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The history of the family, once the province of amateurs and antiquarians, has become an academic industry. The prolonged “crisis” of the modern family, the feminist revival, the growing prestige of the social sciences and the hope that historians can share it have all contributed to the current fascination with the subject. But there is a more important consideration—the possibility that the history of the family provides the missing link between cultural and intellectual history on the one hand and politico-economic history on the other; between the study of culture and the study of social structure, production, and power.
As the chief agency of “socialization,” the family reproduces cultural patterns in the individual. It not only imparts ethical norms, providing the child with his first instruction in the prevailing social rules, it profoundly shapes his character, in ways of which he is not even aware. The family instills modes of thought and action that become habitual. Because of its enormous emotional influence it colors all of a child’s subsequent experience.
The union of love and discipline in the same persons, the mother and father, creates a highly charged environment in which the child learns lessons he will never get over—not necessarily the explicit lessons his parents wish him to master. He develops an unconscious predisposition to act in certain ways and to re-create in later life, in his relations with lovers and authorities, his earliest experiences. Parents first embody love and power, and each of their actions conveys to the child, quite independently of their overt intentions, the injunctions and constraints by means of which society attempts to organize experience. If reproducing culture were simply a matter of formal instruction and discipline, it could be left to the schools. But it also requires that culture be embedded in personality. Socialization makes the individual want to do what he has to do; and the family is the agency to which society entrusts this complex and delicate task.
Of all institutions, the family is the most resistant to change. Given its importance, however, changes in its size and structure, in its emotional organization, and in its relations with the outside world must have enormous impact on the development of personality. Changes in character structure, in turn, accompany or underlie changes in economic and political life. The development of capitalism and the rise of the state reverberate in the individual’s inner being. Ever since Max Weber showed the connections between Protestantism and capitalism, and demonstrated, moreover, that the connections lay at the level not of formal religious doctrine but of “psychological sanctions,” it has been clear that modern civilization requires, among other things, a profound transformation of personality. Study of the family promises to bring to light this secret history.
Even after Weber, Freud, and others had established the theoretical importance of the family, however, its history remained largely inaccessible. People take the humdrum details of daily life for granted and seldom record them with the attention they devote …
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