The Family World System

The Family World System

The family in the twentieth century.


Few topics of fundamental importance have, at first glance, generated so much numbing literature as the family. The appearance is unjust, but not incomprehensible. For the discrepancy between the vivid existential drama into which virtually every human being is plunged at birth and the generalized statistical pall of demographic surveys and household studies often looks irremediable: as if subjective experience and objective calibration have no meeting point. Anthropological studies of kinship remain the most technical area of the discipline. Images of crushing dullness have been alleviated, but not greatly altered, by popularizations of the past–works like The World We Have Lost (1965) by Peter Laslett, the doyen of Cambridge family reconstruction–fond albums of a time when “the whole of life went forward in the family, in a circle of loved, familiar faces,” within a “one-class society.” The one outstanding contemporary synthesis, William Goode’s World Revolution and Family Patterns (1963), which argued that the model of the Western conjugal family was likely to become universal, since it best fulfilled the needs of industrialization, has never acquired the standing its generosity of scope and spirit deserved. Family studies are certainly no desert. They are densely populated, but much of the terrain forms a featureless plain of functions and numbers stretching away to the horizon, broken only by clumps of sentiment.

Over this landscape, Göran Therborn’s Between Sex and Power rises like a majestic volcano. Throwing up a billowing column of the boldest ideas and arguments, while an awesome lava of evidence flows down its slopes, this is a great work of historical intellect and imagination. It is the fruit of a rare combination of gifts. Trained as a sociologist, Therborn is a highly conceptual thinker, allying the formal rigor of his discipline at its best with a command of a vast range of empirical data. The result is a powerful theoretical structure, supported by a fascinating body of evidence. But it is also a set of macro-narratives that compose perhaps the first true example we possess of a work of global history. Most writing that lays claim to this term, whatever other merits it may display, ventures beyond certain core zones of attention only selectively and patchily. In the case of general histories of the world, of which there are now more than a few, problems of sheer scale alone have dictated strict limits to even the finest enterprises.

Therborn, by contrast, in focusing on just one dimension of existence, develops a map of human changes over time that is faithful to the complexity and diversity of the world in an arrestingly new way, omitting no corner of the planet. Not just every inhabited continent is included in this history; differences between nations or regions within each–from China and Japan to Uruguay and Colombia, north to south India, Gabon to Burkina Faso, Turkey to Persia, Norway to Portugal–are scanned with a discriminating eye. Such ecumenical curiosity is the antithesis of Barrington Moore’s conviction that, in comparative history, only big countries matter. Not surprisingly, the challenge is the attractive product of a small country. Therborn’s sensibility reflects his nationality: In modern times Sweden, situated on the northern margins of Europe, with a population about the size of New Jersey’s, has for the most part been an inconspicuous spectator of world politics. But in the affairs of the family, it has more than once been a pace-setter. That a comparative tour de force on them should be written by a Swede is peculiarly appropriate.

Surveying the world, Therborn distinguishes five major family systems: European (including New World and Pacific settlements), East Asian, sub-Saharan African, West Asian/North African and Subcontinental, with a further two more “interstitial” ones, Southeast Asian and Creole American. Although each of the major systems is the heartland of a distinctive religious or ethical code–Christian, Confucian, Animist, Muslim, Hindu–and the interstitial ones are zones of overlapping codes, the systems themselves form many “geocultures” in which elements of a common history can override contrasts of belief within them. This cultural backdrop lends color and texture to Between Sex and Power. The book’s tone recalls aspects of Eric Hobsbawm, in its crisp judgments and dry wit. While Therborn is necessarily far more statistical in style, something of the same literary and anecdotal liveliness is present too. Amid an abundance of gripping arithmetic, novels and plays, memoirs and marriage ads have their place in the narrative. Most striking of all, in a field so dominated by social or merely technical registers, is the political construction Therborn gives to the history of the family in the twentieth century.

What are the central propositions of the book? All traditional family systems, Therborn argues, have comprised three regimes: of patriarchy, marriage and fertility (crudely summarized–who calls the shots in the family, how people hitch up, how many kids result). Between Sex and Power sets out to trace the modern history of each. For Therborn patriarchy is male family power, typically invested in fathers and husbands, not the subordination of or discrimination against women in general–gender inequality being a broader phenomenon. At the beginning of his story, around 1900, patriarchy in this classical sense was a universal pattern, albeit with uneven gradations. In Europe, the French Revolution had failed to challenge it, issuing in the ferocious family clauses of the Napoleonic Code, while subsequent industrial capitalism–in North America as in Europe–relied no less on patriarchal norms as a sheet anchor of moral stability. Confucian and Muslim codes were far more draconian, though the “minute regulations” of the former set some limits to the potential for a “blank cheque” for male power. Arrangements were looser in much of sub-Saharan Africa, Creole America and Southeast Asia. Harshest of all was the Hindu system of North India, in a league of its own for repression. As Therborn notes, this is one of the very few parts of the world where men live longer than women, even today.

By 2000, however, patriarchy had become “the big loser of the twentieth century,” as Therborn puts it, yielding far more ground than religion or tyranny. “Probably no other social institution has been forced to retreat as much.” This roll-back was not just an outcome of gradual processes of modernization, in the bland scheme of structural-functional sociology. It was principally the product of three political hammer blows. The first of these, Therborn shows, came in the throes of the First World War in Sweden, where full legal parity between husband and wife was first enacted, and then, in a more radical series of measures, the October Revolution dismantled the whole juridical apparatus of patriarchy in Russia, with a much more overt emphasis on sexual equality as such. Conduct, of course, was never the same as codification. “The legal family revolution of the Bolsheviks was very much ahead of Russian societal time, and Soviet family practices did not immediately dance to political music, however loud and powerful.” But the shock wave in the world generated by the Russian example was, Therborn rightly emphasizes, enormous.

The Second World War delivered the next great blow on the other side of the world, again in contrasted neighboring forms. In occupied Japan, General MacArthur’s staff imposed a Constitution proclaiming “the essential equality of the sexes”–a notion, of course, that has still to find a place in the American Constitution–and a civil code based on conjugal symmetry. In liberated China, the victory of Communism “meant a full-scale assault on the most ancient and elaborate patriarchy of the world,” obliterating all legal traces of the Confucian order.

Finally, a third wave of emancipation was unleashed by the youth rebellions of the late 1960s, which segued into modern feminism. (When the revolt of May 1968 erupted in France, the country’s High Court was still upholding the French husband’s right to forbid his wife to move out, even if he was publicly maintaining a mistress.) Here the inauguration by the United Nations of an international Decade for Women in 1975 (also the ultimate outcome of a Communist initiative, on the part of the Finnish daughter of one of Khrushchev’s Politburo veterans) is taken by Therborn as the turning point in a global discrediting of patriarchy, whose last legal redoubt in the United States–in Louisiana–was struck down by the Supreme Court as late as 1981.

The rule of the father has not disappeared. In the world at large, West Asia, Africa and South Asia remain the principal holdouts. Islam itself, Therborn suggests, may be less to blame for the resilience of Arab patriarchy than the corruption of the secular forces once opposed to it, abetted by America and Israel. In India, on the other hand, there is no mistaking the degree of misogyny in caste and religion, even if the mediation of patriarchal authority by market mechanisms has its postmodern ambiguities. Surveying the “blatant instrumentalism” of the matrimonial pages of a middle-class Indian press, in which “more than 99 per cent of the ads vaunted socio-economic offers and desires,” he wonders: “To what extent are parents the ‘agents’ of young people, in the same sense as any money-seeking athlete, musician or writer has an agent?” At the opposite extreme is Euro-American postpatriarchy, in which men and women possess equal rights but still far from equal resources–women enjoying on average not much more than half (55-60 percent) the income and wealth of men.

In between these poles come the homelands of the Communist revolutions, which did so much to transform the landscape of patriarchy in the last century. The collapse of the Soviet bloc has not seen any restoration in this respect, whatever other regressions it may involve (“the power of fathers and husbands does not seem to have increased,” though “that of pimps certainly has”). Therborn speculates that in both Russia and Eastern Europe, the original revolutionary gains may prove Communism’s most lasting legacy. In China, on the other hand, there is much further to go, amid more signs of recidivist urges in civil society. Still, he points out, not only is gender inequality in wages and salaries far lower in the PRC than in Taiwan–by a factor of three–but patriarchy proper, as indicated by conjugal residence and division of labor, continues to be weaker.

The first part of Therborn’s story is thus eminently political. As he remarks, this is logical enough, since patriarchy is about power. His second part moves to sex. In questions of marriage, Europe–or, more precisely, Western Europe and those of its marchlands affected by German colonization in the Middle Ages–diverged from the rest of the world far earlier than in matters of patriarchy. In this zone a unique marital regime had already developed in pre-industrial times, combining late monogamy, significant numbers of unmarried people and Christian norms of conjugal duty, contradictorily surrounded by a certain penumbra of informal sex. The key result was “neo-locality,” or the exit of wedded couples from parental households. Everywhere else in the world, Therborn maintains, the rule was universal marriage, typically at earlier ages, as the necessary entry into adulthood. (He does not make it clear whether he thinks this applies to all pre-class societies, where such a rule might be doubted.)

Paradoxically, although patterns of marriage might be thought to have varied more widely around the world than forms of patriarchy, Therborn has much less to say about them. Polyandry is never mentioned, the map of monogamy is unexplored, nor is any taxonomy of polygamy offered beyond a tacit distinction between elite and mass variants (the latter peculiar to sub-Sahara). The base line of his tale of marriage is set by a contrast between two deviant areas and all other arrangements. The first of these is the West European anomaly, with its subsequent overseas projections into North America and the Pacific. The second is the Creole, born in plantation and mining zones of the Caribbean and Latin America with a substantial black, mulatto or mestizo population, where a uniquely deregulated sexual regime developed.

Some startling figures emerge from Therborn’s comparison. If sexual mores in Europe first became widely relaxed in aristocratic circles of the eighteenth century, flouting of conventional norms reached epidemic proportions among the lower classes of many cities in the nineteenth, if only by reason of the costs of marriage. At various points in the latter part of the century, a third of all births in Paris, half in Vienna and more than two-thirds in Klagenfurt were out of wedlock. By 1900 such figures had fallen, and national averages of illegitimacy had become quite modest (Austrians still outpacing African-Americans, however). Matters were much wilder in the Creole system, readers of García Márquez will not be surprised to learn. “Iberian colonial America and the West Indies were the stage of the largest-scale assault on marriage in history.” In the mid-nineteenth century between a third and half of the population of Bahia never tied the knot; in the Rio de la Plata region, extramarital births were four to five times the levels in Spain and Italy; around 1900 as many as four-fifths of sexual unions in Mexico City may have been without benefit of clergy.

These were the colorful exceptions. Throughout Asia, Africa, Russia and most of Eastern Europe, marriage in one form or another was inescapable. A century later, Therborn’s account suggests, much less has changed than in the order of patriarchy. Creole America has become more marital, at least in periods of relative prosperity, but remains the most casual about the institution. In Asia, now mostly monogamous, and sub-Saharan Africa, still largely polygamous, marriage continues to be a universal norm–with pockets of slippage only in the big cities of Japan, Southeast Asia and South Africa–but the age at which it is contracted has risen. If divorce of one kind or another has become nearly universal as a legal possibility, its practice is much more restricted–in the Hindu “cow belt,” virtually zero. At the top end of the scale, in born-again America and post-Communist Russia, any wedding guest is entitled to be quizzical: Half of all marriages break up. But with successive attempts at conjugal bliss, the crude marriage rate has not fallen in the United States. Globally, it would seem, the predominant note is stability.

In one zone, however, Therborn tracks a major change. After marrying as never before in the middle decades of the century, Western Europeans started to secede from altar and registry in increasing numbers. Sweden was once again the vanguard country, and it still remains well ahead of its Scandinavian neighbors, not to speak of lands farther south. The innovation it pioneered, from the late 1960s onward, was mass informal cohabitation. Thirty years later, the great majority of Swedish women giving birth to their first child–nearly 70 percent–were either cohabiting or single mothers. Marriage might or might not follow cohabitation. What became a minority option, in one country after another–Britain, France, Germany–was marriage before it. In Catholic France and Protestant England alike, extramarital births jumped from 6-8 percent to 40-42 percent in the space of four decades.

Manifestly, the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s lay behind this spectacular transformation. Therborn notes the arrival of the pill and IUD as facilitating conditions, but he is more interested in consequences. What did it add up to? In effect, a double liberation: more partners and–especially for women–more pleasure. In Finland in the early 1970s, women had bedded an average of three men; in the early ’90s the number had risen to six (by then the gap in erotic satisfaction between the sexes had closed). In Sweden the median number of women’s lovers more than tripled during the same period, a much greater increase than for men. “More than anything else,” Therborn concludes, “this is what the sexual revolution has brought: a long period for pre-marital sex, and a plurality of sexual partners over a lifetime becoming a ‘normal’ phenomenon, in a statistical as well as in a moral sense.”

How far does the United States conform to the emergent European pattern? Only in part, as its different religious and political complexion would lead one to expect. Europeans will be astonished to learn that in 2000 about a fifth of American 18- to 24-year-olds claimed to be virgins on their wedding day. Only 6 percent of American couples cohabited. More than 70 percent of mothers at first birth are married. On the other hand, the United States has nearly twice as many teenage births per cohort as the highest country in the EU and an extramarital birthrate higher than that of the Netherlands. Without going much into race or region, Therborn describes the American system as “dualist.” But from the evidence he provides, it might be thought that electoral divisions are reflected in sexual contrasts, blue and red in the boudoir too.

In the last part of Between Sex and Power, Therborn moves to fertility. Here the conundrum is the “demographic transition”–the standard term for the shift from a regime of low growth, combining lots of children and many early deaths, to one of high growth, combining many children but fewer deaths, and then back to another one of low growth, this time with both fewer deaths and fewer children. There is no mystery about the way medical advances and better diets led to falling rates of mortality in nineteenth-century Europe and eventually reached most of the world, to similar effect, in the second half of the twentieth century. The big question is why birthrates fell, first in Europe and North America between the 1880s and 1930s, and then for the majority of the human race from the mid-1970s onward, in two uncannily similar waves. In each case, “a process rapidly cutting through and across state boundaries, levels of industrialization, urbanization and levels of income, across religions, ideologies and family systems” slashed fertility rates by 30-40 percent in three decades. Today, the average family has no more than two to three children throughout most of the former Third World.

What explains these gigantic changes? The first nations to experience a significant fall in fertility were France and the United States, by 1830–generations in advance of all others. What they had in common, Therborn suggests, was their popular revolutions, which had given ordinary people a sense of self-mastery. Once the benefits of smaller families became clear in these societies, neolocality allowed couples to make their own decisions to improve their lives before any modern means of contraception were available. Fifty years later, perhaps triggered initially by the onset of a world recession, mass birth control began to roll through Europe, eventually sweeping all the way from Portugal to Russia. This time, Therborn’s hypothesis runs, it was a combination of radical socialist and secular movements popularizing the idea of family planning, together with the spread of literacy, that brought lower fertility as part of an increasingly self-conscious culture of modernity. This was birth control from below.

In the Third World, by contrast, contraception–now an easy technology–was typically propagated or imposed from above, by political fiat of the state. China’s one-child policy has been the most dramatic, if extreme, example. Once lower birthrates became a general goal of governments committed to modernization, family systems then determined the order in which societies entered the new regime: East Asia in the lead, North India and black Africa far in the rear guard. Here too it was a sense of mastery, of human ability to command nature–not always bureaucratic in origin, since the better-off societies of Latin America moved more spontaneously in the same direction–that powered the change. The consequences of that change, of which we can still see only the beginnings, are enormous. Without it, the earth would now have some 2 billion more inhabitants.

In Europe and Japan, meanwhile, fertility has dropped no less dramatically, falling below net reproduction rates. This collapse in the birthrate, from which the United States is saved essentially by immigration, promises rapid aging of these nations in the short run and, if unchecked, virtual extinction of them in the long run. There is now a growing literature of public alarm about this prospect, what the French historian Pierre Chaunu denounces as a “White Death” threatening the Old World. Therborn eschews it. Negative rates of reproduction in these rich, socially advanced societies do not correspond in his view to any birth strike by women but rather to their desire to have two to three children and careers that are the equal of men’s, which the existing social order does not yet allow them to do. In denying themselves the offspring they want, European parents are “moving against themselves,” not with the grain of any deeper cultural change.

Between Sex and Power ends with four principal conclusions. The different family systems of the world reveal little internal logic of change. They have been recast from the outside, and the history of their transformations has been neither unilinear nor evolutionary but rather determined by a series of unevenly timed international conjunctures of a decidedly political character. The result has not been one of convergence, other than in a general decline of patriarchy, due more to wars and revolutions than to any “feminist world spirit.” In the South, the differential timing of changes in fertility continues to shift the distribution of global population further toward the subcontinent and Africa and away from Europe, Japan and Russia. In the North, European marriage has altered its forms but is proving supple and creative in adapting to a new range of desires: Conventional jeremiads notwithstanding, it is in good shape. Predictions? Serenely declined. “The best bet for the future is on the inexhaustible innovative capacity of humankind, which eventually surpasses all social science.”

In due course, an army of specialists will gather round Between Sex and Power, like so many expert sports fans, to pore over its multitudinous argument. What can a layman say, beyond the magnitude of its achievement? Tentatively, perhaps only this. In the architectonic of the book, there is something of a gap between the notion of a family system and the triad of patriarchy, marriage and fertility that follows it. In effect, the way these three interconnect to form the structure of any family system goes unstated in the separate treatment accorded each. But if we consider the trio as an abstract combination, it would seem that logically–as the order in which Therborn proceeds to them itself suggests–patriarchy must command the other two as the “dominant,” since it will typically lay down the rules of marriage and set the norms of reproduction. There is, in other words, a hierarchy of determinations built into any family system.

This has a bearing on Therborn’s conclusions. His final emphasis falls, unhesitatingly, on the divergence between major family systems today. After stressing continuing worldwide dissimilarities between fertility and marital regimes, he concedes that “the patriarchal outcome is somewhat different.” His own evidence suggests that this way of putting it is an understatement. For what his data show is a powerful process of convergence, far from complete in extent but unequivocal in direction. But if the variegated forms of patriarchy are what historically determined the main parameters of marriage and reproduction, wouldn’t any ongoing decline of them across family systems toward a common juridical zero point imply that birthrates and marriage customs are eventually likely to converge, in significant measure, at their own pace too? That seems, at any rate, a possible deduction sidestepped by Therborn, but which his story of fertility appears to bear out. For what is clear from his account is that the astonishing fall in birthrates in most of the underdeveloped world has been the product of a historic collapse in patriarchal authority, as its powers of life and death have been transferred to the state, which now determines how many are born and how many survive.

What, then, of marriage? Here, certainly, contrasts remain greatest. In speaking of “the core of romantic freedom and commitment in the modern European (and New World) family system,” Therborn implies this remains specific to the West. But while the caste system or Sharia law plainly preclude extempore love, does it show no signs of spreading, as ideal or realization, in the big cities of East Asia or Latin America? The imagination of urban Japan, he shows, is already half-seized with it. Not, of course, that the decline of marriage in Western Europe, with the advent of mass cohabitation, has so far been replicated anywhere else. But here a different sort of question might be asked. Is it really the case that the negative rates of reproduction that have accompanied this pattern are as unwished-for as Therborn suggests? He relies on the discrepancy between surveys in which women explain how many children they expect and those they actually have. But this could just mean that in practice their desire for children proved weaker than for a well-paid job, a satisfying career or more than one lover at a time. Voters in the West regularly say they want better schools and healthcare, and in principle expect to pay for them, and commentators on the left often pin high hopes on such declarations. But once such citizens get to the polling booth they tend to stick to lower taxes. The same kind of self-deception could apply to children. If so, it would be difficult to say European marriage was in such good shape, since there would be no stopping place in sight for its plunge of society into an actuarial abyss.

Therborn resists such thoughts. Although Between Sex and Power pays handsome homage to the role of Communism in the dismantling of patriarchy in the twentieth century, it displays no specially Marxist view of the family. Engels would not have shared the author’s satisfaction that marriage is flourishing, however ductile the forms it has adopted. In expressing his attachment to them, Therborn speaks with the humane voice of a level-headed Swedish reformism that he understandably admires, without having ever altogether subscribed to it. In looking on the bright side of the EU marital regime, he is also consistent with the case he has made in the past for its welfare states, which have survived in much better condition than its critics or mourners believe. It is in the same spirit, one might say, that he insists on the persistent divergence of family systems across the world. Uniformity is the one condition every part of the political spectrum deplores. The most unflinching neoliberals invariably explain that universal free markets are the best of all guardians of diversity. Social democrats reassure their followers that the capitalism to which they must adjust is becoming steadily more various. Traditional conservatives expatiate on the irreducible multiplicity of faiths and civilizations. Homogeneity has no friends, at least since the French Hegelian philosopher Alexandre Kojève prepared the end of history for Francis Fukuyama. But when any claim becomes too choral, a flicker of doubt is indicated. It scarcely affects the magnificence of this book. In it, you can find the largest changes in human relations of modern times.

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