Understanding Polygamy

One professor’s anthropological deep-dive into polygamy and polyamory aims to build understanding

Despite sharing a first syllable, polyamorists (“lovers of many”) and polygamists (“married to many”)—and those who research the two populations—have functioned mainly in isolation from each other. But not so for Santa Clara adjunct lecturer Michelle Mueller, who began researching both in conjunction years ago.

As an undergraduate active in the Philadelphia LGBTQ scene and alternative religions, Mueller says she was familiar with an assumption many within polyamory held: that polygamy is always oppressive towards women. “I was wanting to investigate those claims of moral superiority,” she says. “I was coming at it from this perspective of, ‘I’m not so sure we in the LGBTQ community are inherently so much better.’”

Last summer, she focused on compiling case studies of the polygamy-side of the coin for a forthcoming book on the relationship between non-monogamy and religion, and portrayals in popular culture. Awarded a Joseph H. Fichter Research Grant, Mueller spent a month on location in north-central Utah interviewing members of various Mormon polygamist communities. She also presented a summary of her findings at the American Sociological Association (ASA) conference in August 2019.

Among the 50 or so polygamist community members she’s spoken with were the families living in Rockland Ranch, the subjects of the British-produced docuseries “Three Wives, One Husband” now on Netflix.

LDS Polygamy Illustration
Illustration from the 1870 book, “Life in Utah; or, the Mysteries and crimes of Mormonism. Being an exposé of the secret rites and ceremonies of the latter-day Saints, etc.” Photo courtesy British Library.

“I went there with my two and a half-year-old and we were houseguests. We had been potty-training at the time and he reverted to diapers that week because he did not want to stop having fun with the other children. They were so hospitable, and very welcoming,” she laughs.

Mueller says she found the people she spoke with to be interested in learning about her beliefs and spirituality, admittedly very different from their own. “They just want people to be part of whatever they want to be part of,” Mueller says. Moreover, most of the families she interviewed—at Rockland Ranch and elsewhere—seemed quite progressive in their views on marriage equality; some women even asserting their status as sister wives to be their “orientation.”

Rockland Ranch
Mueller snapped this photo while staying at Rockland Ranch—a polygamist community outside Moab, Utah, documented on a BBC reality show—during a research trip last summer. Photo by Michelle Mueller.
Michelle Mueller
Michelle Mueller is an adjunct lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies. Her book on the relationship between non-monogamy and religion, and portrayals in popular culture is due out in September. Photo courtesy Michelle Mueller.

This shift could be generational in part, Mueller says, as many of the GenX and younger people she spoke with have lived less “separate from the outside world.” “They live in the world that we all live in and they’ve seen changes in same-sex marriage. And they’re also aware of the media surrounding them,” she says, pointing to the proliferation of reality television shows that have introduced Mormon polygamists as middle-class, often college-educated, and thoroughly modern. These function in opposition to the prairie dresses and the “Short Creek waves” hairstyle of the FLDS polygamist group that became notorious when their leader, Warren Jeffs, was arrested in the mid-2000s on child sex abuse and incest charges.

Whereas many older members spoke of polygamy as a divine calling and a lifestyle that should be lived if given the chance, younger members still spoke of it as a calling but also a personal choice. “What’s changed is that they’ll say it’s not for everybody, it’s a prerogative,” Mueller says.

There’s less righteousness associated with the decision to practice polygamy, in comparison with the people who do not choose to practice it. Younger practitioners no longer feel that the highest realm of heaven is just for people who practice plural marriage.

Mueller says her aim in this anthropological deep-dive into such small populations, as she continues to collect data for her book and conduct interviews, is “to know people in all of their parts. There’s gonna be some stuff that’s less pleasant, but I’m not trying to show what’s so great about polygamists or polyamorists,” she says. Building empathy and understanding is the goal. “I think researchers don’t approach such unique communities, and such stigmatized communities, without being at least a little interested in finding out what the truth is. But it’s not like there’s just one truth. It’s about what’s true for one community and sharing that with the world.”

International Production

From the inaugural Fulbright cohort in 1964 to today, Broncos have been part of the prestigious program and have traveled and studied around the globe.

Bronze Beauty

Timi Sobrato created the untamable bronze Bronco—a piece that is gifted to members of the Founders Society.

Civil Occupation?

In SCU’s Historical Perspectives, Bridget Woody ’20 explored America’s attempts to stigmatize Haitian culture and religion during occupation.

Elbowing Her Way In

Lily Schumacher ’21 explored making beautiful patterns out of her own biology at the prestigious Anderson Ranch Arts fellowship.