The Family: A World History (Student review)

February 28, 2013

Authors: Mary Jo Maynes and Ann Waltner
Edition: First
Publisher: Oxford University Press USA
Pages: 160
Price: £45.00 and £12.99
ISBN: 9780195304763 and 38140

Is a book of just 160 pages able to offer a world history of the family? Well, this one - part of the publisher’s New Oxford World History series - certainly makes a brave attempt. If you would like a thought-provoking, relatively quick read that provides an interesting context for further study of the family in relation to political, cultural, economic, religious or social history, then this book is for you. It is clearly written and accessible, and does not patronise the reader.

Some discussion of attempts at alternatives, for example the kibbutz movement in Israel, would have provided further evidence of the enduring, and often subversive, nature of the institution

Its seven chapters are divided into chronological time periods, each with a different theme. For me, chapter 2, “The birth of the gods: Family in the emergence of religions (to 1000 CE)”, is the weakest and feels rather simplistic in its approach, whereas I found chapter 5, “Families in global markets (1600-1850)”, the most interesting with its highlighting of the interplay between kinship, culture, trade and politics. An epilogue briefly discusses current controversial issues and explores how the institution might develop in the future.

Perhaps provocatively, it promises a “new world history” that is inclusive and global in its exploration of the family over the past 12,000 years. Inevitably, however, its brevity means that there are omissions. There is little or no mention, for example, of Scandinavia or Australia, and although the impact of slavery is discussed at length, it is done mainly within the context of Africa and the colonies, despite slavery’s widespread and ancient history.

The definition of family provided by the authors is broad but some discussion of attempts at alternatives, for example the kibbutz movement in Israel, would have provided further evidence of the enduring, and often subversive, nature of the institution. Having said all this, however, the detail that Mary Jo Maynes and Ann Waltner have included, and the ways in which they have compared and contrasted a wide range of experiences and ideologies, is impressive.

The book is good at highlighting issues of gender and race, which may be a reflection of the authors’ own research interests. Their explorations of the ways in which politics and culture can both define and be defined by the concept of family are also knowledgeable and stimulating. They largely avoid the trap of making unsubstantiated assertions and make good use of primary material in supporting their points. Useful sections on further reading and relevant websites are also included.

Overall, this is an interesting and thought-provoking book that reminds us of the continuing importance and influence of the family throughout global history.

Who is it for?
History undergraduates or those studying gender, race, cultural or related subjects.

Clear layout, logically organised with relevant black and white illustrations.

Would you recommend it?
Yes. It provides an interesting overview for students before they embark on more specialised study.

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