake City, for example, report that young men from these communities often show up in the city, chased out or dumped off by those older, more powerful men.  The guys are a problem because they often have not been educated in a way that employers find attractive.  Also, many of the young men have internalized the idea that they are “bad” so they tend to act out.  Here is a basic newspaper article published a few years ago from the Denver Post that lays out the issues in terms students can understand.  There is even a Wikipedia entry under "Lost Boys" on the subject.
And there is even a recently released film called Sons of Perdition which shows the consequences for children.  It was shown this month on Oprah Winfrey's new television network OWN.  A basic review of the documentary was published at the beginning of this month at the Washington Post.  It is on my list of things to watch this summer so I can't really comment, yet.
After all that, I try to get the students to discuss that "is it good or bad" issue after they realize that the show doesn’t show the full picture of polygyny.   Hopefully, while they may realize that anthropology doesn’t necessarily try to answer that question because of the dictate of cultural relativism BUT anthropology doesn’t argue that you don’t have the right as a person or as a society to make judgments.  In fact, one of the advantages of anthropology as a discipline is the way it forces you to look at issues not from a personal or individual point of view but from a society-wide perspective.  I think we would all agree that polygyny isn’t the “victimless” practice of free individuals making free choices that the show tries to depict.y

So, anyone else facing questions about the show?  Are you going with the "its all good" philosophy?


cbadger said...

It is quite well-known to anyone who has taken a basic biology course that the 50-50 split between males and females is due to the fact that men have one X and one Y chromosome, while females have two X's. As replicated DNA is separated into gametes only one of the two sex chromosomes in the individual goes into each gamete (which will mature into a sperm cell or egg cell). Millions of gametes with two choices being equally split, as our bodies are quite good at making sure each gamete is fully haploid = 50% XX and 50% XY individuals after reproduction. When this mechanism malfunctions it leads to diseases like Klinefelter's or Turner's, or (on a different chromosome), Down's Syndrome; thus our bodies are very careful about putting one-half of an individual's DNA into each gamete. So, again, 1/2 X's and 1/2 Y's from the dad, all X's from mom. Very basic biology, highly evolved to not mess up. Ta-da! Mystery solved.

Pamthropologist said...

Actually, it is my understanding that sex ratios are a bit more complex than the basic biology. There is all that discussion about why the ratio is actually 105 male births for each 100 female births, some discussions of the interesting situations when humans do exhibit skewed sex ratios--I recall some research which indicated greater numbers of male births after WWII in those countries most affected by the conflict and some discussion of (possibly environmental) conditions under which the egg may favor an X carrying sperm or a Y carrying sperm. But, of course, I am no expert, I simply recall some complexities from a long-ago Bio Anth class.

cbadger said...

While it is more complex than that, and there are still things we do not know (that often are due to epigenetics, genes getting "turned on" or "off" due to environmental factors at any point in life, including in the womb), we absolutely do know why males and females are split approximately 50/50 throughout nature; which you had said was a "mystery." That statement was false. You can find many interesting studies on deviations from straight 50/50 in the literature today, but it is a fact that our biology is programmed to determine gender based on an even coin flip model.

Pamthropologist said...

I apologize. It was a parenthetical remark which I shorthanded by leaving out a few sentences of clarification. I was not referring to the process being a mystery, I meant that the issue of human sex ratios has mystery. I like to insert things in lecture which suggest that the world is enfolding before them, hence the "mystery" comment.

I'll just go edit it so you can feel better.

I am trying to resist the urge to point out that your statement that male/female sex ratios are 50/50 "throughout nature" is false, as well because that would be petty of me. Wouldn't it?

cbadger said...

It would be petty, as I was referring to humans in nature; though it does hold true for virtually all mammals and a great many other species as well (most vertebrates). I do think you made good points about the cultural aspects of polygyny in human societies, but perhaps you should also add some readings on genetics if you intend to try to include them in any lectures you give. I find that the facts of biology are far more interesting and captivate attention more effectively than false generalizations. Especially since most undergrads will not go and read any more on the subject; instead quoting as fact that a PhD told them that no one knows why humans are virtually 50/50 males/females.

Pamthropologist said...

Dude, give it a rest. I wrote an awkward sentence and fixed it. Go troll elsewhere.

Tina said...

LOL!!!!!! Glad this blog is back!

Cory Harris said...

I’m a recent reader of your blog, and enjoying it.
I completely agree with your point that after some critical reflection, yes it’s okay to judge a cultural practice, as long as one is reflexive about that judgment. For my part, I’m a big fan of fairness as a cultural value. I am well aware that fairness is not some essential, ahistorical force, but a cultural construction. After a lot of thought, though, I’m comfortable adhering to that construction since, as humans, we have to hold some. Subsequently, I don’t dig cultural practices that systematically deprive rights and resources from some for the benefit of others and am critical of those practices. Your use of “cultural context” nicely points this out…some folks (women and some younger men) are treated unfairly in situations where polygyny is practiced

Pamthropologist said...

Thank you, Cory and you put that nicely.