Durkheim and Desperate Housewives

by Chris Bertram on January 23, 2005

The latest Prospect has a nice piece on Durkheim by Michael Prowse, arguing that we should take him seriously as a critic of free-market capitalism. I was, however, struck by this paragraph concerning Durkheim’s views on the advantages of marriage for men:

Durkheim used the example of marriage to illustrate the problem of anomie or inadequate social regulation. You might think that men would be happiest if able to pursue their sexual desires without restraint. But it is not so, Durkheim argued: all the evidence (including relative suicide rates) suggests that men do better when marriage closes their horizons. As bachelors they can chase every woman they find attractive but they are rarely contented because the potential objects of desires are so numerous. Nor do they enjoy any security because they may lose the woman they are currently involved with. By contrast, Durkheim argued, the married man is generally happier: he must now restrict himself to one woman (at least most of the time) but there is a quid pro quo. The marriage rules require the woman to give herself to him: hence his one permitted object of desire is guaranteed. Marriage thus promotes the long-term happiness of men (Durkheim was less certain that it helped women) because it imposes a sometimes irksome constraint on their passions.

No comment from me, except that it reminded me of a dialogue between Gabrielle and her boy-gardener lover during a recent episode of Desperate Housewives . It went something like this:

He: So why did you marry Carlos?
She: Because he promised to give me everything I desired.
He: And did he?
She: Yes.
He: So why aren’t you happy?
She: It turns out I desired the wrong things.

Cue Aristotle stage left?

{ 22 comments }

1

Kieran Healy 01.23.05 at 5:39 pm

Pretty much all the research by demographers and life-course people confirms that Durkheim was right, by the way. Despite conventional wisdom about the benefits of not being tied down to the ol’ ball and chain, etc, etc, married men are much better off than single men on a whole variety of indices of well-being and health. Marriage is also a much better deal for men than for women. They get the benefits but do less work.

2

harry 01.23.05 at 6:09 pm

Though, if I remember right, marriage is a better deal than single-ness for women, just not as much better a deal as it is for men.

3

Clancy 01.23.05 at 6:46 pm

Alright, that does it. I succumb. Tonight I will watch Desperate Housewives.

4

fred lapides 01.23.05 at 7:07 pm

This helps to explain why there is so little adultery among the marrieds.

5

Carlos 01.23.05 at 7:33 pm

… that show. Even on Crooked Timber, there is no escape from that show.

And does anyone ever ask, is Carlos happy? Is he, too, perhaps desperate in his own way?

I didn’t think so.

6

Kieran Healy 01.23.05 at 8:18 pm

You should pitch _Desperate Carloses_ to the networks.

7

Ophelia Benson 01.23.05 at 8:32 pm

Desperate Car Loses Race, Enrolls in Accountancy School

Oh, that wasn’t a typo?

8

Baptiste 01.23.05 at 9:46 pm

Durkheim was very worried by one of his nephews, the famous Marcel Mauss, who married very late. Durkheim wrote him letters urging him to marry, writing things such as “you’re radiating coldness around you” (my bad translation). Durkheim really believed in his theories and really feared “anomie”.

9

Alan Schussman 01.23.05 at 11:13 pm

My, does Prouse work hard to note that, okay, Durkheim is good, but sociology? Feh!

10

radek 01.24.05 at 12:40 am

Fred Lapides:
“This helps to explain why there is so little adultery among the marrieds”

HL Mencken:
“It is, indeed, the secret scandal of Christendom, at least in the Protestant regions, that most men are faithful to their wives. You will travel a long way before you find a married man who will admit that he is, but the facts are the facts, and I am surely not one to flout them.”

Apparantly, the major problems are: lack of courage, lack of money, and presence of a conscience.

On the other hand, contra Durkheim:
“Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who would want to live in an institution?”

11

conrad barwa 01.24.05 at 12:59 am

As bachelors they can chase every woman they find attractive but they are rarely contented because the potential objects of desires are so numerous.

Ahem, so more choice doesn’t necessarily always lead to better results. Just can’t help thinking of the modernisation arguments being offered by some New Labour folks over public services!

By contrast, Durkheim argued, the married man is generally happier: he must now restrict himself to one woman (at least most of the time) but there is a quid pro quo. The marriage rules require the woman to give herself to him: hence his one permitted object of desire is guaranteed. Marriage thus promotes the long-term happiness of men (Durkheim was less certain that it helped women) because it imposes a sometimes irksome constraint on their passions.

This reminds me in an odd way, of a colleague of mine; much taken with Lacanian psycho-analysis and the applications it can have in social theory. From what I could understand (and I didn’t really grasp the whole theory despite repeated explanations) the economy of desire operates in certain specific ways that resemble language; part of which involves that for desire to exist there much be a lack which it seeks to fulfil and obstructions which prevent its realisation. Like any system with consistent rules, the aim is to reach some sort of working balance, which allows desire to exist but never for it to be satisfied. Marriage in this sense, provides one such mechanism whereby a man can still desire other women; while having this desire governed by a set of nominal prohibitions; so rather than chasing after an Obscure Object of Desire; a series of distant objects now exist to arouse and motivate it while a proximate object is also there for more substantial fulfilment. Of course, the ‘system’ isn’t perfect and breaks down when prohibitions are crossed or the proximate object ceases to be desirable. I suppose using a Freudian analogy; the real problem is that one cannot ever, enjoy secure access to the object of desire and if one could it would no longer be all that desirable. I am not an expert or even well-versed in these theories so I have probably mangled their representation; but what I like about them is the fact that constraint and repetitive obstructions are seen as very much intrinsic to the way desire itself works and part of what sustain it.

Pessimistically, it suggests that we almost always ‘desire the wrong things’ (retrospectively, of course).

12

Cranky Observer 01.24.05 at 2:07 am

Tomorrow, a new medicine is introduced with at reasonable cost extends the human lifetime to 300 years and maintains the body in the condition of today’s 30 year olds.

Do men still agree to marry one woman for life? Do women agree?

Cranky

13

Ancarett 01.24.05 at 3:14 pm

Of course, one could also argue that attaining marriage gives one an excuse to no longer compete for and fail to achieve the object of one’s desire. Let’s face it, body of a 30-year-old or not, most people aren’t going to win the singles bar sweepstakes!

I’ve always had a soft spot for Durkeim’s theories, though. . . .

14

pierre 01.24.05 at 4:22 pm

Heterosexual monogamy is the defining spiritual practice of the West. (Abelard and Heloise, Chretien de Troyes and all that.) In short, not only is marriage an alchemical discipline, it is the only one recognized and supported, albeit invisibly, by Western secular society. Hence the benefit to individuals.

Durkheim’s analysis above is an earlier generation’s version of today’s specious popularized arguments based on “evolutionary psychology”.

15

pierre 01.24.05 at 4:54 pm

Maybe I could have made the same point while still leaving the odious spectres of several cans of worms unturned.

Try this:

Durkheim: “… there is a quid pro quo. The marriage rules require the woman to give herself to him: hence his one permitted object of desire is guaranteed.”

Oh really???

16

pierre 01.24.05 at 5:00 pm

Upon reflection I realize I could have made the same point while introducing much less danger of controversy. Like so:

Durkheim: “… there is a quid pro quo. The marriage rules require the woman to give herself to him: hence his one permitted object of desire is guaranteed.”

Oh really???

17

pierre 01.24.05 at 5:04 pm

Aw, crikey. Apologies for the double post.

18

kharris 01.24.05 at 8:59 pm

Pierre,

You beat me to it.

Durkheim seems unaware that there are two basic forms of sexual dissatisfaction in long-standing human partnerships – tired of having sex with your partner and tired of not having sex with you partner. In rare cases, one can suffer from both simultaneously.

19

BridalBeer 01.25.05 at 5:27 am

An overwhelming majority of men choose to marry. If the marriage fails, a large percentage marry again though the odds of success are not in their favor. Assuming men enjoy free will and instituions (including marriage) are shaped by men, Durkheim’s theory seems plausible.

20

BridalBeer 01.25.05 at 5:29 am

An overwhelming majority of men choose to marry. If the marriage fails, a large percentage marry again though the odds of success are not in their favor. Assuming men enjoy free will and instituions (including marriage) are shaped by men, Durkheim’s theory seems plausible.

21

I vant to be left alone 01.25.05 at 2:55 pm

Its a sign of the times that Durkheim has been rehabilitated and all his thinly disguised jeriamiads about what really threatens social life are now taken as undiscovered mines of wisdom. Sociological hackdom and moral authoritarianism never had as good.

22

Anarch 01.28.05 at 8:31 am

“But how do you know what you want till you get what you want and you see if you like it?” – Cinderella, Into The Woods

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