Institutionalization of the Family and Marriage: Questioning Their Cognitive and Relational Realities



This paper argues that to explain the institutionalization processes named the family and marriage, it is necessary to recognize the ontological distinction between their cognitive and relational realities. Institutionalization is an ordering process analogous to instinct in animal societies. In that capacity the human family and marriage collectively order the care and social placement of offspring. Given the biology of Homo sapiens, the family preceded the onset of the human race by millions of years, whereas marriage, the contract that legitimates the social placement of offspring, represents a strictly cultural aspect of human social evolution. The current state and uncertain future of the cognitive and relational components of the institutions of the family and marriage are addressed.

What drives the institutionalization of the care for newly born humans and their social placement into a world not of their making? Why do the family and marriage exist at all? Complex animal societies, such as ant colonies, lack the “institutional” arrangements present in even the most primitive human communities. “It is generally not believed that any ant in an ant colony knows how the ant colony works. Each ant has certain things it does, … but there is nobody minding the whole store. No ant designed the system” (Schelling, 1978, p. 21). It remains unclear what “designed” the social worlds of ants, bees, or humans. The first two, however, depend on instinct to survive. Lacking such genetic guidance, the human species depends on institutionalization to establish and maintain order and a sense of predictability in its societies.

The presuppositions underpinning this paper's argument and its conceptual vocabulary require some initial clarification. The assumption that there is a difference between the cognitive and relational realities of the family and marriage rests on the semiotic premise that the visible world is not simply a well-integrated system of things and events but contains “several superimposed … layers of signification” (Greimas, 1987, p. 20). Labels naming the institutions of the family and marriage, therefore, do not necessarily signify “any systematic, regular, verifiable pattern of actual, observed behavior” (Schneider, 1968, p. 5). This suggests that focusing only on what can be observed limits understanding.

Furthermore, this paper's argument reflects an evolutionary perspective, one perhaps best illustrated by the stated premise that “although we experience ourselves in some sense as finished or perfected, we are not in any way intended. There is no blueprint for what humans are meant to be” (Kenneally, 2007, p. 197). This perspective, however, serves primarily as a backdrop to the argument, that is, as a reminder that the world was not created for the benefit of Homo sapiens. Through time, humans managed to establish and adapt to a range of social worlds, some groups more effectively than others.

The creations of human groups may have started as a genetic accident, but their survival was far from random. Human cultural evolution echoes the reflexive quality of sociocultural development. “Reflexivity” signifies a process whereby that which has been used to generate a social system is made, through a changed perspective, to become a part of the system it generates (Hayles, 1999, p. 8). Kurt Godel's mathematical theory, for example, contains a code that allows statements of number theory also to function as statements about that theory. As a different example, the idea of “objectivity” may be used to describe the reality it helped to generate. It is quite likely that in the absence of reflexivity the ideas of a past, a present, and a future might have been unthinkable, thus preventing movement from instinct to institutionalization.

I focus on the social processes that order care for and social placement of newly born human beings. I argue that the cognitive and the relational components of the institutionalization of the family and marriage should be considered closely linked but ontologically distinct. I exclude a purely individual-oriented conceptualization. My focus on the essence of the family and marriage is intended to add to an understanding of their current and future manifestations. Much research on the family and marriage focuses only on the actual manifestations of their institutional processes and thus errs in assuming that aggregating data about individuals in families or marriages suffices to account for the family and marriage in contemporary society. This misunderstanding may help create mistrust in a more abstract and less descriptive explanatory practice in family studies. To make my case, questions and ideas are gained from the publications of scholars representing a broad range of disciplines. Collectively, their ideas allow different questions that, I hope, lead to deeper understanding of the yet elusive interplay between the cognitive and relational aspects of the family and marriage.

On the Origins of the Family and Marriage

Several decades ago, Gough (1971) noted “the trouble with the origin of the family is that no one really knows” (p. 26) and then suggested that, despite new evidence, the gaps in our knowledge remain “enormous.” Further evidence has appeared since 1971, much of it adding to our understanding of the onset of humanity (e.g., Diamond, 1992; Hdry, 1999), but the gaps remain significant. In view of this, my references to that distant past are illustrative and used primarily as a reminder that the institutionalization of both the family and marriage have a long evolutionary past (see Deacon, 1997; Johnson, 1995; Pinker, 2002).

As a social process, the family provides the necessary care for newly born human offspring. Actual familial forms, including specific members, vary greatly among human societies, but the responsibility for caring seems universal. This reflects the fact that the newly born cannot survive without assistance. It seems reasonable to imagine that during humanity's initial stages the actual caretakers tended to be females:

While bands of exploratory males ventured onto the savannahs scavenging, catching small prey, or frightening away carnivores from a kill with noisy displays, the female groups could forage in the forest edges. Sometimes the matrifocal family might forage alone, at other times in small bands of sisters, mothers and offspring. (Reynolds, 1968, p. 214)

Or, as Briffault said, “The primitive human family resembled the animal family more closely than does the civilized family. It consisted essentially of mother and children” (Malinowski & Briffault, 1956, p. 41). In fact, it makes sense to speculate that the mother-child relationship must have been the initial stage in the social evolution of the family as an orderly system. Contemporary family systems tend to contain mothers, fathers, and offspring and sometimes other designated relatives. Considered cognitively, the family realm recognizes two-parent, one-parent, polygamous, and same-sex systems. What qualifies all of these minisystems as family is their shared function. Clearly, this conception of family resembles a broad array of animal caring systems. Without a system, no species would have survived.

As a condition for biological survival, the family predates Homo sapiens. Marriage, on the other hand, could not have emerged until the human brain became capable of imagining as well as creating ancestors, spouses, siblings, and other relatives, although genetic potential for selective mating might predate the birth of the human race. Some scholars, for example, suggest that the concealment of ovulation among our primate female ancestors may have helped to attract and select males that were “more parental than the males of other group-living species” (Alexander & Noonan, l979, p. 436). What matters here, however, is the fact that, in all human societies, a kind of contractual relationship evolved into a cultural arrangement, subsequently labeled marriage, that legitimated the social status of children.

Marriage is unthinkable without the evolution of language and speech in human societies. Without the presence of some form of language to allow the cultural recognition of outsiders, including fathers, as legitimate members of a basically biological system, the human family would not have evolved beyond its counterparts in animal societies. In other words, families, of some form, serve as integral parts of many animal societies, but marriage, whatever its form, is a strictly human invention. It derives much of its social survival, however, from its parasitic dependence on the family. After all, in the absence of the family there would be nothing to be legitimate about.

Valid knowledge about the link between sex and conception was not available during most of the history of human parenthood and marriage. The existence of culturally defined lineages and kinship networks, however, seems to have been sufficient to provide men with a lasting interest in an association with their wives and offspring. How many societies invented marriage and how this actually happened remains unknown. No human society, however, survived without some form of it. Malinowski argued that “marriage” provided “children a legal status” (Malinowski & Briffault, 1956, p. 42) and, in doing so, solidified the myth or value, or both, of a “super-natural” linkage between the family and marriage. Children conceived in that special bond became legitimate members of established kinship networks. Of course, so-called illegitimate children also have ancestors and blood relatives, but in the human world their networks tend to be precarious, less extended, and, often, less privileged.

Marriage did not evolve to regulate human nonprocreative sexuality and, in fact, seems poorly equipped to do so. Instead, its basic social function is to counter random human mating. In that capacity, it is engaged in ordering and is of crucial importance to the genesis and maintenance of the stability of human societies. The presumed control of marriage over all forms of sexuality merely reflects ignorance about reproductive biology throughout most of human history. The only thing that may have been recognized throughout those millennia was the necessity of orderly heterosexual intercourse in the collective struggle for survival. Some beliefs and values developed during that stage of history, such as the “normalcy” of heterosexuality, currently seem outdated. Like the grin on the face of the Cheshire Cat, however, they linger on well after the beast is gone.

One prominent student of marriage and the family (Popenoe, 2002, p. 205) argues that marriage represents “much more than a social institution; it is based in the biological realities of the human species.” This is true for the family, but not for marriage. As observed earlier, pair bonding may have been present among humanity's primate ancestors, but legitimating the offspring of a married couple is a strictly human invention. Over time, however, marriage created its own make-believe biological reality, which allowed the appearance of a deeply entrenched cultural dichotomy between legitimate and illegitimate children, something not found in animal societies. But there is nothing nonbiological about illegitimate children. What separates them from their legitimate peers is human made in name and origin. It illustrates the amazing degree to which culture may define the “symbolic” as a component of the natural or supernatural. In view of such symbolic importance and its seemingly natural connection to family living, it is not surprising to find marriage—as an institution and a relationship—at times defined as a “sacred” part of what Durkheim (1961) called the “religious nature of man, that is to say… an essential and permanent aspect of humanity” (p. 13). For those inclined to take this “sacredness” literally, however, he added the following caveat:

But if it is sometimes said of a man that he makes a religion of those beings or things whose eminent value and superiority to himself he thus recognizes, it is clear that in any case the word is taken in a metaphorical sense, and that there is nothing in these relations which is really religious. (p. 53)

The Institutionalization of the Family and Marriage

In her book, How Institutions Think, the anthropologist Mary Douglas (1986) writes:

The entrenching of an institution is essentially an intellectual process as much as an economic and political one. A focus on the most elementary forms of society brings to light the source of legitimacy that will never appear in the balancing of individual interests. To acquire legitimacy, every kind of institution needs a formula that founds its rightness in reason and in nature. Half of our task is to demonstrate this cognitive process at the foundation of the social order. (p. 45)

Institutionalization, then, represents a process of “legitimized social grouping” (Douglas, p. 46) or a way of transforming randomness into a kind of order. What kind of order, however, reflects the interplay between contingency and necessity.

When challenged, humans base their claims about the legitimacy of social institutions “on their fit with the nature of the universe” (Douglas, 1986, p. 46). This makes sense, especially for established processes, such as the family and marriage. At the beginning stages of humanity there was little but nature's order from which to draw. No wonder, then, that many still meaningful metaphors hark back to the flow of rivers, the time of day, the voice of the wind, and the sequence of the seasons (see also Berger & Kellner, 1965). Learning to read Mother Nature's mind may well be the foundation of all human practice. Of course, the local meanings of selected metaphors and their use to justify specific forms of orderly practice vary among human groups. Some choices, especially the ones that seemed to work, became embedded in folk and religious lore.

As a cognitive and relational process, institutionalization may, at times, be poorly understood by those concerned about the quality of its relational manifestations. The historian Gillis (1996), for example, argues that “we all have two families, one that we live with and another we live by” (p. xv). He then suggests to his readers, “It is time to abandon once and for all the idol of ‘The Family’ and to validate the great variety of families that people are actually living by” (p. 239). This makes sense if what family members live by does not fundamentally differ from the cognitive realm of the family. To cite a famous philosopher, people live with and by an “actual truth” that “when it cannot attain certainty must at least have high probability” (Peirce, 1898, p. 177). Most families do exist with and by such an actual truth without really understanding the more abstract differences between the Family, the Economy, and the Church.

Viewing societies as systems consisting of more or less closely interconnected layers (Greimas, 1987; Sprey, 2000) allows thinking about them as evolving social systems. In that capacity, their process is both adaptive and creative. They require social boundaries and are dependent on their membership to formulate their defining strategies (Luhmann, 1987, p. 114). To understand this, the concepts of “organization” and “institutionalization” must be clearly distinguished from one another. The term “organization” identifies a clear-cut, goal-oriented process. It may run on different levels and, therefore, range from customs to written laws. It even may apply to individuals, as is illustrated by the problem of “getting oneself organized.” Its goals are manifest but, depending on the circumstances, open to change.

“Institutionalization,” on the other hand, has no clear cut manifest goal but moves toward what mathematicians call an “attractor” (see Ekeland, 1993, pp. 98–115; Johnson, 1995, pp. 269–277). As implied in its label, an attractor is conceived of as a force drawing a specific process in a certain direction, rather than toward a preset goal. Its process is irreversible. The birth and subsequent path of a hurricane, for example, are understandable and irreversible but never completely predictable. To further clarify this abstract idea, a simple metaphor may help. The essence of a river is its flowing, while its banks control its direction. Interacting with their surroundings, some rivers seem to carve their course, whereas others appear more passive and just flow ahead. A river's flow is driven by gravity and, thereby, travels where and as far as its banks will allow. If we reason by analogy, the institutionalization of caring for and social placement of human offspring is driven by the attraction of social order, or, to put it differently, by the necessity to ensure their survival.

In family studies, the ontological distinction between the cognitive and the relational aspects of the family and marriage often is ignored or treated as an analytic strategy in which the distinction is approached within differing perspectives of the same phenomenon. In a text on families (Sclater, 2000), for example, we read that because conceptualization of the family seems to defy any universal definition, contemporary sociologists “prefer to talk about families rather than about the family” (p. 6). This makes sense in a practice-oriented discipline in which the day-by-day problems of families and marriages are the main focus of analysis. The drawback, however, is that this approach prevents any awareness of the ontological uncertainty or chaos that may be hidden below the observable realities of familial and marital existence. This point is dealt with in more detail throughout the following two sections of this paper.

Families and Marriages as Social Aggregates

Webster's II New Riverside University Dictionary (Riverside Publishing Company, 1984) defines “aggregate” as a “total or whole considered with reference to its constituent parts,” a definition in which a category and its constituent parts are jointly implicated. It is commonplace to see families and marriages represented by numerical aggregates, a practice that is descriptively useful but theoretically one-sided. The authors of a thorough discussion of “marital quality,” for example, report that the “aggregate level of marital happiness and divorce proneness remained stable” for husbands and wives over the 20-year period covered by their research (Amato, Johnson, Booth, & Rogers, 2003, p. 19). They interpret their finding by concluding that “the stability of marital happiness and divorce proneness during this time was attributable to a variety of positive and negative forces that largely offset one another” (p. 19). This strictly numerical observation, valid as it may be, reduces husbands and wives to categories and, as such, ignores the essence of contemporary marriage in and by itself. Does marriage differ qualitatively from friendship, for example? In line with much current research on marriage, the authors’ data provide information about married individuals rather than about their marriages:

One common error made by those who study social systems is to describe them in ways that only apply—only can apply—to their individual members. For example, people frequently refer to marriages as either happy or unhappy, although marriage itself lacks the capacity to feel anything. (Broderick, 1993, p. 48)

Broderick (1993) then argues that attributes of social systems should pertain to “the system as a system” and, as such, pertain to emergent processes rather than to mere summations of component parts (p. 49). The aforementioned findings, then, confuse the stability of individuals’ happiness with that of the systems to which they belong, while its authors reduce the “offsetting” effect of positive and negative “forces” to a simple game of numbers. Subtracting five from five, for example, produces zero, but is that sufficient to indicate zero stability?

Although this paper recognizes marriage as a relationship that creates for individuals the order in which they “experiences life as making sense” (Berger & Kellner, 1972, p. 50), its primary focus is on the structuring and cognitive processes that conjointly create the institutional realities of the family and marriage. Broderick's (1993) point holds true equally, if not more so, on that explanatory level. Focusing on the hows and whys of actual families and marriages differs fundamentally from questioning the origins and subsequent development of the relational and cognitive systems that order daily lives.

Explanatory reasoning involves the use “of words in their sites” (Hacking, 2002, p. 24). In that context, the relevance of each concept depends on its role in the formulation of certain statements and, in that capacity, on the quality of questioning. This does not negate the importance of verification but attaches a high priority to what is being verified. Using the term “aggregate” to identify statistical sets of attributes makes sense as long as no attempt is made to ask more from the data than is reasonable. If one spouse scores “unhappy” and the other “happy,” for example, what does this tell us about the quality of their marriage? Is it moderately happy or just somewhat unhappy? Or does this information indicate that happiness as an attribute of a relationship is more complex than meets the eye, as is suggested in the famous first line in Leo Tolstoy's (1874–1978)Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.” If one assumes that “unhappiness,” as a process, may have its own dynamic, it would make sense to expect “happiness” and “unhappiness” to exist side by side in long-term relational systems such as families and marriages. This would make an operational definition of familial and marital dynamics more complicated, but also valid.

The use of aggregated labels to categorize either families or marriages does not necessary limit their explanatory value. The editors of All Our Families (Mason, Skolnick, & Sugarman, 1998), for example, portray the family as a container in which all its potential forms are stocked:

Facts about family life are far more complex than they seem. Indeed, to speak of “the family” often obscures more than it reveals. Families today do come in many varieties—two parent, single parent, stepfamilies, gay and lesbian families, foster families, and so on. (p. 1)

Families indeed come in many forms, but to speak of the family does not necessarily obscure such diversity, just as attention to the family does not necessarily reveal all there is to know about its possible relational manifestations. Indeed, not to speak of the family may confuse the statistics about its relational forms with its ontological quality. As an example, Stacey (2000) writes, “I find the concept of ‘the family’ to be unwittingly pernicious, as intellectually misguided, because it fuels the illusion that there is a time-less, uniform ‘natural’ character to appropriate gender and kinship relationships” (p. 426). Focusing only on the variety of all families and marriages, however, negates the fact that the institutionalization of care for and social placement of the newly born represent a perpetually evolving social process, one of which actual gender and kinship relations are in-time manifestations.

The Cognitive and Relational Realms of the Family and Marriage

In addition to Broderick (1993, Chapter 2), other family scholars have argued in support of a clear distinction between an institutional and a relational perspective of marriage.

The relational perspective emphasizes the relationship skills individuals need to build satisfying marriages and other intimate relationships …. In contrast, an institutional perspective of marriage emphasizes that marriage is embedded in our culture and intertwines our public and private lives. (Hawkins, Wardel, & Coolidge, 2002, p. xv)

This approach combines two perspectives by suggesting that when two persons marry, “they are joining a distinctive and important public institution as much as they are separating from others to create a unique and private partnership” (Hawkins et al., p. xvi). The description of what “two persons” are doing, however, does not explain what is being “joined” by persons who, for some reason, decide to marry. Why, for example, do some individuals refuse to marry someone of a different race or a different religion? Combining two analytic perspectives may help explain the hows and whys of marital choice but may not be the most effective way to explain the emergence of the family and marriage in human societies. It ignores the premise that the family is more than any of its specific relational forms “writ large.” The same holds for marriage. Existing relational familial and marital forms cannot be considered universally representative of two continually changing institutional processes. This does not mean that the cognitive and relational realities of the family and marriage exist independently but rather that the interplay between the two requires explanation.

When linkages between the family and marriage and their respective relational forms are ignored or taken for granted, further questioning is impeded. Some family scholars are aware of this, as is clear from Skolnick's (1991) stated desire to “reclaim the family and use it similar to the economy—as an important aspect of social life” (p. xix, emphasis in original). Her view parallels the conceptual stance proposed in this paper, with the exception that her preference for the family over family life or families may downplay the ontological implications of her conceptual position. In view of this, a closer look at the relational outcomes of institutionalization is in order.

On Relational Systems

Understanding the interaction between the cognitive and relational forms of the family and marriage requires a clear description of each process and a working image of what connects them. In accord with Luhmann's (2000) ideas, such linkages can be seen as “communicative.” As “facts” they exist independently of their consequences and may exert constraints on the course of institutional arrangements (Durkheim, 1950, p. 13).

As living systems, marriages and families survive in an environment that, at best, is only partially under their control. Given the complex dynamics of familial and marital relationships, they may proceed, at times, along the edge of chaos. Even when the negotiated order in a given family or marriage seems harmonious, its underlying dynamic may be unstable. The stability of a social system differs from its durability. Understanding the problems presented by unexpected events throughout the course of families and marriages requires sharper concepts than those generally used in conventional survey research. A process is stable if, regardless of its duration, it “does not change much under the effect of small disturbances” (Stewart, 1989, p. 60). After a near collision, for example, two vehicles may continue their stable courses as if nothing happened, and a river may continue its flow despite periods of severe turbulence. Similarly, the birth of a severely retarded child poses a severe challenge to many established families. Some will be able to manage it; others will not. This suggests that stability is a variable within durable relationships, rather than its equivalent.

In families and marriages, then, processes may be stable or unstable, as well as periodic or aperiodic. It is stable and periodic if its course tends to return to the same state, as in the Earth's voyage around the Sun or the movement of the pendulum in an old-fashioned clock. Unstable and aperiodic behavior, however, is “highly complex: it rarely repeats exactly and may continue to show the effects of any small perturbation” (Kellert, 1993, p. 4). This makes predictions unreliable and serves as a reminder that durability per se may be a poor indicator of the quality and future of marriages.

In view of a still prevalent tendency to equate familial or marital stability or both with its duration, it is not surprising that, in the practice-oriented realm of family studies, individual-focused questioning dominates research. The most recent Decade Review of the Journal of Marriage and the Family, for example, contains 23 contributions, each one “summarizing in some detail the recent advances in the field” (Milardo, 2000, p. 875). The content of its well-referenced chapters reveals a focus on the relational realities of family and marriage living. More abstract or holistic issues, or both, tend to be marginalized or delegated to the dynamics of society at large and, thus, presumably beyond reach of research. The author of a contribution titled “The Consequences of Divorce for Adults and Children” (Amato, 2000), for example, reports that “divorce benefits some individuals, leads others to experience temporary decrements in well-being, and forces others on a downward trajectory from which they might never recover fully” (p. 1269). He then suggests further research on the “contingencies” under which divorce leads to such outcomes. That makes sense, but what about adding a relational perspective to this line of questioning? This would mean looking at the breakdown and subsequent renegotiation of the relations between spouses, among parents and their children, and among additional members of an extended family. As a second illustration, the author of a review of research titled “Family Relationships of Lesbians and Gay Men” (Patterson, 2000) reports that 40% to 60% of gay men and 45% to 80% of lesbians are currently involved in steady romantic relationships and “when asked, … lesbians and gay men report as much satisfaction with their relationship as do heterosexual couples” (p. 1053). Again, the focus is on individuals rather than on relationships per se. In addition, we do not know yet what gay and lesbian relationships really are about. It makes no sense, for example, to assume that lesbian and gay relationships are similar because they are not heterosexual, which, of course, raises the ontological question of how they might differ.

Given the varying realities of the relational manifestations of the family and marriage, knowledge about individuals does not suffice to account for outcomes of the institutionalization of the family and marriage. To clarify this point, a brief comment on the essence of a social relationship is in order. To begin, one must assume that a total absence of relationships would indicate a state of chaos. Established social bonds tend to create and maintain some degree of social order. As such, their presence reflects a process of exclusion because the specialty of each relationship depends on what it excludes rather than includes. All exclusiveness, however, remains basically contextual. A love relationship, for example, is very special, but its opposite is indifference rather than hate. In a similar vein, the opposite of a friend relationship is a casual one. As such, “friendship” can be considered an attribute of individuals or of a special social bond. The first instance describes people called friends. As an attribute of a relationship, however, friendship transforms specific individuals into friends. As stated earlier, the concept of “relationship” serves as a basic tool in the explanation of the dynamics of process in families and marriages. In that perspective its quality depends, among other things, on its level as well as its exclusivity. Sisters, for example, are considered more special than cousins, but not more so than brothers, and so forth.

On a more abstract level, the logic of relationships concerns transitive versus intransitive, reflexive versus nonreflexive, and symmetrical versus asymmetrical bonds. Brothers and sisters, for example, are asymmetrical in terms of gender but symmetrical as siblings, illustrating the relativity but also the practical wisdom of symbolic differentiation. Little attention has been paid, so far, to this type of logic in the realm of family studies. Concepts such as commitment, involvement, and satisfaction are defined as attributes of individuals rather than relationships. In that capacity they may, at times, fail to provide sufficient explanatory access to the course of process in familial and marital systems. The presence of two committed spouses, for example, provides a necessary but not a sufficient condition to the presence of a committed marital relationship.

On Complexity

The growing diversity in the relational realms of families and marriages is gaining attention in family studies (Milardo & Duck, 2000). The potential impact of diversity on the social evolution of the family and marriage, however, may not be fully understood. Consider, for example, a statement by the editors of the comprehensive Handbook of Family Diversity (Demo, Allen, & Fine, 2000):

The acknowledgement of family complexity that the authors demonstrated in their compelling depictions of family diversity at the beginning of the 21st century is perhaps the one common thread running through this book. (p. 44)

The idea of “complexity” per se in their overview refers only to the increasing number of familial and marital forms. Complexity, however, has a dynamic of its own. A system containing three persons, for example, allows for three dyads. Adding one person increases this potential to 6, and one further addition allows for 10 dyads, at least three triads, and several larger groups. Small numerical changes may have disproportionate consequences, something known to students of chaos but not always understood by family scholars.

The contributions to the above handbook discuss the relational categories of families and marriages. None of its informative contributions, however, looks at diversity as a systemic attribute. Instead, the focus is on the uniqueness of each constituent part. The author of Fuzzy Sets and the Study of Diversity (Ragin, 2000, pp. 149–180), on the other hand, suggests that “diversity exists not only in the different configurations of set memberships that social phenomena exhibit but also in the degree to which they belong to such sets and configurations” (p. 149). The first aspect of diversity, then, is “captured by the notion of differences in kind,” whereas the other one reflects “the notion of degree of membership and is based on the idea that virtually all categorical distinctions in the social sciences also involve variation by degree” (p. 149). Exploration of fuzzy-set theory is not pursued here, but its focus on diversity as a function of a system in relation to its membership is to the point. It raises questions such as how diverse a process, such as the family or marriage, can be before it becomes chaotic or loses its cognitive identity. How many and what kinds of behavioral forms can find shelter under the cognitive umbrella of either the family or marriage? And are some familial or marital forms more or less compatible than others? This is not to say that such questions have not been asked (e.g., Widmer, Le Goff, & Levy, 2006) but merely to suggest their relevance.

Another question to address in the context of this section is whether it makes explanatory sense to assume that the futures of the social institutions of the family and marriage will continue to evolve conjointly. Luhmann (1987), for example, raises the possibility of an increasing differentiation between what he terms the macro- and microrealities of social institutions in the future. It is at least within the realm of possibility that some relational forms of either the family or marriage may develop independently from their institutional base. As a family form, for example, unwed motherhood is becoming more accepted and, as such, signals its independence from traditional marriage. Would it not make explanatory sense, then, to approach it as a new relational family form rather than just a type of deviance? There may be other indications that the family and marriage are growing apart. Does this mean that each one is no longer “institutionalized”? Not necessarily. It is interesting to note, for example, that a study of marriage and family in Austria (Goldberg, 1991) reports no significant signs of institutional destabilization (Destabilisierungsprozessen) but rather changes in the expressed end goals (Zweckbestimmungen) of those involved in its relational forms. In a similar vein, a British study of the negotiation of family responsibilities reports a clear difference between respondents’ agreement about “procedural” and “substantive” issues concerning the care of family members: “a representative sample of the population was telling us that, even when it comes to parent-child responsibilities, there are no clear rules prescribing what you should do” (Finch & Mason, 1993, pp. 21–22). It seems, then, that consensus on the cognitive levels of the family and marriage does not necessarily mirror agreement on their respective relational forms. Admittedly, such scattered observations are whispers in the wind, but they may provide a hint about the direction the wind is blowing. Because the focus of this brief section has been on relational systems, it is appropriate to consider next the essence of what they are about.

The Problem of Order

As a social process, institutionalization counters chaos in human societies. Its adaptive and creative components contain regulatory and legitimizing strategies. What is being institutionalized, however, belongs to the real world. Its dynamics echo the goals, the skills, the resources, and the values of those who instigate their individual and collective ordering. Commenting on the lives of Asian peasants, for example, the anthropologist Scott (1998) notes:

Unlike the research scientist or extension agent who does not have to take her own advice, the peasant is the immediate consumer of his own conclusions. Unlike the typical modern-day farmer, the peasant has no outside experts to rely on beyond his experienced neighbors; he must make decisions based on what he knows. (p. 324)

These peasants’ decisions are not theoretical but reflect the what and how of current and past experience.

As an ordering strategy, institutionalization structures the needs, fears, and hopes of people but operates collectively and often indirectly. As a different scholar put it:

The basic tissue resulting from many single plans and actions of humans can give rise to changes and patterns that no individual person has planned or created. From this interdependence of people arises an order sui generis, an order more compelling and stronger than the will and reason of the individual people composing it. (Elias, 1982, p. 230)

The word “arises” signifies “being” as well as “coming into being” (Hacking, 2002, pp. 1–26) and emphasizes the assumption that the cognitive images of the family and marriage in all likelihood came into being after the initial patterning of more exploratory and potentially chaotic collective undertakings.

During the initial stages of Homo sapiens, the tactics and actions that gave rise to mating and child-care patterns still lacked a basic tissue. What did exist, in all likelihood, was an array of habits carried over from a gradually receding past. According to Berger and Luckmann (1966), such a stage of habitualization,

provides the direction and the specialization of activity that is lacking in human biological equipment … by providing a stable background in which human activity may proceed with a minimum of decision-making …. It frees energy for such decisions as may be necessary …. The background of habitualized activity opens up a foreground for deliberation and innovation. (p. 53)

At the onset of the human race, then, cognition that legitimized specific social practices did not exist. Prehuman groups did not need them because, in their world, as in animal ones, nobody minded the whole store or was responsible for its design (Schelling, 1978). To underline this point, consider a quote from a 12-year study of relatedness among spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) in Kenya:

Spotted hyenas live in multigenerational groups called clans. Each clan contains multiple matrilines of adult females and their offspring and multiple adult immigrant males, which were born elsewhere…. Each spotted hyena clan is structured by a rigid linear dominance hierarchy…. Offspring attain social ranks just below those of their mothers, so maternal kinship has important fitness implications. (Van Horn, Engh, Scribner, Funk, & Holekamp 2004, p. 450)

Orderly social interaction among animals as well as among humans may well be rooted in the biological bond between mothers and their offspring. This order may have characterized our proto-human ancestors long before the evolution of speech and language (Deacon, 1997; Kenneally, 2007; McWhorter, 2003). As such, it may have provided the foundations for those cultures that eventually sanctioned the legitimized social grouping that Douglas (1986, p. 46) saw as the raison d'etre for institutionalization. How all this happened remains a disputed issue in discussions of the “role of institutionalization in cultural persistence” (Zucker, 1991), but further discussion would reach well beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to suggest that, in the absence of a cognitive component to their eventual institutionalization, the family and marriage in our world would be quite different.

Progressing toward a more recent past, in Public Vows the historian Cott (2000) discusses what did and did not change during the past two centuries. For example:

The congregations to which Christian slaves belonged often had to decide whether to discipline a member who had taken up with a new partner after being separated by sale or migration from a first one who was still living. The second relationship was bigamous, in effect, and against God's law. Rather than answering hard questions about the clash between slavery and Christian monogamy, churches compromised by treating the forced separation like death. The slave had little choice in the matter. (p. 35)

This illustrates the important contextual quality of all familial and marital processes but also the potential to negotiate the consequences of extreme social inequality. A further quote from Cott's informative book provides additional insight into the ongoing interplay between negotiation and what it is about:

“Living tally” (cohabiting without solemnization) was common among working-class and industrial wage-earning populations in England and Scotland, partly because this consensual arrangement was understood to allow self-divorce …. In a North Wales community… between 1766 and 1799, 60 percent of all the babies born were the offspring of “bosom weddings,” self-marriage arrangements in which the couple jumped over a broom placed aslant in the doorway, as slaves did on southern plantations. The couple could divorce within the first year by jumping back over the broomstick, while the man remained obliged to support any child born. (pp. 35–36)

These practices illustrate that the rules structuring family and marital processes are likely to reflect compromises between groups or influential individuals, or both, who organize, rather than institutionalize, the course of actual families and marriages, which may, in turn, affect the cognitive aspect of institutionalization. It took a war to allow former slaves’ participation in the institutions of the family and marriage in this country and a judgment of the United States Supreme Court in 1967 to eliminate all legal restrictions on interracial marriage. And it may take another Supreme Court decision before persons of the same sex are granted legal access to the family and marriage. Obviously, then, the institutionalization of the care for and the social placement of the newly born in human societies will reflect the interaction between chance and necessity, but its many outcomes are not random.

To help understand the dynamics of a social institution, one might imagine the use of its metaphoric “mind,” as George Herbert Mead argued many years ago:

The essential condition for the appearance of what has been conceived of as mind is that the individual in acting with reference to the environment should, as part of that action, be acting with reference to himself. (Strauss, 1934, p. 79)

Metaphorically, then, the “mind” of an institution represents its potential to act with reference to itself. It is not surprising, then, to note that Douglas’s (1986) previously cited book contains chapters titled “Institutions Remember and Forget,”“Institutions Do the Classifying,” and “Institutions Make Life and Death Decisions.” This makes sense, heuristically, as does the use of concepts such as “collective memory” (Climo & Cattell, 2002; Connerton, 1989) and questions such as, “How do relations store histories?” (Tilly, 2000, pp. 721–723). In a book titled Social Memory and History, Climo and Cattell write:

Collective or social memories are shaped by social, economic, and political circumstances; by beliefs and values; by opposition and resistance. They involve cultural norms and issues of authenticity, identity and power. They are implicated in ideologies. (p. 4)

How accessible, empirically as well as conceptually, is the idea of social memory? Does it imply the relevance of remembering and, if so, how exactly? The author of How Societies Remember argues that “if there is such a thing as social memory … we are likely to find it in commemorative ceremonies” (Connerton, 1989, p. 5). These may be found on the ubiquitous yearly calendar, our guide from the past into a not-too-distant future. Its documented events remind us, to varying degrees, of a series of memorable occasions but also of their multidimensional cognitive qualities. Thanksgiving and Christmas, for example, involve the family, the church, and the economy. They do not stipulate, however, who may celebrate or how people should organize their collective efforts. To be credible, for example, Thanksgiving may not exclude unmarried couples, same-sex ones, or one-parent families. They all are part of the cognitive realm of the family and marriage. In a similar vein, Mother's Day and Father's Day involve all parents, regardless of their legal status.

Social memories, each in its own way, contribute to the origin and preservation of the “more than” that distinguishes the family and marriage from all other social arrangements. It might be interesting to imagine a human society stripped of all social memories of the family and marriage. It would be one in which two basic social institutions had lost their minds.

On Cognitive Systems

Some who make a distinction between the cognitive and relational components of the family and marriage see it as simply analytical. Reasonable as this may be, this fails to consider what is to be explained. Previously cited works by Broderick (1993), Gillis (1996), Hawkins and colleagues (2002), and Skolnick (1991) illustrate this point. Cott (2000) expands the conceptual horizons of such explanatory approaches:

Marriage remains inextricably public and private, both faces of the institution as paired as the couple is. The patch-worked emotions and practices with which individuals endow their unions color the evolving institution, and the values and requirements incorporated into it by official policy furnish citizens’ imaginations as well as setting them to their marital tasks. (p. 226)

This makes sense as long as it is clear that what is referred to as “public” derives its meaning from not being private. The “values and requirements incorporated … by official policy” become private, and potentially quite personal, when they enter the relational insides of marriages. What remains outside, in society at large, are the “values and requirements” that constitute the cognitive sphere of the evolving institutional arrangements of the family and marriage. Much of what is referred to as “public” in Cott's statement does become an integral aspect of a private face. Many straight individuals in our society, for example, oppose same-sex marriage, not because it would force them to marry a lesbian or gay person but rather because they consider the cognitive realm of marriage exclusively theirs.

The legitimizing processes funneling the institutionalization of the family and marriage reach beyond the organizational proceedings that create the norms and laws actually structuring life in existing families and marriages. Consequently, the “patch-worked emotions and practices with which individuals endow their unions” (Cott, 2000, p. 226) do not directly color these evolving institutions. Some laws, in and by themselves, may accomplish little more than the addition of locks to existing doors. They may not necessarily create new knowledge or values but simply represent legal procedures designed to guard the interests or ideologies of those influential enough to instigate their enactment.

On Communication

How does one imagine and conceptualize the links between the relational and cognitive spheres of the family and marriage? Calling links “communicative” only attaches one more label to something not yet fully understood. Given the focus of this paper, the following comments are speculative and only offer some suggestions about possible linkages between the two realities of the family and marriage.

The communicative links referred to above may be reflective, unstable, and often asymmetrical. They may connect but also separate the relational and cognitive realms of familial and marital phenomena. Communicative links originate in the real world and, over time, may evolve into a cognitive domain. In Historical Ontology, the philosopher Hacking (2002) rejects the premise that the world has been “complete” from its beginning, that everything that currently exists was present “in potentia” (p. 15). Instead, he favors the “creation” of new “phenomena of cosmic significance that come into being in the course of human history” (p. 16) When we reason by analogy, then, it seems that the evolution of crucial skills and practices, such as speech and language (Kenneally, 2007), took place gradually throughout human history. The following should clarify this point of view.

While discussing reoccurring failures of top-down planning in Southeast Asian societies, Scott (1998) uses language as a metaphor to illuminate the linkage between practical and more abstract knowledge in human societies:

Yes, there are rules of thumb for expression: clichés, formulas of politeness, customs for swearing, and conventional conversations. But unless there is a central committee of grammarians with draconian police powers, the language is always being added to as new expressions and novel combinations are invented and puns and irony undermine old formulas. Under great pressure and rapid change, the language may change, … but for people who speak it, it remains recognizably their language. (pp. 332–333)

He then considers the connection between language and speech, focusing on an adaptive vocabulary reined in by the rules of syntax and semantics, as a means to illustrate the interplay between the world of practice and that of abstract knowledge. This is difficult, because, as one linguist put it, “the abstract doesn't exist, so to speak, in the abstract” (Kenneally, 2007, p. 11). Speaking a language feeds as well as empowers its vocabulary, but its syntax and semantics make it suitable as a lasting vehicle for speech so that “for people who speak it, it remains recognizably their language.” Of course, this raises the question, for how long? To which a reasonable answer would be: that depends on the circumstances.

In conjunction with the above, consider Douglas’s (1986) suggestion that when a cognitive system has been founded “in reason and nature,” its “cognitive energy” may be preserved by a process of successful explanation, one “that is going to gain a permanent place in the public repertoire of what is known” (p. 76). Linking the above ideas, it makes sense that, during the seemingly endless human past, specific practices and explanations about the care of offspring and the social placement of children did gain a “permanent place in the public repertoire of what was known and believed to be true” (Douglas, p. 76). This, then, may have led to a process attaching legitimacy to what previously had been little more than a set of useful habits, and in its wake created orderly arrangements among those human communities that survived. The above discussion does not account for the origin of what Douglas refers to as “in reason and nature.” Did it emerge by pure chance, or does its presence echo the negotiation between the abstract logic of causality and the necessity to create as well as maintain a state of order? All we know for certain at this point, however, is that Homo sapiens, in a variety of ways, did survive.

On Predicting

In a discussion of the future of marriage, Cherlin (2004) defined the concept of “deinstitutionalization” as the “weakening of the social norms that define people's behavior in a social institution such as marriage,” and suggested that “when social change produces situations outside the reach of established norms [individuals may to be forced to] negotiate new ways of acting” (p. 848). This confuses the concept of institutionalization with that of organization. As previously argued, institutionalization is an ordering process that is pragmatic and open to a variety of functional relational alternatives. Institutionalization is irreversible and, as such, analogous to “flowing” and “aging.” In contrast, “deinstitutionalization” would be analogous to “de-flowing” and “de-aging.”

Negotiations between individuals or collectivities are likely to involve the present or future emergence of relational alternatives to lifelong marriage, such as, remarriage, renewable marriage, same-sex marriage, and contractual cohabitation. Countering chaos, after all, is a pragmatic process and, as such, free of traditional morality. Clearly, then, the changing or renegotiating of past norms may be either functional or dysfunctional but not necessarily weakening. Furthermore, rather than reflecting tension between “institutional and individual views of marriage” (Amato, 2004, p. 959), such negotiations—social as well as individual—may take place within the cognitive realms of the family and marriage. A recent paper about the attitudes of contemporary adolescents toward marriage (Manning, Longmore, & Giordano, 2007), for example, reports that “adolescents are including cohabitation as a part of their future life trajectories but rarely envision cohabitation as substituting for marriage” (p. 559). The young people questioned in this study did not consider cohabitation as a life goal, but they seemed well aware of it as a possible part or an alternative to a lifelong marital relationship. A personal anecdote illustrates this point. Sometime during the 1970s, after a lecture on divorce, a student came up to me and said, “If I knew I would get a divorce, I would marry my second husband first.” Apart from a reminder that the future of my future might be someone else's past, her comment showed that at that time cohabitation was not yet perceived as a realistic alternative to marriage.

It is reasonable to assume that a growing availability of new alternatives will influence individual choices involving the relational forms of the family and marriage. The cognitive realms of both institutional processes, however, are not necessarily weakened by an increased number of choices. In fact, they may be strengthened. In contrast to the family, the traditional lifelong marital relationship seems to be on the decline. It would be wrong, however, to consider this as a clear sign of institutional weakening. It may merely reflect the significant increase of our collective life expectancy. As a process, institutionalization can be said to weaken if its relational manifestations fail to counter either social chaos or ontological uncertainty or both. Not surprisingly, the sole universal and lasting norms in our society are the incest taboo and the rejection of promiscuity. It is worth noting that these rules target married and cohabiting couples as well as heterosexual and same-sex ones.

A Final Comment

The argument presented in this paper is meant to extend and deepen questioning about the social processes that order the care for and the social placement of the newly born in contemporary human society. In that capacity it stresses the need to differentiate between the cognitive and relational aspects of institutionalization and its relational manifestations. With this in mind, this final comment compares findings reported in Alone Together, a recently published book about marriage in the United States (Amato, Booth, Johnson, & Rogers, 2007), with a quotation that reminds us of a distant past.

Alone Together is a report of the changing aggregate level of marital quality in North America between 1980 and 2000 and begins with the following observation:

because matrimony was a central feature of adult life, the great majority of people in the United States married relatively early in life, and stayed continuously married until the death of one spouse …. But times have changed. The growing popularity of nonmarital cohabitation, the increase in the percentage of children born outside marriage, the rise in age at first marriage, the continuing high divorce rate, and the declining marriage rate indicate that marriage has become a more voluntary and less permanent part of adult life now than in the past. (Amato et al., 2007, p. 1)

Times did not change, however, nor did the institutionalization of the family and marriage. It is the world that changed. To note how much it changed, consider the following:

Antoine Arnaud was born in 1560. In 1585 he married the daughter of a Parisian government official. She was thirteen years of age at that time. The first two years of their marriage remained childless. At the age of fifteen Mrs. Arnaud gave birth to their first child, it lived five days. After this, she bore a child each year …. The birth of the last child led to her mother's death. At that time she was thirty-nine years old. Over a period of twenty-four years she had nineteen children, ten of which died early. It is notable that the gate to death was kept ajar for each child by its brothers and sisters—and by its mother. (van den Berg, 1963, p. 99, author's translation)

The Arnaud's marriage, as described above, differed qualitatively from current marriage, and there was no alternative to it. Presently, the gate to death is no longer kept ajar by one's siblings but by one's seniors, and a child may grow up without a close reminder of its mortality. Life between 1980 and 2000 would have been unthinkable in 16th century Europe. In fact, Antoine Arnaud would be charged with statutory rape in our “civilized” society. In the Arnauds’ world, the experiences of being young, being adult, being married, and being alive differed fundamentally from their respective counterparts in today's world. What does this mean? Was being married in western Europe four centuries ago different enough to make it irrelevant to the state of marriage reported in Alone Together? That depends on what we are looking for.

Amato and his colleagues (2007) see the “poor record of predicting change” by family scholars as reflecting research findings showing “that people's experiences and behavior are affected by a large number of factors that interact in ways that are difficult to conceptualize and model statistically” (p. 260). Focusing on the aggregate level of marital quality thus provides a rational way of dealing with the fact that individuals currently are relatively free to marry or divorce for all sorts of purely personal reasons. A look at Antoine Arnaud's family, however, suggests that the absence of all those factors may be responsible for the death-ridden course of its existence. Despite its perpetual confrontation with uncertainty and disaster, the Arnaud marriage was not disorderly. On the contrary, it seems to have been a stable relationship. There also is no evidence that Antoine Arnaud and his wife did not care for each other or were not committed to their family. There is no reason to assume, therefore, that the institutionalization of the family and marriage four centuries ago was either weak or weakening. What is unthinkable by current standards is the quality of that order on a relational level.

With this in mind the suggestion that “marriage has become a more voluntary and less permanent part of adult life” (Amato et al., 2007, p. 1) deserves a comment. Voluntarism, as an attribute of a society, implies the presence of choice and the availability of options. The increasing life expectancy in the Western world allows and encourages relational and cognitive alternatives to traditional lifelong marriage. This means, among other things, that the choices to divorce, to remarry, to be a stepparent, to cohabit contractually, or to marry someone of the same sex need to be understood and studied as components, rather than problems or weaknesses, of the institutionalization of the contemporary family and marriage.

Theorizing applies the logic of causality to the reality of what is to be explained. Comparing the state of marriage documented by Amato and his coauthors (2007) with that of Antoine Arnaud illustrates a “world” of difference between current and past manifestations of the family and marriage. But it also shows that in a quite different societal setting, the institutionalization of the care and social placement of newly born offspring remained basically the same. In other words, in a drastically different environment the attractor directing but not necessarily fashioning the family and marriage did not change over time. As shown by the data presented in Alone Together, what did change during the past four centuries is the environment rather than the societal processes commonly referred to as the family and marriage.