Spotlight on Research: Professor studies marriage equality

Professor of Political Science Darel E. Paul recently published a book examining the influence of elites in legalizing same-sex marriage. Photo courtesy of The Veritas Forum and Baylor University Press.

Living in the Berkshires in the 2000s gave Professor of Political Science Darel E. Paul a front-row seat in witnessing the legalization of same-sex marriage. Amazed by the nation’s unprecedented and rapidly changing cultural attitude toward queer couples, Paul embarked on an eight year-long project to observe and analyze the main change-makers whom he believed to have paved the way for the legalization of same-sex marriage: America’s business and academic elites.

Out this month, Paul’s newest book, From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage, argues that members of the American upper professional class led the cultural change through three primary phenomena: lived experiences of elites, promotion of diversity and the “class(ification) struggle.”

With Massachusetts being the first state to allow gay marriage in 2004 and the College acting as a platform to academically analyze the nation’s evolving position on same-sex marriage, Paul felt that there needed to be a better explanation of the how the nation’s cultural attitude toward queer couples had so rapidly changed. From 2008 – a year after California eliminated the right for same-sex couples to marry through California Proposition 8 – to 2017, Paul researched this very question.

“Being an academic, I couldn’t help but notice that academics, but also, in a larger sense, professionals, were the cultural avant-garde to this movement,” Paul said. But to him, nobody “was trying to answer this very broad question about how American society overall had changed from a social science perspective.”

Existing literature explaining the legalization of same-sex marriage was not convincing for Paul. The “enlightened toleration argument” or the “contact routine hypothesis” – the belief that as more people came into contact with queer people, American society became more accepting of same-sex marriage – did not explain the rise of conservative backlash against same-sex couples. Likewise, legal analyses and philosophical approaches to the question of marriage did not look at the social phenomenon of the same-sex marriage movement to the degree that Paul sought.

It was the elites – the professional, managerial class of doctors, professors, managers, engineers and other higher professionals – on both American coasts that were the “social and geographical locus for change,” Paul argued. “They are the pioneers.”

Paul argues that as the elites laid the foundations for the movement, lower professionals and lower managers of smaller operations expressed positive perspectives on same-sex marriage to the rest of America.

Changing perceptions of family structure also influenced the increasing acceptance of homosexuality. Data from the National Survey of Family Growth asking Americans aged 15 to 44 about their opinions on sexual habits and family practices was informative for Paul. “People’s views on same-sex marriage are a function of their views on marriage, sex and procreation,” he said. 

Additionally, Paul argues that companies and large organizations began to incorporate values of diversity, including acceptance of same-sex couples, which helped spur greater national support for same-sex marriage.

Paul explained that corporations, as the greatest proponents of making same-sex couples “normal,” are “animated by an interesting and unusual phenomenon” of increasing diversity, given that the common conception of capitalist, large-scale companies is that they are more conservative in ideology.

Yet, in the early 2000s, LGBTQ and human rights organizations began to identify corporations as leaders. As proof, after the United States Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision in 2015, many companies immediately showed their support for the ruling on Twitter within the first six to 12 hours. This included companies in the airline, liquor, hotel and technology  industries.

Advertising strategies also played a large role in corporations’ initiatives to promote same-sex marriage. Paul referenced a two-minute advertisement that Tylenol ran in 2016 about what an American family might look like today, which included a family with lesbian parents. The advertisement’s catchphrase was “Family is what you make it out to be.” In another example, Frito-Lay released limited edition rainbow-colored Doritos chips in 2015 to support the cause.

To clarify, however, Paul said that elites are not especially open-minded toward all other social groups compared to the rest of the population. “Elites are not any more tolerant than anybody else,” he said, referencing data collected by the American National Election Studies. “They have more positive opinions toward gay and lesbian [people] than other social classes, but they have more negative opinions towards what’s called in this survey ‘Christian fundamentalists’ than other classes… They’re not more tolerant [than others], just differently tolerant.”

Nevertheless, Paul believes the elites’ tolerance and acceptance of diversity was key to America’s perceptions of same-sex marriage. “Diversity as an ideology [arose] in corporate America at the very same time that elites in particular [began] to change their minds about homosexuality,” he said.

In fact, Paul calls diversity “a managerial ideology,” in that the promotion of certain social groups to elite ranks is an indicator of success. According to this ideology, “managers are essential for the smooth and efficient functioning of a pluralistic society,” he said. And for these “managers,” the best marketing strategy is to use same sex-couples in their advertisements to display an embrace of diversity.

“[Corporations] want to be associated with homosexuality because of its connotations of authenticity, individuality and material success,” Paul said.

That elites were at the forefront of the same-sex marriage movement reaffirms a notion in the social sciences that Paul elaborated upon. “According to managerial ideology, in an increasingly pluralistic society, … you need expert managerial skill to produce social harmony and corporate interests in efficiency and profits,” he said. “Without that expert managerial skill, people won’t be able to cooperate.”

This allowed for changing attitudes toward homosexuality, which resulted in a ripple effect of change in broadening definitions of equality to include same-sex marriage leading up to the Supreme Court’s reinterpretation in 2015, Paul said.

Supporting same-sex marriage was crucial for elites, Paul argues, because pro-normalization of same-sex marriage “[became] part of what it means to be a professional.” This idea is an example of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the “class(ification) struggle,” or how social classes are, fundamentally, practices of cultural distinction.

Paul’s research has implications not only for understanding the causes of same-sex marriage legalization, but also for understanding how America’s cultural landscape is changing.

In his book, Paul said, he does not “try to be a moral philosopher or a legal theorist, but to be a good social scientist.” He strives to observe how certain individuals influence American social issues. And for Paul, examining significant moments in history by observing main actors is important in light of the sociopolitical issues that America faces now and will face in the future.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *