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:
- We see each other recently more often than do random pairs.
- We act as if we expect our relation to be exclusive.
- We act as if we expect our relation to last a long time.
- We tell associates that we expect a long/exclusive relation, and will be embarrassed if we are seen to be wrong.
- We invest in shared kids, friends, habits which are degraded if we split.
- 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.
- Our community will see us as immoral and somewhat shame us if we split.
- We invest in relationship-specific capital that is degraded if we split, such as housing or a division of labor.
- We have transferable assets held hostage that we forfeit if we leave.
- 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: Continue reading "Forager Mating Returns" »