E Pluribus Unum

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • Polygamous Families in Contemporary Society by Irwin Altman and Joseph Ginat
    Cambridge, 512 pp, £55.00, December 1996, ISBN 0 521 56169 8

Forget sleepy odalisques and dreams of the East. Polygamy – in the contemporary US – is hard work. And that holds true for both sexes, though the one in shorter supply may well have the more arduous time. The subjects of Polygamous Families in Contemporary Society are fundamentalist Mormons, whose marriages violate both official church doctrine and the laws of the state; but the threat of persecution, legal or otherwise, seems to be among the least of their difficulties. Simply providing for four or five adults and over two dozen children (on average) requires considerable effort, especially when few can command more than lower-middle-class incomes. Even this looks easy, however, compared to the constant managerial and emotional labour in which these families engage. As one of the wives interviewed here remarks, ‘plural family life is a mighty hard day-to-day struggle.’

What Irwin Altman and Joseph Ginat set out to write was not a cautionary tale, but a dispassionate study of ‘a different lifestyle’ that would draw on their combined skills as social psychologist and anthropologist respectively. In other words, they are not pushing monogamy but the merits of looking at close relationships from a ‘transactional perspective’: the reader is obliged to endure many banal sermons on ‘the holistic nature of interpersonal bonds’, their ‘dynamic’ character, the importance of attending to ‘social contexts’ etc. In practice, this means that the authors approached their subjects more as ethnographers than statisticians, relying primarily on informal interviews conducted over a period of several years, and that they preferred to concentrate intensively on a relatively small number of families – 26 in all, of which a dozen served as their principal informants. With a mean of 3.6 wives per family and a median of three, their sample, as they admit, is unrepresentative, since most contemporary polygynists, like the pioneers before them, limit themselves to two. Statistics are in any case not the authors’ strong point: the 26 families inexplicably become 27 in several places; a family is said to have 38 daughters on one page and 27 on another, while a son disappears between one page and the next; a man ‘now in his middle sixties’ is ‘now in his late sixties’ before the end of the chapter. A chart in the appendix gives one husband seven wives and another nine, while the text on the facing page assigns them both eight. Perhaps there is something infectious about such confusion, since the authors describe several fathers who cannot recall either the names or the number of their offspring.

These families belong to two fundamentalist churches, one ‘conservative’ and the other ‘ultraconservative’; the former located in an urban community dubbed ‘Metropolitan City’, and the latter in an isolated Rocky Mountain town here called ‘Redrock’. The parent church, under pressure from the Government, officially proscribed polygamy at the turn of the century, but despite a collective memory of persecution on the part of fellow religionists as well as the legal authorities, there have been few serious raids since the Fifties, and Ginat’s longstanding acquaintance with both communities apparently encouraged them to participate in the project. While the authors seem to have been impressed by the religious commitment of their subjects, they show no interest in the polygamists’ motives: this is a study of how people ‘cope’ with plural marriages, not why they enter into such arrangements in the first place. Nor do we learn much about the long-term consequences of these marriages: although some children took part in the interviews, Altman and Ginat never seem to have inquired (or to have felt comfortable inquiring) what they bought about their families, or how they responded to the questions other children asked them at school. It is not as obvious as the authors think that these large numbers of children help to assure the future growth of fundamentalist polygyny.

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