A picture of mum, dad and the kids

A History of the Family - A History of the Family
November 15, 1996

Over the past 30 years the historical investigation of family life has become an important area of study. In studying the past, historians have drawn on the conceptual and methodological tools of demography, sociology and social anthropology, but they have also contributed to the conceptual and methodological frameworks of other disciplines as well as to our empirical knowledge of family life. They have taught us much about both the historical specificity and the historical continuity of family forms and ideologies, and about the relationship between industrialisation, capitalism, patriarchy and family change.

A History of the Family, first published in France in 1986 as Histoire de la Famille, seeks to combine the problematics of history with those of social anthropology, a discipline that has conventionally placed kinship at the centre of its analysis and used kinship and family bonds as a means of unravelling the social structures of a given society.

Volume one deals with the family structures of prehistory and antiquity, Europe in the dark and Middle Ages and the ancient civilisations of the Far East and Arab Islam. Its theme is the development of family forms over long periods of time.

Volume two deals with family relationships in early modern Europe, in "other worlds" (colonial South and Central America and modern China, Japan, India, Africa and "Arabia"), and in 19th-century and/or 20th-century western industrial societies (northwestern Europe as well as central and eastern Europe and the United States). Its theme is the impact of modernity on "the family".

This book is remarkable for its time span and geographical coverage. It seeks neither to provide an encyclopedic and comprehensive survey of family structures nor to create a continuous narrative with its own chronology, but to select key historical periods for review and to highlight what the study of transformations in family relationships can contribute to our knowledge of a given society and what each period of history can add to our understanding of "the family". Its central methodological assumption seems to be that family forms must be understood in the context of their own past and of the experience of other societies.

Judgements as to the success of this ambitious endeavour are likely to vary, depending on the reader's expectations, theoretical and ideological perspectives, favoured methodologies and expertise. Experts in a particular historical period will find little that is new or original in the discussions of their own period. Moreover, some periods/societies are less readily dealt with than others. Thus some chapters cover so vast a time span and geographical area, deal with periods of history that are so distant and for which there is so little data, and/or necessarily spend so much time delineating the historical and social context that their account of family transformations is inevitably rather general.

However, many of the contributors to these volumes provide succinct and skilful overviews and syntheses of family relationships in their chosen period, syntheses that expert as well as novice readers (whatever their disciplinary background) will find useful and stimulating. For instance, Andre Burgui re and Francoise Lebrun`s discussion of "the 101 families of Europe" in the early modern period (volume two) is a rich and tightly argued account of the interconnections between the socioeconomic and demographic transformations of the period and change and variation in patterns of marriage, inheritance, household formation, gender divisions and family organisation. Again Claude Masset's discussion of the prehistory of "the family" (volume one) provides an incisive analysis of the limitations of some early theories of the origins of family organisation, of the constraints prehistoric human groups can reasonably be supposed to have experienced and on the basis of which we can speculate about their family forms, and of available data sources and their interpretation.

This history of family life is essentially descriptive. Even so, some themes emerge. Evolutionary theses are decisively rejected. The diversity and constantly changing nature of family structures is insisted upon. Family forms are always contextualised so that interrelationships between patterns of marriage, reproduction, kinship, inheritance and gender relations on the one hand and economic, political and demographic conditions on the other, are extensively demonstrated. That the incest taboo, and its corollary exogamy, and the establishment of relationships between groups, is the foundation of family structures is an argument that recurs.

Taken as a whole, these volumes provide a broad but informative overview of the rich diversity and constantly changing nature of family organisation, particularly for Europe, which is more extensively dealt with than other societies. Importantly, these volumes show not simply that the nuclear family is one of a variety of ways of organising sexual, parental and gender relationships, but that the nuclear family itself is a supple structure. It can and does embrace a variety of marital, parental and gender arrangements.

The editors, in their concluding chapter, address the question: what next? They draw parallels between modern reproductive technologies and age-old practices such as adoption, the gift of a child, multiple marriages, unions in the name of a dead man or a different man or woman and the clandestine procreation of illegitimate children.

These practices, like the new reproductive technologies, they argue, are designed to resolve the problem of sterility or of childlessness in the face of early death; both are expressions of a desire to reproduce ourselves and to secure some sort of immortality through our descendants. The editors will undermine the incest taboo, play havoc with descent relationships between the generations and with the ties of kinship and parenthood and thus bring about the end of the family. At the same time, they point to tendencies such as emphases on the benefits of the osmosis between mother and baby during pregnancy, the apparent strengthening of parental and grandparental bonds and the fantasy-ridden search for ancestral roots that is sometimes a response to migration and dispersion, and ask whether the end of "the family" can indeed be assumed to be at hand.

This history of family organisation has a useful glossary and is illustrated by some delightful engravings, paintings and photographs of family life. The excellent translation provides a crisp and clear text.

Faith R. Elliot is seniorlecturer in sociology, Coventry University.

A History of the Family: Volume One: Distant Worlds, Ancient Worlds

Editor - Andre Burguiere, Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, Martine Segalen and Francoise Zonabend
ISBN - 0 7456 0634 2
Publisher - Polity
Price - £35.00
Pages - 450

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