Volume 52, No. 29
Anthropology class asks: Why tie the knot?
By Cathy Byrd
Talk about a class with real-world applications. In his anthropology course, "Why Tie the Knot? The Natural Selection of Human Marriage," Daniel Sellen studies the institution of marriage from the contrasting perspectives of anthropology, zoology and related disciplines.
Sellen, a practicing anthropologist, enlivens class discussions with personal accounts from his years of field experience, encouraging questions about his approach to research and his relationships with his subjects.
"These social aspects of anthropology are very interesting to students," he said. "I've been very open in talking about my own work. Instead of just reading from a book, students are finding out what you do to get information. They're also thinking about their own relationships and how they might fit in somewhere else. Our discussions get their heads outside their own culture and engage them in learning new perspectives."
In "Why Tie the Knot," students look at marriage across human populations and its relation to social activity, political relations, sexuality and reproductive patterns. "If we were to think in terms of a Venn diagram, marriage would fall at the intersection of a number of types of relationships people form," Sellen said.
Studies of relationship patterns show that marriage is a special kind of relationship--one that may not necessarily include sexuality or heterosexuality. Many people have nonheterosexual relationships. Without marrying, others develop fulfilling friendships and family associations. In other words, they discover that marriage is not required, or that the meanings of marriage can be contested and shifted.
Class participants also consider the idea that marriage isn't just about biological reproduction; it's about social reproduction, too. Marriage creates family, he said, and family is where one becomes socialized.
He noted that many married couples don't have children but still form a significant social unit. Students exploring the enormous amount of variation in mating and marriage around the world see how cultural history, differences in economic bases and shifting interactions among cultures affect the institution.
The class investigates processes of human family formation through related ethnological studies. From his own field work, Sellen introduces the Barabaig, a population of East African cattle-herders and their polygamous social order. They also learn about the Kaguru, a matrilineal people from the same region, and about the Mayan and Ladino cultures in highland Guatemala (an area where Sellen supervises graduate student field research).
In addition to those studies, Sellen uses texts that reference the history and evolution of marriage and family. Van den Berghe's Human Family Systems presents a broad-based global survey of the family. Our Babies Our Selves, written by Meredith Small, describes the evolution of parenting in America.
At the same time, Sellen introduces publications with the latest anthropological research findings. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's Mother Nature offers a cutting-edge perspective. Published just last fall, the book proposes that female animals have evolved to be strategists and nurturers. "She presents the 'conflict' between pursuing a career and bearing children as a false dichotomy," explained Sellen.
Finally, Sellen, whose recent research extends to patterns of child care and nutrition, will share his ideas on the usefulness of an evolutionary approach in designing policies to improve health and nutrition of small children in different cultural settings. He has involved students in his ongoing research on the nutrition of refugee children in London.
In 1998 Sellen facilitated summer internships in field work projects such as a survey of the impact of La Leche League on breastfeeding attitudes and practices among urban middle-class mothers in Guatemala City.