Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Anthro 101 Readings: Early Marriage Among the Maasai

Despite teaching introductory anthropology classes, as much as I can, I like to incorporate readings beyond the textbook. I usually include ten to a dozen journal articles throughout the semester. This can be a spectacular failure, like when 75% of the class fails to read or are caught completely off guard by the level of the reading that I’m expecting, but I believe it’s important to expose even new students to the “real” world of anthropology in more professional, academic literature.

In light of this, I’m always on the lookout for new readings that are both challenging for students but not too esoteric as to lose them at first read. As I was thinking about this post, I thought that one of the future functions of this blog can be as arepository for myself of articles that I find useful in this way. I hope other readers will also find it useful.

Thumbing through the most recent issue of American Anthropologist (vol. 113, issue 4), Caroline S. Archambault’s “Ethnographic Empathy and the Social Context of Rights: ‘Rescuing’ Maasai Girls from Early Marriage” has the hallmarks of a good introductory discussion reading. In it, she discusses the discourse surrounding efforts to end the practice of early marriage and juxtaposes that to her ethnographic work to provide a much more nuanced and contextualized examination.

Here’s my initial take on the aspects of the article that I think make it a good teaching tool for freshmen and sophomores. More than many articles published in American Anthropologist, this one contains elements that have the potential to grab student attention.

First off, the article focuses on Maasai people, one the most recognizable cultural groups from ethnographic visual media. Like it or not, students key in more to images they’ve previously seen on cable television, and for anthropology, the more exotic the better. The tall, elaborately dressed Maasai fit that bill nicely.

Second, the article focuses on “early marriage,” a practice most students see as backward, primitive, unenlightened, but exotic, so it’s interesting. The fact that Maasai marriage practices are often associated with female circumcision, adds a bit more rubber-necking gravity for voyeuristic students.

Further, preexisting student perspectives resonate with the transnational discourse surrounding early marriage that Archambault describes. Young Maasai women that “escape” early marriage to the liberation of modern society are presented according to a consistent script:

with a father or uncle’s marriage plans for her, is followed by a brief explanation of her narrow escape, and concludes with the girl happily ever after in pursuit of an education. This story line is usually framed by a set of prevailing binaries that distinguish violators from victims, patriarchy from female empowerment, traditional from modernity, and collective culture from individual rights [Archambault 2011:632]

Some debates in anthropology require much more explanation before students can see what the discussion is all about...not so with this. Students quickly and easily “get” this critique of Maasai early marriage. That makes my job that much easier.

Fascination with exotic peoples and “barbaric” practices is a troubling characteristic of the student populations that I regularly deal with, but I can’t ignore it. When I can, I use it to draw them in. However, I definitely don’t want to leave them with the same impression that they came into the class with. I try my best to point out the complexity of real humans living lives where they must deal with their symbolic and material worlds just like they themselves do.

Luckily for me, the author of this article agrees. About halfway through the paper, Archambault presents Maasai early marriage through the lens of ethnography, which provides a contextualized account of decisions made by people in specific economic and political circumstances rather than through stereotyped depictions of “traditional culture.” It’s Archambault’s contention that Maasai early marriage is much more an adaptation to an increasingly precarious economic position than as some irrational holdover of ancient cultural practices.

Put simply, traditional Maasai pastoralism is getting harder in the face of a number of increasing pressures and one way that folks look to improve their family’s economic and social security is through marrying some daughters into other family groups.

There is pervasive sentiment throughout the region that pastoralism is becoming much more difficult because of the combined forces of land and resource fragmentation and dispossession, which have been accelerated by recent land-tenure reforms, increased climatic instability, continued state neglect, and increasing population pressure [Archambault 2011:636]

In the face of these challenges, early marriage is an option that weaves together:

an alliance of families...creating powerful linkages to new resources and obligations of mutual social and economic support...The importance of “customary” marriage in connecting families to pastoral resources now under individual title and providing strong links of mutual support and reciprocity [Archambault 2011:636]

So, early marriage is one way that some Maasai folks hope to avoid subsistence and economic destitution. Early marriage doesn’t lead to poverty, but is an attempt to avoid it; the

link between early marriage and poverty is probably quite salient as marriage remains one of the important mechanisms through which families can draw on support and security and ensure that daughters are well protected in good homes [Archambault 2011:637].

So in the end, Maasai fathers and uncles may not be the unthinking, brainwashed cultural robots, marrying off their children because of ancient and cruel tradition.

Contrary to popular belief, early marriage may be more effectively understood as a modern adaptation--a decision made not out of a “deeply rooted custom” and “patriarchy,” but, rather, out of love, concern, and insecurity [Archambault 2011:638]

My syllabus for the spring is already put together, so I’m locked into reading assignments for the Spring semester. However, I look forward to trying out this article as a discussion piece in the Fall. It nicely combines a archetypal example of an exotic and “primitive” practice with a detailed consideration of how and why those specific people practice it.

References Cited
Archambault, Caroline S.
2011 Ethnographic Empathy and the Social Context of Rights: “Rescuing” Maasai Girls from Early Marriage. American Anthropologist 113(4):632-643.


  1. Hi Dalton,
    Thank you for writing this. It's great that you use real anthropology articles in your intro class, despite the sometimes-difficult reaction. At some point would be nice to assemble a kind of reader for intro. I keep using that Applied Anthropology volume, but would really like to change.

  2. Jason,

    Compared to what it was like when you and I were in school, it's just too easy to get access to articles for our students. I always play the grumpy, old man card when I talk about this to students..."in my day, you had to walk to the library through two feet of snow..."

    Services like JSTOR make it very convenient to change up a reading list every semester to keep nimble about changing teaching emphases and student reactions.

    Tangentially, one of my favorite articles to assign is Jane Hill's "Language, Race and White Public Space" (1998 American Anthropologist). Students usually hate her argument, but I hope it forces some of them to critically think about non-obvious, KKK style racism.

  3. Hi Dalton,

    So true about getting access to articles, which makes me wonder why I have become so reader-dependent, as I imagine myself scouring more articles in the "old days" than I do now.

    I do use and love that Jane Hill piece, and I also use the follow up "Intertextuality as Source and Evidence for Indirect Indexical Meanings" (2005, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology) as it in some ways helps to condense and reinforce the argument, as well as show the usefulness of a web search as fieldwork instrument--read with an anthropological eye.