Last week Adam cited a widely-shared “conservative case for gay marriage.” The argument as I understand it assumes that making marriage available to gay couples will (at least temporarily) increase the number of married households, which in turn will return marriage to its former role as a central organizer of social relationships. This is possible. But a better measure of marriage’s institutional health might be the magnitude of the work marriage performs on social formations, rather than the total number of marriages. And by this measure, more is not necessarily healthier: if marriage is doing less to organize the ways people pair up, live together, raise children, and organize their household affairs, even if there are for a time more marriages, the creep toward social irrelevance may continue.
In other words, I doubt if children on a deep level will take a pro-marriage message away from a married gay household. I think it at least as likely that they will take away an indifference to marriage as a social institution: whereas marriage once organized social practices of sex, parenting, and property distribution on the basis of race, class, gender and sexual orientation, it no longer consistently organizes any of those practices on any of those bases. Of course, many of us are pleased that marriage no longer performs quite so much social work: most of us are in favor of child-support legislation, legal interracial and inter-class marriage, and so on. (Assortative mating ensures that most people still marry within their race and class, to be sure, but it is no longer the institution of marriage that does the work of pairing likes together, and in that sense the institution has lost some of its clout.) And yes, of course, gay marriage is only the most recent—and probably not even the most serious—development in this deinstitutionalization of marriage. (For my money, the normalization of illegitimacy is the most serious).
So many times discussions of gay marriage must necessarily pit speculation against anecdote, an unpleasant and often unproductive rhetorical match-up. But in thinking about the deinstitutionalization of marriage, we can turn to the history books for some material. An historical analogy to the possible fates of institutional marriage might be found in the decline of service as a social institution. In medieval and early modern England (and elsewhere in Europe), the institution of service, wherein adolescents left their parents and went to serve in some capacity at a larger, higher-status household, was nearly as pervasive and at least as formative in the life-cycle as was marriage itself. Poor girls served in middling households as domestic help, poor boys as farm hands; children of the gentry attended at court. The social ties established during the serving years launched the child into adulthood from a network of mutual obligation. In this way, service organized social relationships and integrated individuals into the body politic on the basis of gender and social rank; the social work service performed in organizing and locating groups of individuals was immeasurable. But when structural changes in society made those social formations irrelevant, the institution itself inevitably declined in numbers, as well. Like marriage, institutional service came to be seen as oppressive and harmful—although the harm was understood to accrue to children, not women and gays. “Service” became “child labor,” and progressive crusaders effectively stigmatized the practice. Ironically, the decline of service itself gave way to the “woman in the house” culture of gender, so associated with 20th century marriage, that many women find oppressive; from service to servitude, as it were. Who knows what other future oppression some graduate student will one day trace to the decline of institutional marriage?
Of course, social history is anything but an exact science, and it’s difficult to know now which aspects of the decline of service will turn out to be relevant to the decline of marriage, and what sort of unexpected consequences will ensue. Perhaps in the end it’s better to formulate a position on the basis of a set of principled values, rather than on projected outcomes. (Not much easier to get folks to agree on a principled values than on projected outcomes, though.) In any case, the once and future history books will make for good reading.