Two institutions have recently announced official policy changes toward gay marriage- does this mean that society is changing as a whole?
The Washington National Cathedral in Washington D.C. which, as NBC.com states, serves as a “symbolic house of prayer for national celebrations and tragedies,” will now perform gay marriage ceremonies. On another front, the Marines have ordered clubs on bases to accept gay spouses as members, stating that to reject gay spouses would amount to sexual discrimination. Such actions would have been unthinkable fifty years ago. What causes shifts in strongly held beliefs and practices? Sociologists have several explanations.
William Graham Sumner: Mores and Taboos
In 1906, sociologist William Graham Sumner described rules by which society operated. He stated “mores are the folkways, including the philosophical and ethical generalizations as to societal welfare which are suggested by them, and inherent in them.” Until relatively recently, mores about homosexual behavior included the generalization that such behavior caused societal harm.
Homosexual actions would have been classified as “taboo,” another term coined by Sumner. Sumner wrote “taboos contain inhibitions of what will be injurious to the group. The laws about the sexes, about property, about war, and about ghosts, have this character.” Sodomy laws, which made homosexual behavior illegal in parts of the United States, were not overturned by the Supreme Court until 2003. What caused this change in the way homosexual behavior is viewed?
Factors Leading to Social Change
Sociologists have noted that a variety of factors cause social change: physical and environmental factors, population changes, isolation and contact, social structure shifts, attitude and values, and technological factors. Changes in people’s acceptance of homosexual behavior, including gay marriage, are likely affected by multiple factors.
The United States is a society where social roles are less fixed than in traditional societies. As Sociology Guide notes, a more “tightly structured society wherein every person’s roles, duties, privileges and obligations are precisely and rigidly defined is less given to changes than a more loosely structured society wherein roles, lines of authority, privileges and obligations are more open to individual rearrangement.”
Societies with rapid social changes, such as the United States, which went from being primarily rural to primarily urban in the space of a few decades, experience some degree of upheaval. Sociology Guide notes, “[r]apidly changing societies are aware of the social change. They are somewhat skeptical and critical of some parts of their traditional culture and will consider and experiment with innovations.” The educational attainment of the United States is also a factor, according to Sociology Guide, “[l]iterate and educated people tend to accept changes more readily than the illiterate and uneducated.”
Technology factors in as well. In the light of German fascism, after World War II, sociologists such as Theordore Adorno feared the ability of technology to create “a world where people willingly swallow fascist ideology.” Today, technology such as the personal computer is more likely to disseminate both sides of a debate and democratically bring topics such as gay marriage to the forefront of national discourse.
Gay Marriage and Social Change in the U.S.
The United States is a country with a social structure designed for change. In a rapidly shifting society, with a highly literate and technologically connected population, ideas quickly evolve. The acceptance of gay marriage by both the Washington National Cathedral and the Marines illustrates the nature of our social design.
Sociology Guide. Factors of Change. (2011). Accessed January 12, 2013.
Sodomy Laws. Sodomy Laws in the United States. (2007). Accessed January 12, 2013.
Sumner, William Graham. Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals. Release Date: January 11, 2008 Project Gutenberg. Accessed January 12, 2013.
Theodore W. Adorno: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2003). Accessed January 12, 2013.
Zonkger, B. Famous Church Bells to Ring for Same-sex Couples. (2013). NBC. Accessed January 12, 2013.
Zuchinno, D. Marines Order Clubs on Base to Allow Same-sex Spouses. (2013). Los Angeles Times. Accessed January 12, 2013.
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