Polygamy and Social Insurance

I’m currently reading Unnatural Selection, by Mara Hvistendahl, while I’m sitting here trying to tie up the loose ends on my thesis. Or at least, they were only loose ends before yesterday evening, when a small coding error (really, Erin, ‘<‘ instead of ‘>’) meant that I had written this great paper about why we don’t see any result when in fact there might be a really important result. Good work. It’s not like I had plans this weekend, anyway.

At any rate, losing myself in my dissertation means thinking a lot about ‘nontraditional’ unions and the evolving concept of the family, and reading Mara’s book means thinking a lot about all of the men that are going to spend their lives as bachelors in Asia. What I haven’t been thinking much about is the other end of the spectrum, polygamous marriages, which suddenly came up today. A good friend and PhD candidate at UCLA is working in Kenya right now as a field researcher and is occasionally sharing her thoughts on development and field work, etc. Having spent some time in that part of the world and always eager to read anything I can get my hands on, I keep close tabs on what she’s doing.

She posted recently about polygamous marriages and made a joke about how one episode of the TV show Big Love was the extent of her knowledge of polygamy in America. With the same-sex marriage becoming more and more part of our understanding of marriage, I’ve heard a few mutterings that polygamous marriage might be the next ban that is tackled. Ignoring for a moment the torrid history of polygamy in America and its association with forced marriage of children, it’s interesting to think about the value that additional help might afford. In a place with high rates of mortality for young men (from HIV, for instance), the ability to raise one’s children alongside another person, even that person is not a romantic partner and even once shared your romantic partner, seems much more palatable than knocking it out alone.

And, just to bring this full circle, Mara’s prologue starts with the story of her own youth, where two newly single women, Mara’s mother and a friend, banded together to raise their children. They weren’t co-wives or sister-wives, but it seemed to be an arrangement that worked. If you were in a polygamous marriage, you don’t even have search costs associated with finding someone to help you.

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