Friday, June 22, 2012

The Plausibility Structures Behind Same-Sex Marriage

How has our world got to the point where people even talk about same-sex 'marriage.' For millennia of human history, the institution of marriage has always been understood as being between a man and a woman. Even in cultures where the practice of homosexuality has been widespread, if someone had suggested widening the legal definition of marriage to include same-sex relationships, no one would have taken you seriously. So why now, all of a sudden, are so many states and nations jumping on the bandwagon to make marriage mean something else?

To ask this question is to ask about something called “plausibility structures. The phrase “plausibility structures” was coined by sociologist Peter L. Berger to refer to the conditions in a society that make certain beliefs seem reasonable or unreasonable. Why is it that a proposition which, at one time and place, might seem completely self-evident and not even in need of argument, will seem totally absurd in another time and place? Questions like this force us to be attentive to more than merely what people believe, but the plausibility structures that explain why certain beliefs feel normal.

Peter Berger
To talk about plausibility structures is to talk about the broader sociocultural context in which our understanding of the world (including understandings which may be unconscious) make sense to us and seem plausible in the first place. It is to be attentive to what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has called “a context or framework of the taken-for-granted, which usually remains tacit, and may even be as yet unacknowledged by the agent, because never formulated.” Or, as Peter Berger explained it as follows when discussing the Christian worldview in his book The Sacred Canopy, “The reality of the Christian world depends upon the presence of social structures within which this reality is taken for granted and within which successive generations of individuals are socialized in such a way that this world will be real to them. When this plausibility structure loses its intactness or continuity, the Christian world begins to totter and its reality ceases to impose itself as self-evident truth.”

In our present sociological context, if a journalist were to write an article suggesting that the definition of marriage be widened to include union between persons and animals, few people, if any, would think such a crazy idea was even worth arguing about. But that is exactly the type of reaction that advocates of same-sex marriage would have been greeted with even thirty years ago. What are the plausibility structures that make the former still seem absurd to the ordinary person while the latter increasingly no longer does?


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