July 14, 2011

Marriage, Max Weber, and Verstehen

new sallyBy Sally Raskoff

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.

clip_image002One of my close family members just got married. While I’ve known about the importance of rituals and bonds, my experience in this wedding heightened my sense of just how important they are.

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.

image When a couple marries, their relatives are now connected to each other. They may or may not forge strong relationships or see each other much as the years pass but the potential to do so is there.

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.clip_image006

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.


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We're writing our ceremony tonight (part of it anyway) and this posting was REALLY helpful. Thank you. The idea of family being CREATED during the ceremony is very powerful.

This post reminded me of what I gained when I got married (besides a great husband). I'm an only child and neither of my parents had relationships with their family. I gained a welcoming family of mother-in-law, sisters and brothers-in-law, nieces and nephews, and more, all who are a big part of my life. My family previously consisted of parents, period. Every once in a while I am shocked when, for example, I get all these birthday presents! Before I had an extended family I didn't mind - you don't miss what you don't know. But now I don't know what I would do without all these wonderful new people in my life.

I understand and love this topic. As a sixteen year old I am blessed to have parents still married and two loving extended families; one on my mom's side and one on my dad's side. Having all these loving and caring relatives makes me who I am today. I know that the two sides are different but I am still blessed to have all the diversity in my life. I welcome the chance to learn from all of them. There are the assets of my life. I know as I grow up I can turn to any one of them for help...no matter what side of the family!

I totally agree and really like the application to same-sex marriages. This aspect is rarely talked about, but I think it makes a powerful argument for the validity of same-sex marriage.

My parents split when I was young, and even before they ended their relationship my family wasn't so close. When they split, I completely forgot what closeness was. It is, indeed, true that you don't miss what you never had because I thought it was nothing out of the ordinary--until my first relationship. I was with him for quite some time, and his family accepted me as my own. They would give me things unasked for but loved and always welcomed me in their home. They always asked how I was and wanted me to join them in family events. When he and I broke up, they told me I was still always welcome to come by and visit, and they'd always be there. They held true. I know now that's what a family is suppose to be; even though relationships collapse, they're still holding your hand. I, as well, thought highly of the given opinion on same-sex marriage and their families. In same-sex marriage, I never thought about Weber's concept of verstehen until now, and it's something seldom connected to it. By the data shown, it seems as though people are now becoming more understanding on different opinions and interests. Everyone wants happiness, and some of us are being denied it.

This is such an interesting blog. To be honest I'm still not sure what I think about same-sex marriage and all of that. Or just don't feel strongly about it at all, but I appreciate reading up on it and seeing the comments like these. Thanks for starting such an interesting thread!!

In this weeks chapter in my sociology class, we learned about families. In almost every culture, families are located at the core of society. People have a need for the welcomeness and love a family provides. We learned in this chapter about the different levels of family. As you said, marriage ties not only two people together, but their separate families as well that had never been related. Family is very important in our culture and the celebration of marriage is one example that shows this. Around the world, family life is often located at the center of society. Thank you, this article was very helpful for my class!

In my sociology class we have been discussing same sex marriage and whether or not it should be accepted. While reading this you pointed out that it is important because of the social ties within a society, and accepting it would hold it together. It is good to see similar people's views on this subject, and their different resonings about it. Thank you for the insight!

I never thought of marriage as being a way of tying together two social groups before. That's very interesting. If it weren't for marriage, those two groups probably never would have been entwined.

Marriages have many taboos and specific rituals. Same-sex marriages used to be breaking the norm but now it is becoming more common and legal in more states.

What's strange about the whole discussion is that it began in the USA began when the marriage income tax "penalty" was obliterated. The tying of social groups has always been paramount in the social aspects of marriage contracts as was the wealth connections. I am wondering if we should reintroduce the "marriage tax penalty" in order to save hetero-couples' marriage, and to help the children.

This article is a lot of point for me marriage is sacred and it is very important to an couple to have a wedding.

There is another thing that has lately occured to me and I believe I'd be benefitted by more suggestions. Weber's verstehen can also be understood as participatory observation, where the investigator sort of participates and becomes one of the actors of the social event he/she is studying, in an abstract sense of course. That is to say he/she gives a meaning to the meanings that social actors attach to their actions. Now, this could be a partial reconstruction of the event in terms of all subjective meanings, but this doesn't make it any less relevant for sociology, because this after all could be an ideal type in Weber's terminolgy. I see this other meaning of verstehen by which an investigator's attempt to understand subjectivity has a bearing on the conclusions he/she draws and therefore, there is a mark of the researcher upon the work he/she produces.

like the works of this great sociologist max weber very informative marriage is sacred and its author is God himself its holy and should be respected

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