Marriage, Max Weber, and Verstehen
Max Weber talked about verstehen as a very important concept for sociologists and social scientists. When studying people, even at the macro level of society, it is important to really understand what’s going on at the micro level of interactions and individuals. That’s what verstehen is all about: understanding what goes on in the lives of people from their particular perspective so that one can better understand how things work at the larger level of society.
In sociology, we analyze the importance of social rituals and social bonds. Symbols and rituals tie us together and reinforce our bonds as we celebrate or mourn together.
Weddings are a public social ritual, tying together two (or more) families into a new kinship network. People are now related who were previously not, and those present at the wedding participate in acknowledging and celebrating these ties. Close relatives and friends participate in forging the new family. Old friends and new friends also participate as do co-workers and neighbors. Thus a diverse group of people, many of whom might never have met, participate in the event.
We had already met many of the family members of our relative’s fiancé before the wedding. However, at the wedding, we met the rest of the family of this new spouse. The parents of another family member’s spouse also attended this event, reinforcing that marrying into a family brings a new social group into one’s life that continues long beyond the actual wedding.
We now have double the relatives that we had before! Most of these new relatives live far away from where we are, the technology of the day helps reinforce these ties. Our Facebook pages have been quite busy as people post photos, tag each other, and friend many of the people they met at the wedding.
So, while marriage exists historically as an institution that organizes property and inheritance relationships and regulates sexual behavior, it has always also served the function of tying kinship networks together.
While this event was occurring in my family, New York legalized same-sex marriage and a Gallup poll released data that, for the first time, had a majority of Americans supporting same-sex marriage. Understanding the depth to which marriage is about the social ties within a society that help hold it together can help understand why same-sex marriage is so important.
Civil unions and domestic partnerships are not equivalent to marriage. While all three are legal procedures that allow certain financial and legal benefits, only marriage is given the social importance, ritual, and legitimacy by society. With marriage comes a celebration that acknowledges the creation of family unity across many different social groupings.
Marriage seems like one of the most personal choices individuals can make. As Weber’s concept of verstehen reminds us, understanding the meaning of marriage from the perspective of those involved, as well as the broader legal and social meanings help us comprehend the broader social importance of marriage and family.