The Wish to Be Free: Society, Psyche, and Value Change
In the first of these articles (NYR, Nov. 13, 1975), I reviewed a number of studies that attempt to establish the size of the average household at various periods in history and to trace changes in household size and family structure. The controversy about the emergence of the nuclear family, which has inspired most of these researches, remains inconclusive in spite of them. Even if we accept the finding that the nuclear family prevailed in many areas of Western Europe, long before the industrial revolution, it is still not clear what we should make of this information. It is not even clear that the information is of any importance. If the structure of the family persisted essentially unchanged, through centuries of economic and political upheaval, changes in family structure can no longer be regarded as an accurate reflection of other social changes. The more we learn about the size and composition of the household of the past, the more the significance of these statistical studies recedes.
The study of family structure is of no importance unless it can be shown that an extended family—a household containing two or more conjugal units—“creates…a radically different set of emotional arrangements” from the ones fostered by a nuclear family.1 The attempt to quantify the history of the family by fastening on the most easily quantifiable part of its history, changes in the size of the household, reveals the limitations of a purely statistical approach. Without giving it up, scholars need to turn to more interesting issues, the ones that presumably drew them to the study of the family in the first place. In particular they need to study changes in emotional life and character structure, the contribution of the family to those changes, and their relation to changes in the organization of political and economic activity.
Recent studies have begun, however tentatively, to address these issues. Investigations of childhood and child-rearing, although based on psychological theories that are themselves open to question, have examined shifting patters of socialization. Some of the recent contributions to the history of women have shed light on changes in modes of thought and feeling and the family’s role in bringing them about. These issues are most directly addressed, however, in the synthetic works by Edward Shorter2 and by Fred Weinstein and Gerald Platt. Without these ambitious interpretations of the history of personal life, the field of family history would be even more of a shambles than it is. Whatever can be said against them—and a great deal will be said against them here—they raise the central questions with which historians of the family must henceforth contend.
The Wish to Be Free, the product of a collaboration between a historian and a sociologist, is a more elegant and probing work than any of the others under consideration. It does not come out of the “new social history” but out of Parsonian sociology, and it has all the virtues as well as the defects of the tradition…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.