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

It is not clear, however, that such kinship studies have really changed our thinking about the family. Does anyone argue that kinship plays the same role in modern life as it played in societies where kinship was the very basis of social organization? Anderson himself concedes that the importance of kinship ties declined in the twentieth century, if not before.

A second group of studies challenges the “presumed view” not by documenting the survival of the extended family but, on the contrary, by attempting to prove that the history of the isolated nuclear family runs far back into the past. According to this work, the nuclear or conjugal family established itself as the dominant type in a much earlier period of American and European history than is commonly supposed. In a demographic study of a seventeenth-century Rhode Island town, John Demos attempts to refute the “venerable popular folklore” according to which “the colonial family was, initially at least, ‘extended’ rather than ‘nuclear.’ “4 His study of seventeenth-century Plymouth, A Little Commonwealth, argues along similar lines. Philip Greven’s analysis of Andover, Massachusetts, argues that newly married couples were expected to establish separate households of their own.

All these works owe a considerable debt to the methods of “family reconstitution” perfected in England by Peter Laslett, the principal advocate of the preindustrial origins of the nuclear family. Laslett and his colleagues in the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure have examined parish registers, which enumerate a given population by household, and in this way calculated the average size of households in scattered villages at scattered intervals in time. The World We Have Lost was intended to serve as an “introductory essay” for the new historical sociology and perhaps also as an advertisement for it. In it Laslett found that although many households contained servants, the average household “was relatively small.” When a son married “he left the family of his parents and started a family of his own.” Since land was scarce, he pointed out, this rule meant that most people married late, contrary to the popular “delusion,” based on Shakespeare’s plays and other literary sources, that marriage in preindustrial society took place at an early age. George C. Homans had already come to similar conclusions in his study of thirteenth-century English villagers. Subsequent research, Laslett argues in a recent essay (republished in Gordon’s collection), has strengthened the view that “the movement in the direction of [the] ‘conjugal family’ occurred well before the Industrial Revolution.”

This line of argument only makes the emergence of the nuclear family a precondition rather than a product of industrialization—more generally, the precondition of Europe’s restless energy, its dynamism, its overseas expansion. The writings of Marc Bloch on feudal society, Philippe Ariès on childhood, and more recently Richard Goldthwaite on the emergence of the nuclear family and “privatization” in fifteenth-century Florence all trace a gradual shift from kinship or lineage to the inward-turning conjugal unit, although these historians date that shift at different points in history.5 Their work, like that of Laslett and his followers, can be assimilated without difficulty to the model of progressive nucleation.

However, as the origins of the nuclear family recede into the distant past, we lose sight of the connections between family history and the rest of history. If “modernization” can be dated from the fifteenth century, or even earlier, the concept loses its historical specificity. We can no longer identify or explain the changes in family life that took place between the time of Luther, say, and the time of Benjamin Franklin; nor can we explain how those changes reflected and influenced changes in the quality of religious experience, in attitudes toward political authority, and in the organization of production. If we confine ourselves, on the other hand, to the study of short-term changes, we deprive ourselves of any long-range perspective from which to view them. We can show, for instance, how the family expands and contracts in response to immediate economic influences, even in the course of a single generation; but we cannot understand the larger social meaning of those fluctuations.

A third group of investigations challenges not only the theory of progressive nucleation but, by implication, all general models of family history. In a study of Austrian peasants, Lutz Berkner maintains that Laslett found a preponderance of nuclear families in preindustrial society only because he failed to take account of the family’s life cycle over several generations. In a rural society where the eldest son, his wife, and his children lived in the household of his parents, a given family remained extended until the parents’ death, when it reverted to the nuclear form. Most families went through extended and nuclear phases, an alternation hidden from demographic historians who rely merely on periodic samplings of a given population and confuse family types with “phases in the developmental cycle of a single family organization.”

Indeed, the early medieval family, according to David Herlihy, evolved from a nuclear to an extended form, instead of the reverse. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Florentine family consolidated and extended its control over property, bringing individual holdings under the common control of the extended family (consorteria). In the eighth and ninth centuries, extended families of this kind were nowhere to be found, whereas a few centuries later they had become the norm, at least in the mercantile class. “We find, in other words, not a progressive nuclearization, but a progressive consolidation, of the family in the eleventh century. The great households, which play so large a role in Italian history in the central Middle Ages, do not seem, in other words, to represent survivals from much distant times.”6

Georges Duby has argued along the same lines in his impressive study of the aristocracy of the Mâconnaise region in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Rejecting the view that sees a linear progression from extended to nuclear families, he claims that the family expands and contracts, consolidates and relaxes, in response to immediate political and economic changes. The family of the tenth century was “to every appearance a unit reduced to the simplest expression, the conjugal cell.” In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a process of expansion and consolidation took place—in Duby’s words, a “tightening of family ties.” Like Herlihy, Duby attributes this tightening to a desire to maintain family holdings intact: an older “individualism” now gave way to a determination to pass on the family holding undivided.7

These accounts, convincing in themselves, appear to leave us with a cyclical view of history that has to be rejected. “Modernization” was an unprecedented event, and changes in family life presumably accompanied it. Yet a cyclical interpretation can explain those changes only as variations on an age-old theme. Even if it improves our understanding of medieval history, which suffers from the tendency to see medieval Europe as a “traditional” society, undifferentiated and unchanging, a cyclical explanation tells us nothing about the larger movements of history or about the emergence of the “modern” family. The appropriate alternative to a cyclical view, however, is not a unilineal theory of the past; it is a dialectical theory.

The “Modernization” of Family Structure

Such historical studies of family structure, which apparently leave the underlying issues as confused as ever, might appear to justify a radical skepticism about all attempts to generalize, a retreat into purely empirical analysis in the hope that accumulation of facts will eventually produce reliable generalizations. This is a vain hope. No one would deny the need for more empirical studies, but facts do not automatically generate theory. Meanwhile theoretical assumptions, all the more if implicit and unexamined, determine the selection and interpretation of facts, and instead of guiding empirical work, tyrannize over it, dictating in advance the outcome of investigations that ostensibly aim to uncover new facts.

Now that industrialism has begun to recede as the decisive influence in the transformation of the family, a number of assumptions about modernization have begun to dominate social history. A much looser concept, modernization commends itself to historians precisely because it enables them to gloss over the difficulties empirical research has exposed while still providing a needed organizational framework.

William J. Goode’s World Revolution and Family Patterns, a sociologist’s book (originally published in 1963) that has had a strong influence on historians, was one of the first to substitute modernization for industrialism as the principal agent of changes in family structure. Goode does not question the accepted sociological wisdom that there is a “close fit” between industrialism and the nuclear family, but he argues that the rise of the nuclear family precedes industrialism instead of following it. The extended family retards industrialism, according to Goode, by pooling the family’s resources and discouraging individual initiative, and the modernization of social and economic life depends in part on the supersession of this primitive institution.

In Goode’s scheme, the decline of extended kinship structures, rising age at marriage, and a decrease in parental control over courtship characterize the modernization of the family. The weakening of the kinship group forces the individual to become more mobile and enterprising. The rule that people should not marry before they are adults provides them with a long period of training and enables young men to avoid the economic encumbrance of marriage until they have found places in the industrial system.

Feminism, another element in the transformation of the family, frees women from traditional restrictions on their activity. “The ideology of the conjugal family,” as Goode calls it, appeals mainly to “the young, to women, and to the educated.” He argues that these groups are now importing that that ideology into Asia, Africa, and Latin America, laying the groundwork for industrialism. In the West, modernization began much earlier, and “earlier changes in the Western family system, beginning perhaps with the seventeenth century, may have made the transition to industrialization easier than in other cultures.”

At first glance, “modernization” appears to be a useful concept. It recognizes the importance of the social, cultural, and political upheavals that accompanied or preceded the industrial revolution in Western Europe. It helps to clarify the connection between the history of the family and other parts of social history, whether or not we agree that “the individuation and isolation of the nuclear family,” as the sociologist Neil Smelser maintains, were the “most fundamental” of the social changes associated with industrialism.8

Unfortunately most students of modernization do not content themselves with these modest accomplishments. Instead they treat modernization as “a multifaceted process involving changes in all areas of human thought and activity”—a “systemic” process that “reappears,” moreover, “in virtually all modernizing societies on all continents of the world, regardless of variations in race, color, creed.”9

Once modernization is defined as a “systemic” process, moreover, it is easy to forget its European origins and to apply it to the rest of the world. In the course of this expansion, modernization comes to be regarded as an inexorable force that affects all peoples in the same way. Even when theorists of development concede that “there is no straight and easy road” to modernity, they assume that modernity is the destination. Some nations may have farther to go than others, but all will arrive there eventually. “In the long run…we shall all be affluent.” Economic equality, another “inevitable result of economic development,” lies ahead for the citizens of all nations. Similarly political “integration”—the incorporation of all men and women into the political order, the decline of class and racial conflict, and consensus (the end of ideology) can be glimpsed at “the end of the road.”

Modernization theory thus glorifies Western “postindustrial” society as the prototype of the future. It brushes aside the turmoil and pain of the present as a mere incident of “transition” and reduces the disparities between rich and poor nations, the ideological conflict between capitalism and socialism, and other national differences to stages of economic development.

For reasons that are easy to grasp, modernization theory flourished at the height of the cold war. As the conflict between capitalism and communism shifted from Europe to the “Third World,” Western intellectuals devised an interpretation of economic development that enlisted historical inevitability on their own side—a “noncommunist manifesto,” in the words of Walt W. Rostow. By treating the inertia of “traditional society” as the chief obstacle to modernization, they minimized the role of Western colonialism in perpetuating backwardness. In spite of their ostensible commitment to “multicausal” explanations, they singled out ideology as the “crucial crystallizing variable” in promoting change. Thus in his study of the family, Goode attributes irresistible appeal to the ideology of the conjugal family, which “proclaims the right of the individual” to choose a marriage partner, to live where he wants to live instead of with his kin, and to get a divorce if marriage fails to bring happiness.

Daniel Lerner credits mass communications with instilling “empathy” in the native—the “capacity for identification with new aspects of his environment.” By emphasizing such ideas and forms of education, the cold war theory of development identified native elites as the most progressive force in undeveloped countries and thus provided the perfect rationalization for a foreign policy that sought to perpetuate colonialism in the form of “tutelary democracy.”

The so-called modernizing elites have failed to live up to expectations. Instead of undertaking land reforms, eliminating corruption and favoritism, improving education, and checking population growth in countries where population threatens to outrun the food supply, they have, with few exceptions, consolidated their own power, raised their friends and families to high office, thrown their enemies into jail, and ruled by the sword. One after another, “tutelary” regimes that were expected to provide an enlightened alternative to communism—to list only the more obvious examples, those of Rhee, Diem, and Indira Gandhi—have proved incapable of instituting large-scale and fundamental reforms, if indeed that was ever their intention, and have become dictatorships instead. Recent events have made the optimistic assumptions of the Fifties and early Sixties untenable. The gap between rich and poor nations has widened, and there is less and less reason to think that it can be closed without a global upheaval.

Parliamentary democracy no longer appears to be the goal toward which the rest of the world is inevitably progressing; even in the West its future is uncertain. The ideology of modernity has proved less attractive than expected, and in any case it is powerless to overcome intractable economic obstacles to development. On the other hand we have seen that some of those “modernizing elites” who have identified themselves with popular revolutions have fulfilled their appointed role; and the history of those revolutions shows that countries like Vietnam and China can adopt Western technology without Western political and social systems or even Western styles of warfare. So much for the “systemic” character of modernization.

Although most of its underlying assumptions have been discredited, the theory of modernization has nevertheless survived, especially among social historians, because it appears to explain the European past even if it no longer provides a reliable prediction of the Asian future. Historians of the family, chronically in need of ideas, have embraced the concept of modernization just when it is coming under criticism from the social sciences. Michael Gordon introduces his collection: “If the book has a unifying theme,…it can be found in the concept of modernization.” Daniel Scott Smith begins an article on the history of courtship by suggesting that “the central conceptual issue in the sociology of the family is the relationship of modernization to family structure.”10 Weinstein and Platt conclude their study with a discussion of “universal reactions to modernization.” Shorter’s book analyzes “the changes in intimate life that modernization fosters, which are essentially the same everywhere.”

Such statements could be multiplied almost indefinitely. The frequency with which they are repeated indicates that, in spite of continual reminders that data are still too scarce for generalizations, the direction of research in family history is likely to be shaped by a general consensus about the impact of “modernization” on the family.

This view assumes that domestic arrangements prevailing in earlier periods of European history resemble those now prevailing in the “traditional” societies of Africa and Asia. Goode, whose book in many ways serves to strengthen this assumption, explicitly warns against it. European history, he points out, lacks strong traditions of ancestor worship, joint family control of property, child marriage, and sexual segregation, and “we cannot, then, view non-Western family systems as basically similar to the Western systems at some undefined earlier phase just before industrialization. In fact, their differences extend for centuries back into time.” “For the past one thousand years, the Western family systems have been very different from those in China, India, Japan, and the Arab countries.” Yet it is difficult to reconcile these statements with Goode’s insistence on the “fit” between industrialism and the small family system, unless we date the beginnings of Western industrialism from the tenth century. We can hardly avoid the conclusion, therefore, that the spread of the “ideology of the conjugal family” in Asia today duplicates what must have happened in preindustrial Europe.

Paradise Regained

When we turn to the history of pre-industrial Europe, however, we find that recent students of the family have failed to clarify its role. They have disposed of “the large and extended household of an earlier nonindustrial world,” as Peter Laslett calls it, only to replace it with a picture of the “nonindustrial world” that still bears a close resemblance to the one they have disavowed—and to the one that figures in discussions of “modernization.”

The book that did most to call into question the myth of the pre-industrial extended family, The World We Have Lost, inadvertently revived the concept of Gemeinshaft. Laslett shows that most families in pre-industrial societies were small but that most people nevertheless lived in large households, since the children of the poor lived as servants in the houses of the rich. Because of low life expectancy, children made up almost half the population and were constantly underfoot, even in the smaller families of the poor. “We must imagine our ancestors, therefore, in the perpetual presence of their young offspring”; “the perpetual distraction of childish noise and talk must have affected everyone almost all the time.”

The World We Have Lost contains many warnings against the tendency to exaggerate the differences between traditional and modern society and “to think too readily in terms of watersheds” like industrialization. On the whole, however, the book reinforces this way of thinking. It depicts preindustrial society as patriarchal, family-centered, and politically stable. It stresses the lack of individualism: “people came not as individuals, but as families.” It argues that industrialism “transformed” family life. Even Laslett’s title, by evoking a social order now irrevocably lost, oddly undercuts the intention to discredit “the extended family of Western nostalgia.” The extended family does indeed disappear, along with the belief that most people married young; but the large, promiscuous household remains. Preindustrial society, moreover, knew neither revolution nor class conflict, according to Laslett. Since work took place in the family, the modern split between work and home could not develop. Life revolved around the family, which overshadowed the individual. European society remained patriarchal

right up to the coming of the factories, the offices and the rest. European patriarchalism, we may notice, was of a rather surprising kind, for it was marked by the independence of the nuclear family, man, wife and children, not by the extended family of relatives living together in a group of several generations under the same patriarchal head. Yet society was patriarchal, nevertheless, right up to the time of industrial transformation: it can now no longer be said to be patriarchal at all, except vestigially and in its emotional predisposition.

The coming of industry removed work from the home, and the collapse of the patriarchal family “opened wide the social gulf,” and “created a mass society” of “undifferentiated equals.” Alienation entered the world. “Time was when the whole of life went forward in the family, in a circle of loved, familiar faces, known and fondled objects, all to human size. That time has gone forever.”

Compared with the unprecedented upheaval of industrialism—strictly speaking, the breakup of the patriarchal family—other changes in history, Laslett argues, are no more than minor shocks, landslides to an earthquake. “Capitalism, the rise of the bourgeoisie, and so on” appear as mere incidents in the collapse of patriarchal or traditional society. The Marxist division of history into ancient, feudal, and bourgeois epochs yields to a sharper division. “The time has now come to divide our European past in a simpler way with industrialization as the point of critical change.” Thus Laslett restates, as if it were the latest historical discovery, the ancient sociological tradition that substitutes for historical analysis distinctions between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, status and contract, tradition and modernity—mummified abstractions into which social historians now attempt to breathe life with the aid of yet another lifeless abstraction: “patriarchal society.”

Few scholarly enterprises could be more misguided than a social history based on conceptions that arose in the first place out of a poverty of historical thought. In its eagerness to abandon “traditional methods,” the new social history has sometimes abandoned elementary principles of historical judgment. Thus Laslett’s attempt “to divide our European past in a simpler way” leads him to argue that it is “inappropriate” to treat the English Civil War as a revolution, since it did not affect the structure of the family—a misreading of the seventeenth century (and incidentally of the history of the family) for which he has already been criticized.11

Since publishing The World We Have Lost, Laslett has given up such sweeping claims and confined himself to smaller studies, most of which are intended to refute “the idea that large familial groups ought to have been characteristic of the past.” The retreat from bolder formulations makes his work more reliable, but it also robs it of significance. If the nuclear family has prevailed throughout English history, and if departures from the nuclear family must be explained “as the fortuitous outcomes of demographical eventualities and economic conveniences,” as Laslett now argues, changes in family size can no longer be regarded as an important historical issue. After fifteen years of laborious investigation into the structure of households, Laslett and his coworkers have succeeded only in establishing the unimportance of the question to which they have devoted most of their attention.

In a second article, I will discuss a more promising approach to family history, one that tries to link changes in family structure to changes in personality.

(This is the first in a series of articles.)

This Issue

November 13, 1975