In 2010, TLC aired a new show called Sister Wives, a television series documenting the life of a polygamist family. The family consisted of one patriarch, Kody Brown, his four wives, and their seventeen children. Family as an institution is one of the oldest and most studied topics in anthropology. Although polygamy is a common practice in some parts of the world, it is neither a culturally normative or legally recognized institution in the United States. Because of this, the Brown family is especially unique. The show sparked a lot of controversy as it showed its American viewers an “unconventional type” of family. I will be using two anthropological theories to analyze the cultural phenomena of Sister Wives.
The first theory, functionalism, studies communities synchronically and how the individuals work together to form a whole to provide for mankind’s universal needs. Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn Brown are the four women in the polygamist family. Each woman has a specific role in the family. Janelle has a job and provides for the family financially. She leaves the childcare responsibilities to Christine, the stay-at-home wife. Meri is known for the love and support she has for her sister wives, and Robyn is regarded as the planner for the family. During one episode, Meri Brown stated that she “believed in living this lifestyle. It just [made] each of [them] better.” Functionalism does not account for change and would not address how the family came to be the large polygamist family that they are now. Rather, what is important is that universal needs such as health, bodily comforts, and safety are met. The four wives work in separate ways but come together to support one family and provide for each other’s needs.
Another way to analyze the Brown family is through cultural evolution. It is a theory that places all cultures on a single evolutionary scale ranging from savagery to barbarianism to civilization. This type of theoretical argument utilizes armchair anthropology were no fieldwork is performed and information is simply gathered from second-hand reports. Under this theory, one can watch the television series and read its reviews to assess how much the Brown family has “evolved”. Against the context of the United States’ normative family institutions, an anthropologist could place this polygamist family on a lower status of civilization or even higher status of barbarianism. Although this type of thinking may not seem credible today, in the 19th century, it was considered revolutionary because it regarded all groups as humans. Clearly, however, as time has progressed, mankind has accepted that there are different cultures for different people and these stages of evolutionary development are not as relied upon.
Polygamist families in the United States go against the grain of the standard American view of family as an institution. Anthropologists do not try to change the way things are, but by analyzing families such as the Browns through different theoretical, they try to understand and explain it.
 Sister Wives, TLC Network, aired September 22, 2011, transcript, http://www.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1109/22/ddhln.01.html