Forager Mating Returns

Based on Bryan’s recommendation, I’ve been reading the excellent Promises I Can Keep (quotes below), an ethnography of mating patterns among poor folks in Philadelphia. I greatly respect ethnographies, and intend to read more of them (suggestions welcome).

Bryan summarizes the book as saying:

Poverty isn’t about money; it’s a state of mind. That state of mind is low conscientiousness.

But that doesn’t seem quite right to me – the situation is better summarized as the poor having different social norms on appropriate kinds of romantic commitment. Yes these norms may promote and be better matched to low conscientiousness, but even so it is the norms that are the direct effect. Let me explain.

All societies have romantic/sexual pair-bonds, i.e., pairs of people with a special distinguished relation. But societies vary in their types and levels of commitment. Consider these options:

  1. We see each other recently more often than do random pairs.
  2. We act as if we expect our relation to be exclusive.
  3. We act as if we expect our relation to last a long time.
  4. We tell associates that we expect a long/exclusive relation, and will be embarrassed if we are seen to be wrong.
  5. We invest in shared kids, friends, habits which are degraded if we split.
  6. We spent lots on a feast/ceremony to signal our long/exclusive relation, and can’t afford to do that again for a long time.
  7. Our community will see us as immoral and somewhat shame us if we split.
  8. We invest in relationship-specific capital that is degraded if we split, such as housing or a division of labor.
  9. We have transferable assets held hostage that we forfeit if we leave.
  10. Our community will use force to prevent one of us from leaving, if the other asks.

Societies vary in which types of commitment they see as fitting when. Traditional farming cultures have used all of these ways to bond couples together. In contrast, traditional forager cultures typically only used levels #1,2 while young, and then added in only #3,4,5 when older. They didn’t use the rest.

The lower class US culture described in Promises I Can Keep have mostly reverted back to forager ways. When young they basically only use #1,2, and eagerly have kids in that mode, which adds some of #5. When older they often formally marry which adds #3,4,5,6,7, but not #8,9,10. This is all done on purpose. When young they talk explicitly about wanting kids but not wanting to be tied to a particular partner, so they can switch when the mood strikes them. They see marriage as a way to brag about life success, which must await their achieving most of their life goals, including a house, career success, etc. Usually men push for marriage, and women resist. Before marriage, women enjoy pretty complete control over kids.

Upper class US culture, in contrast, has a youthful dating period with only #1,2 but expects kids to wait for marriage which adds #3,4,5,6,7. This culture still has elements of #8,9,10, but those are increasingly disapproved, and this culture is moving away from those. So our entire culture has been moving from farmer toward forager norms as we’ve become richer, but the richer among us are those whose norms have moved slower in that direction. This is understandable if some people and subcultures more strongly feel the social pressures that made foragers into farmers, and if farming norms and styles tend to cause more wealth today.

The obvious near term prediction is that as wealth continues to increase, we’ll see a continuing move toward forager mating habits and norms within all classes.

Those promised quotes:

“In the beginning, when you first like a guy a lot, oh, you want to have his baby.” … Nearly everyone knows that a young man who proclaims his desire to have a baby by a young woman is offering high tribute to her beauty. …

The heady significance of the declaration “I want to have a baby by you” is also ruled by the extraordinary high social value the poor place on children. … Poor youth … often begin to eagerly anticipate children and the social role of parents at a remarkably tender age. … The desire to conceive can become so compelling that some young couples begin trying as soon as they feel it is minimally feasible to care for a child. … Now forty-seven, this African American mother of two growth children and a twelve year old remembers vividly how her mother wanted her to get a diploma first and “live her life.” “But to me,” she explains, ‘that [baby] was life!” …

Typically, young women describe their pregnancies as “not exactly planned” yet “not exactly avoided” either – as only a few were using any form of conception at all when their “unplanned” child was conceived. …Roughly half of the woman with accidental pregnancies said they were not doing anything too prevent a pregnancy at the time. Yet most know full well the facts of life ands realized that unprotected sex would almost inevitably lead to conception. …

Most … believe that it is unjust to penalize an unborn child for its parents’ poor planning, so they nearly always conclude that the “responsible” reaction is to “deal with it” and have the baby rather than seek an abortion. … Virtually no woman we spoke with believed it was acceptable to have an abortion merely to advance an educational trajectory. …

Some [men] immediately attempt to deny the child is theirs and accuse their mystified girlfriends of being “cheaters” or “whores.” … Though young women usually claim their boyfriends’ accusations are completely groundless, youth in these neighborhoods do move quickly form one relationship to another, and the rapid onset of sex means there is sometimes legitimate reason for doubt. … The sexual mistrust that is so palpable in the relationships of many poor couples fuels both women’s suspicions and men’s possessiveness. …

The mother will retain almost complete control over the child, regardless of whether he pays child support or not. Meanwhile, she can, on a whim block his access to the child. Even worse, from his point of view, she can introduce another man into the child’s life, one who may take the father’s place. …

When poor unmarried woman given birth, eight out of ten are still romantically involved with their child’s father, and four in ten are even living together. … When asked about their long-term prospect, almost all of the mothers and the fathers predict that they will stay together and eventually marry. However … few of these couples stay together long enough to watch their children enter preschool. …

Poor unmarried couples try hard to keep it together for the baby. Yet they … , even those who cohabit, believe that as long as the are not married, it is acceptable for either partner to walk away at any time, and for virtually any reason. … Walking away from a non-marital union is not viewed as betrayal of a vow, and it is more or less okay to hold oneself open to a better option, should one come along. …

Sex ratios in these neighborhoods are out of balance, women usually outnumbering men, … this means that a young father who is struggling to become a family man has ready access to scores of willing sexual partners who will not impose substantial burdens, at least at the start of a new romance. … Infidelity is much more common among men than among women. … Some mothers do admit that as long as he wasn’t “in my face with it,” they were willing to ignore the telltale signs for a time. …

“I like to do things right through, instead of cutting corners and doing everything half-assed. I’d rather get engaged for two years, save money, get a house, make sure .. the baby’s got a bedroom, [than get married now],” Deena adds, “And I get a yard with grass. [And] I want a nice wedding.” Patrick continues, “I’m not going nowhere. she knows I’m not going nowhere .. so why get married [right now]?” …

“I was with somebody for four years, engaged, had a kid, and then I wasn’t with him. I’m not gonna do nothing, like make any promises that I’m not gonna be able to keep.” Both Deena and Patrick say they worry that a premature marriage might put undue pressure on the relationship and lead to a breakup. … She explains, “Like I said to Patrick the other day, `You might fall in love with somebody walking down the street and not even know it, do you know what I mean? You could wanna be with that person forever. You might say that [you’ll be with me forever] now because you’re in love with me. But things happen – there’s people that might alter your relationships.’ … Deena then reveals that though she both hopes and plans to marry Patrick, she insists on hedging her bets by having an income and some assets of her own. …

Though virtually every mother we spoke with said she thought a woman should wait to marry until her schooling is complete and she has established a career … many believe that the ideal time for child bearing is between the late teens and mid-twenties. …. Nell … cautions her daughters: “Wait. Wait till you finish being out there in the world, exploring … yourself and other people.” … Dorothy believes that marriage should wait until one is “I’d say thirty … At twenty-five, you know, you might still want to go out with your friends.” She explains, “When you get married your life stops changing.” ….

Shante … her views about the ideal time for marriage also reveal that a young woman should be sure she’s had her fun, for marriage is about settling down to serious business. She says, “Have fun by yourself and then just explore …. Especially the people who want to travel a lot [need to] do all their traveling and then come hope to settle down. That’s when your’e like thirty, thirty-five years old.” … This forty-two-year old grandmother warns Natasha against an early marriage because she “didn’t live her life yet,” but says she herself is now ready to marry because she’s had all the fun there is to have. “The best time to get married its past forty. … If y’all wanna cheat, whatever, ya’ll done all that at a younger age. Once you get past forty it ain’t nothing else out there. … We tired. Ain’t nobody looking for nothing else. Ain’t nobody looking for no other man or woman. We tired now so we donna marry each other. … Elaine … says “The best time to get married is before you start getting old, before you start aging. … I don’t wanna get no later than thirty-five to get married. I do not wanna spend my old days by myself. …

Poor woman today almost universally reject the idea that marriage means financial reliance on a male breadwinner. Furthermore, it is vitally important that both they and their male partners be economically set prior to marriage. … These material things provide insurance against a marriage gone bad. …

Having the wherewithal to throw a “big” wedding” is a vivid display that the couple has achieved enough financial security to do more than live from paycheck to paycheck, a stressful situation that most believe leads almost inevitably to divorce. Hosting a “proper” wedding is a sign that the couple only plans to do it once, give the obvious financial sacrifice required. …

Though women like Deena Vallas seem to genuinely aspire to marriage, they fear marriage will alter the balance of power they’ve achieved in the relationship so far and activate more traditional sex roles their male parters tend to hold. When Jen Burke was still together with Rick, she shared this concern. “He [already] tells me I ‘can’t do nothing, I can’t go out. What’s gonna happen when I marry him? He’s gonna say he owns me.” … Alena [says] … “That’s exactly they way they treat their woman nowadays, you know. ‘She’s my woman don’t you touch [her] or I’ll beat you with my night stick.’” … “
… Demi [says] … “When you get married … the guy is more protective, starts getting jealous.” ….

“I guess I’m going to have to be married [eventually] but marriage is like, its too much. It’s like a husband is always there. Like one man, just one man that you with forever and ever and ever! No! Not yet!” She exclaims, “Maybe when I’m like forty, … because then, who wants to date a forty-year-old? You have no choice but to get married [then]. You have to find somebody to settle down with before [nobody wants you anymore].” …

Many young women we spoke with believe that adolescence is an unsettled time when young people wander in and out of romantic relationships because that is simply the nature of youth. … Men are more likely to raise the question of marriage than women are, if mothers’ accounts are accurate, and they are far more favorably disposed the the idea of marriage in general. …. The community thus holds married couples to a higher standard of behavior than their unmarried counterparts. Equally important, however, is that the pair expect more of themselves. In some sense, marriage is a form of social bragging about the quality of the couple relationship, a powerful symbolic way of elevating one’s relationship above the others in the community.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: , , ,
Trackback URL: