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.