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History of Family

The historical study of the family is generally regarded as a subfield of social history whose particular focus is the ways in which families live out histories of their own while participating actively in the larger arenas of national and international history. There is ultimately little historical space that family does not impinge upon. Family history, consequently, takes in such subjects and approaches as demography and household composition; childhood and other life stages; the life course; the family economy; family strategies, traditions and rituals; gender, class, race and generational relations; kinship; sexuality; and the varied forms of domesticity. Any adequate historical understanding of family must acknowledge its central role in social and political as well as personal relationships, in societal as well as biological reproduction. Although regularly classified as a natural or biological unit, the family is also very much a social construction. Despite its seemingly transhistorical elements, its meaning is grounded in specific cultures and their historical objectives.

Borrowing from the social sciences, historians use the term family to describe a kinship and legal unit based on relationships of marriage or biology (parent-child linkages). Household refers to a residential unit, and also to both kin and nonkin who share that residence. The nuclear or conjugal family is composed of a heterosexual marital couple and their dependent children, living in an independent household. Extended families are usually multigenerational, and include kin related by blood as well as by marriage. Even in using such definitions, historians are mindful that most people define family subjectively, according to their own experiences and the historical forces that have shaped them. Social groups also vary in conceptualizing family. Some trace descent through the paternal or maternal line; others give more weight to horizontal ties of kinship, as acquired through marriage, than to these vertical ones. If we tend to refer frequently and without particular reflection to the family, history shows that there are many identifiable forms of family in any culture, in any historical moment.

Given the varied meanings of family, finding ways to approach families historically is a complicated exercise. The development of family sociology did much to prepare the way for family history. By the second half of the nineteenth century, a consciously "scientific" approach to families was taking shape under the auspices of a developing European social science, influenced particularly by the ideas of Frédéric LePlay (1806–82) and the Société d'Economie Sociale de Paris (Howard 1981). LePlay posited that the family was not only the foundation, but the determining element of all social organization. Fuelled by a perceived "crisis in the family" that was seen to result directly from the rapid, intensive sociocultural change occurring in the wake of modernizing forces, European and North American social scientists began to probe the family's role in, and responses to, modernization (Lasch 1977). Early twentieth century attempts to historicize the family were thus produced by sociologists: Arthur W. Calhoun's three-volume History of the American Family (1919), for example, closely aligns familial change with economic change. During the 1920s, University of Chicago sociologists Robert Parks and Ernest Burgess devised a theory of family as process that emphasized a dialectical relationship between family. Their interactionist approach allowed for a range of stable family types, each relating in different ways to the larger society, with the nuclear family found to be most suited to the industrial capitalist order. Reinforcing the connections between familial and structural change, the functionalist model furthered by Chicago's Talcott Parsons during the 1940s and 1950s would dominate sociological ideas about the family for some thirty years (Howard 1981).

Although clearly an important research subject for early twentieth-century sociologists, family history became a distinct and acknowledged field of historical inquiry only during the 1960s, with the continued refinements to the "new social history" that emerged in that decade. Historians dedicated to recovering the experiences of common people invariably hit upon the bedrock of family, so embedded are all other social relations in those of domesticity. Initially, the surest way across the threshold of private homes appeared to be quantitative. French historical demographers such as Louis Henry and the Annales group working out of the Institut National des Etudes Démographiques devised a family reconstitution technique that would provide an enduring basis for family history. In England, the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, established in l964 under the direction of Peter Laslett, used these tools to demonstrate that "the great family of Western nostalgia"—the three-generation household— was never more than a tiny minority in Western Europe since the sixteenth century, and that the nuclear or conjugal unit had actually preceded industrialization. This path-breaking work led to new questions about standard historical periodization and about the wider social impact of industrialization, especially in regard to demographic patterns (Laslett 1965; Wrigley 1966; Henry 1968; Laslett and Wall 1972; Rabb and Rotberg 1973; Katz 1975; Forster and Ranum 1976). Historians of Europe introduced the concept of proto-industrialization to explain how families prepared their members for factory labor through a transitional phase of household production in which they participated as laboring units (Mendels 1972). Reflecting this interdisciplinary exchange, the principal questions of early family history were those that lent themselves to numerical answers and were posed with a view to understanding the impact of structural change on families. The demographic approach has greatly expanded our knowledge about such important trends as declining family size and mortality rates, increasing childhood dependence, and the timing of life stages.

Building on these demographic foundations, a second group of family historians developed a more dynamic, relational approach by studying the life course of families. Life-course historians are concerned with the relationship between the life stages of individual family members and the larger family cycle. Family decisions and actions are viewed as adaptations to the changing ages and roles of members, and also to external social, economic, and political pressures. The community studies of the U.S. historian Tamara Hareven, which examine the intersections of family time and industrial time, identified the family as an active agent of change, and also the continued importance of kinship ties as adaptive strategies (Hareven 1978, 1982, 2000). Frequently used in combination with life-course analysis, the family strategies approach considers how families use their familial and kin resources to deal with their own needs and objectives as well as those imposed upon them by their society and culture. Life-course historians attend to the ways in which family members follow their own paths, but these individual life histories are examined as they converge with larger histories: those of the family itself, as well as those of generations, communities, regions, and nations. By getting a sense of how much or how little the phases of the life course have changed over time, historians can identify such developments as the increasing systematization of the life course itself over the twentieth century (Hareven 1977; Elder 1978; Modell 1989; Bradbury 1993).

Life-course analysis has been especially effective in historical studies on women and gender. Examinations of women's contributions to the family economy revealed the carryover of gender-typed labor from proto-industrial households into the factory and the sociopolitical realm, as demonstrated by Louise Tilly and Joan Wallach Scott in their seminal work in this area (Tilly and Scott 1978; Hudson and Lee 1990; Parr 1990; Zarnowska 1997). If their power was always kept within the sociocultural, economic, legal and political confines established by men, women have historically been the primary agents of familial adaptation to the forces of change (Hall 1992; Rose 1992). The sentiments or emotions approach to family history is perhaps methodologically closer to the history of ideas than to the social sciences (Anderson 1980). Highlighting sociocultural values, expectations, images and roles assigned to the family and its members, its practitioners study such topics as courtship, childrearing, sexual conduct, marriage practices, media and literary representations, social constructs and public discourses. They aim to reconstruct the complex and often contradictory aspects of family life and relations, and to integrate the study of individuals and families with the broader sociocultural phenomena grounding their experiences. Philippe Ariès' seminal work has been criticized for inferring broad patterns from a narrow upper-class source base, but his Centuries of Childhood (1962), which located an overall shift in societal perceptions of children in seventeenth century Europe, inspired an international scholarly interest in private lives and the emotional ties of family (Ariès 1962; Demos 1970; Stone 1977; Shorter and Sutherland 1976; Pollock 1987). Ariès also edited and contributed to the important multi-volume A History of Private Life (Ariès and Duby 1987–91). Once it was recognized that childhood is specific to time and place, age joined the identifying categories of class, gender, and race that historians could no longer overlook in their forays into past societies.

Social reproduction and state formation are related issues that have recently interested family historians. The family is not only the main location of biologically and legally defined relationships between men and women, adults and children, but also where private and public spheres intersect. Families replicate values and belief systems, forging the links between personal identity and social role, individuals and society, home and nation. During the twentieth century, the state has increasingly regulated and supervised their efforts toward these ends. The French social theorist Jacques Donzelot's The Policing of Families (1979) is a landmark study in this regard. Inspired by the theories of Michel Foucault on the increasing moral regulation of modern society, Donzelot situated the nineteenth-century European family within an international context of shifting sociopolitical relations (Donzelot 1979). Other historians interested in the state's growing role in social reproduction have looked to models derived from materialist and feminist theories (Coontz 1988; Skocpol 1992; Seccombe 1993).

As the twentieth century closed, historical analysis reflected the growing importance of post-structuralist concepts and tools of analysis, notably Derridian deconstructive reading, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and Foucault's emphasis on the discourses of power. Foucault's influence has been paramount. Placing power at the center of social relations, he emphasized its compulsory, disciplinary, and exclusionary elements through public discourses. By making language an active element in "constructing" reality, discourse analysis encourages interrogation of concepts long presumed to be timeless, universal, and definitive. Since the family is a multidimensional symbol system, the insights permitted by poststructuralist approaches have been valuable in its historical understanding, especially in regard to the impact on family and familial relations of such identifying marks as those inscribed by class, "race," ethnicity, sexuality, religion, and culture. Just as they differentiate both individual and family experiences, they serve to distinguish the norm. Examinations of the social construction of gender have demonstrated how motherhood developed as a self-conscious vocation within the context of changing feminine roles and prescribed ideals, while work on masculinity has led to critical reappraisals of how masculine roles fit with larger patriarchal structures and the public status ascribed to "breadwinning." "Race" as a social construct is also increasingly significant to studies of the historic relations of family, state, and society (Bederman 1995; Sonbol 1996).

Having contributed much to the wider field of social history by examining private lives in relation to the larger processes of social change—even leading to a critical rethinking of the timing and impact of those processes—family history was healthy and vibrant as the twenty-first century opened. Two major scholarly journals in the English language—Journal of Family History and History of the Family—and an expanding and welcome contribution by historians outside the dominant North American/Western European purview, testify to its continued dynamism (Lardinois 1996; Potthast-Jutkeit 1997; Romero 1997; Wang 2000). While interest in family reconstitution remains strong (Bouchard 1996; Wrigley, Davies, Oeppen, and Schofield 1997), interdisciplinary approaches derived from cultural anthropology have made memory, family "stories," and ritual important keys to family history (Sutherland 1997; Gillis 1997). As Hareven remarked, the field's evolution over the past thirty years has effectively laid the basis for cross-cultural research that promises to bring historians closer to grasping the local, cultural foundations of historic changes and continuities as manifested in "the family" (Hareven 2000; Hareven, Wall, Ehmer, and Cerman 2001).


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Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of Families