Two books on communal societies


FOSTER, LAWRENCE. Religion and Sexuality: Three American Communal Experiments of the Nineteenth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
KERN, LOUIS. An Ordered Love: Sex Roles and Sexuality in Victorian Utopias-the Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981.

With the simultaneous publication of Lawrence Foster’s Religion and Sexuality and Louis Kern’s An Ordered Love, we have an unusual opportunity to compare a single historical subject from two widely differing theoretical perspectives. The subject in this case is the alternative marriage practices of the Mormons, Oneidans, and Shakers in nineteenth-century America. Foster and Kern both attempt to place the respective institutions of polygamy, complex marriage, and celibacy into the wider social and psychological context of Victorian America. While Foster derives his theoretical framework primarily from anthropology, Kern’s analysis depends heavily upon principles of psychoanalysis. In the end, Foster’s analysis does not go far enough while Kern’s goes much too far. This characteristic is as much a reflection on the respective theoretical frameworks as on the scholars themselves.

Foster’s most conscious theoretical influence comes from the work of anthropologist Victor Turner, whose greatest insights have come from his study of peripheral social groups and actions. Because they are out of the mainstream of society, these phenomena (which Turner calls “liminal”) are not constrained by many of the sanctions governing ordinary social life. Liminal phenomena may include events such as a New Year’s Eve celebration or an initiation rite, places such as a monastery or pilgrimage site, people such as hippies or mystics, or periods of time such as the French Revolution or the Hebrew Year of Jubilee. Because they are exceptions to or interruptions of normal social life, liminal phenomena serve as a kind of cultural counterpoint, a mirror of society’s most deep-seated concerns, and can thereby convey truths about a “social drama” not readily apparent to its principal actors.


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