The Family and History

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The Family and History

Historical study of the institution of the family involves:

  • The careful statistical examination of household composition and population changes. In the UK, this is associated with the work of P. Laslett. (Be aware that the family and household are not the same thing. A family does not always live in the same household and most households are not comprised of families).
  • Broad descriptive attempts to chart the emergence of the 'modern' family. Examples include the work of Aries, Shorter and Stone.
  • Specific case studies of how families both in the past and currently have adapted to economic and social change. For example, Anderson.

The study of the family is a good example of the necessary relationship between sociology and history. Only a knowledge of the past can instruct us to changes that occur, patterns that emerge and provide clues as to causation (why change happens).

It was historians, rather than sociologists, who exposed the previously widely held functionalist account of the evolution of the western isolated nuclear family as a necessary adaptation to industrial society as seriously flawed.

Historians also realised that this was essentially a theoretical rather than empirically grounded account.

The basic argument of functionalism is that:

1. Prior to industrialisation, the most common family form in Western Europe was the extended family. (Again, remember that the family and household are not the same thing!)


2. As a result of industrialisation, the extended family form gave way to the nuclear family. (The industrial revolution is seen as the 'great divide' the 'before and after' division of family forms - Morgan).

3. The nuclear family represents an adaptation to industrial society.

What follows is mainly a criticism of the functionalist position. The functionalist position is, for the most part, clearly untenable, it is theory divorced from close scrutiny of available information - it is armchair theorizing.

Peter Laslett

Laslett studied family size and composition in pre-industrial England. From 1564-1821, he found that only about 10% of households contained kin beyond the nuclear family. This is the same percentage as for England in 1966. Laslett found no evidence to support the view that the classic extended family was widespread in pre-industrial England. He claims:

"There is no sign of the large extended co-residential family group of the traditional peasant world giving way to the small, nuclear conjugal household of modern industrial society."

It is a distinct possibility that it was not industrialisation that produced the nuclear family, but, the reverse. The nuclear family may have been one of the factors encouraging the development of industrial revolution in England. As the predominant form of family structure, perhaps it was pre-adapted to the requirements of industrial society.

(Then there is the question here of what was cause and what effect).

industrial site

Michael Anderson

Anderson provides evidence that rather weakening kinship ties, industrialisation may have strengthened them. He used data from the 1851 census in Preston. He found that 23% of households contained kin other than the nuclear family. The bulk of co-residence occurred among the poor. He states:

"If we are to understand variations and changes in patterns of kinship relationships, the only worthwhile approach is consciously and explicitly to investigate the manifold advantages and disadvantages that any actor can obtain from maintaining one relational pattern rather than another."

(Very important, Anderson alerts us to the fact that humans are intelligant. Given our predisposition to maximise our advantages we will adapt our behaviour to our cicumstances and adopt the family form that gives us, as individuals and families, gives us the best outcome in terms of well-being).

C. Harris

Harris questions an assumption that functionalists assert, that the family 'fits' society. He considers that the problem can be looked at the other way round. He argues that sociologists have seen the family as the dependent variable, whereas, in contrast, economic historians see the family as the independent variable.

Harris is arguing that the family can change society.

1. Single inheritance systems promoted industrialization. It would appear that the single inheritance system not only provides a mobile labour force and keeps capital in large lumps, but also it provides this labour force with the values of achievement necessary for entrepreneurial activity.

2. Harris also argues that occupational and geographic mobility were not required by early industrialisation. He argues that much of the supposed transfer of population from rural to urban areas was, in fact, the result of differential growth rates, rather than migration. (The adult population of cities were young and thus produced more children than the older adults in rural areas).

3. Harris also argued that since the level of skill required in the first stage of industrialisation was low that there was no need for occupational mobility.

Given this viewpoint Harris believes that it is impossible to argue that the extended family was a prerequisite of industrialization.

J. Flandrin

Flandrin (1979) argues that it is misleading to link one family type with a particular period. He argues that a variety of types exist in any given period. Additionally, any one family will go through various different types over time. Families are constantly changing.

If the functionalist account were accurate what could we expect research to show?

1. Before industrialisation, the vast majority of families were extended in structure.

2. After industrialisation, extended families would disappear.

The first of these claims is clearly inaccurate. There is extensive evidence that nuclear families were extremely common, indeed, numerically the most common family form, in pre-industrial England.

The second claim, that industrialization destroyed extended family structures, is also unsustainable. There is research that clearly demonstrates the existence of extended family structures in industrial societies.

In the UK, the research of Willmott and Young in Bethnal Green, and Bell in Swansea both indicate the vitality of the extended family in Britain during the mid part of this century.

More recently, Peter Willmott has written about the importance of extended families to all of us currently living in the UK. His work is a reminder that families cannot be reduced to membership of the same household. All of us generally acknowledge as family, and associate with kin beyond the parent-child bond.

Willmott reminds us to distinguish between household and family and also between proximity and contact.

Beyond research and theory, think of your own family.

Do you refuse to acknowledge family members who do not live with you?

Do you maintain contact with family members beyond the sibling parent link?

We all have extended families but most of us do not live under the same roof as them.