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The Family and History

The American Family in Social-Historical Perspective

edited by Michael Gordon
St. Martin’s Press, 421 pp., $5.95 (paper)

The World We Have Lost

by Peter Laslett
Scribner’s, 325 pp., $3.50 (paper)

World Revolution and Family Patterns

by William J. Goode
Free Press, 444 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Household and Family in Past Time

edited by Peter Laslett, edited by Richard Wall
Cambridge University Press, 623 pp., $9.95 (paper)

The Family in History: Interdisciplinary Essays

edited by Theodore K. Rabb, edited by Robert I. Rotberg
Harper & Row, 240 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Journal of Marriage and the Family

special issue on the history of the family
Vol. 35, no. 3 pp.

The Wish To Be Free: Society, Psyche, and Value Change

by Fred Weinstein, by Gerald M. Platt
University of California Press, 330 pp., $3.85 (paper)

The Making of the Modern Family

by Edward Shorter
Basic Books, 260 pp., $15.00

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 to politics and statecraft. During most of history, in any case, those who might have left records of the everyday life of the masses were illiterate. Only in the last fifteen years have historians begun to penetrate the resulting darkness. Techniques derived from psychology, sociology, and demography can sometimes reveal changes in family structure and even in sentiment, once the scholar knows how to use apparently unpromising information. Changes in the age at which men and women typically marry tell us something about courtship, marriage, and the property relations in which they are enmeshed. Changes in family size, which can be established with some precision, may have emotional repercussions even if literary evidence fails to record them.

If daughters marry in the order of their birth, we can probably conclude that parents retain control of courtship, but if they marry out of order this fact suggests that their own inclinations have become an important consideration in matchmaking. If people marry late, they can resist their parents’ choices in a way that is impossible if they marry as children or adolescents. Hence the discovery that the age at first marriage has remained consistently high throughout much of European history, in contrast to societies where the age at first marriage is consistently low, may tell us a good deal about the growth of individualism and the ideal of romantic love in Western Europe and its colonial dependencies.

History has borrowed from other disciplines the indispensable theory and techniques for study of the family. Psychological theory establishes its importance in socialization and enables us to understand how socialization takes place. Sociology leads us to expect that changes in social organization will be reflected in family life and character. Demography shows us how to compensate for the absence of written records about the daily lives of ordinary people. But neither these disciplines nor social anthropology, which has made such important contributions to the understanding of kinship, provides a theory of historical change; and the absence of such a theory prevents historians of the family from making the best use of the new knowledge at their disposal.

Unfortunately the social sciences in America, sociology in particular, have achieved their successes precisely by renouncing historical speculation and confining themselves to the study of contemporary societies. The sociology of the family contains implicit assumptions about the family’s history, but most of them are misleading, and in any case sociologists seldom take the trouble to examine them. Ignoring historical analysis, they fall back on an ideal typology inherited from the nineteenth-century founders of the discipline and debased rather than refined by endless repetition. The sociological analysis of modern society rests on unexamined contrasts between folk society and urban society, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, culture and civilization. One might have expected social historians to subject these implicitly historical abstractions to critical analysis; instead they have attempted merely to flesh them out with empirical substance, leaving the formulation of conceptual issues to social science even when those issues bear on the interpretation not only of the structure of modern society but of its historical antecedents.

In identifying the distinctive feature of the modern family as its isolation from larger kinship structures, sociology implies that the history of the family should be seen as the decline of the large, extended, patriarchal family and the rise of the nuclear family. According to this interpretation, the small family—husband, wife, and children—is ideally adapted to the requirements of industrial society. As a result of the growing specialization of social and economic functions that has affected every institution, the family has lost its economic, protective, and educational functions and has come to specialize in emotional services. Where as kinship served as the unifying principle of earlier forms of society, the modern social order rests on impersonal, rational, and “universalistic” forms of solidarity. In a competitive and highly mobile society the extended family has no place. The nuclear family, on the other hand, serves industrial society as a necessary refuge. It provides adults with an escape from the competitive pressures of the market, while at the same time it equips the young with the inner resources necessary to master those pressures.1

This sociological conception of the family’s history, although it has never been subjected to historical criticism, has dominated the development of social history in the last fifteen years, a period of enormous growth but little conceptual progress. As we shall see, it has many failings. But with a few exceptions, historical studies of the family have devoted themselves either to changes in the structure of the family—the transition from the extended to the nuclear family—or to the sociological and psychological foundations of “modernization.” These studies assume that modernization requires the substitution of romantic love for arranged marriage; the development of emotional intimacy as opposed to the crowded, promiscuous households of the old regime; a new awareness of the needs of children; and a nonauthoritarian type of socialization in which the child is rewarded with parental love or punished by threats of its withdrawal instead of forced to comply with arbitrary parental dictates.

Even when historical study seems to call these contrasts into question—for example by suggesting that they are too rigid and schematic—historians tend to resist the theoretical implications of their own work. They have suggested how the sociological model of family history might be modified in detail, but they have not questioned the validity of its broader assumptions. Historical scholarship has discredited the cruder version of the sociological model—the theory that extended family structures declined because of industrialization—only to put in its place a modified version of the same theory, namely that the decisive element in the transformation of the family was not industrialism as such but a broader social process called “modernization.”

The only thing to be said for “modernization” as a model of social change is that it serves better than no model at all. As its deficiencies become increasingly obvious, some historians retreat into the obscurantism of pure empiricism, hoping that a theory of the family’s development will somehow emerge from the patient accumulation of monographs. But the only way to formulate a theory of the family—or of anything else—is to subject existing theories to theoretical criticism. Theory, Talcott Parsons has said, tells us what we need to know—a remark whose truth survives the collapse of Parsons’s own system.

The Theory of Progressive Nucleation

Since historians can document changes in the structure of the family more easily than they can analyze its psychological influence on the young or its role in the transmission of culture, they have devoted most of their attention to what one writer calls the “theory of progressive nuclearization.” Ever since William J. Goode called attention to the influence on sociological theory of “the classical family of Western nostalgia,” students of family history have repeatedly attacked the conventional belief that industrialism undermined the extended family.

Their own findings, however, often seem contradictory and narrow. Relying on various types of census data, they have estimated the size and composition of the average household at various points in history. Their work tells us more about residence patterns than about the texture of family life, more about the household than about the family—and more about its formal structure than about the emotional relations within it. These limitations reflect not only the limitations of census data but the inadequacy of the interpretation under attack. The conventional formula regarding the impact of industrialism on the family, which in any case never took the form of a carefully stated scientific hypothesis, directs our attention to issues of peripheral importance. Revisionist studies of household size and composition nevertheless provide the empirical basis on which analysis of family history has to rest.

One group of studies seems to show, for example, that industrialism strengthened kinship ties instead of weakening them. Michael Anderson’s study of Lancashire cotton towns in the middle of the nineteenth century (reprinted in the useful collection edited by Michael Gordon) suggests that the industrial revolution led to “a considerable increase in co-residence of parents and married children.” Recent sociological studies of the United States point to a somewhat similar conclusion, allegedly giving “the coup de grâce to the presumed view that the nuclear family is isolated from kin in modern society.”2 “We must modify our picture of the nuclear family,” a sociologist writes. “It seems not to be nearly so isolated and nuclear as it has been portrayed by some sociologists.” 3

  1. 1

    This view of the sociology of the family, which was already present in the writings of Tönnies, Simmel, and Max Weber, was restated by the Chicago School and then, more elaborately, by Parsons and his followers. See Ernest W. Burgess and Harvey J. Locke, The Family: From Institution to Companionship (American Book Company, 1945); W. F. Ogburn and M. F. Nimkoff, Technology and the Changing Family (Houghton-Mifflin, 1955); Talcott Parsons and Robert F. Bales, Family, Socialization and Interaction Process (Free Press, 1965); S. N. Eisenstadt, From Generation to Generation: Age Groups and Social Structure (Free Press, 1956). The historical implications of this sociology become more explicit only in more recent works, however, notably in the works discussed here.

  2. 2

    Bert N. Adams, “Isolation, Function, and Beyond: American Kinship in the 1960’s,” Journal of Marriage and the Family, vol. 32 (1970), p. 575.

  3. 3

    Frank F. Furstenberg, “Industrialization and the American Family: A Look Backward,” American Sociological Review, vol. 31 (1966), p. 327.

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