Whither Family History? A Road Map from Latin America

Family values are back with a vengeance. As pundits pontificate and spin doctors strategize, historians of the family have periodically joined in the fray. Scholars have appeared in the popular media offering historical perspectives on marriage and divorce, childhood, cohabitation, working mothers, child custody, and same-sex unions. The family is an institution peculiarly subject to mythification, and more often than not, historians have sought to set the record straight about “the way we never were.”[1] Meanwhile, historical perspectives on the family have found their way into legal reasoning. In Halpern v. Canada, the landmark 2005 decision that paved the way for same-sex marriage in Canada, both sides marshaled historical evidence in an effort to bolster their claims.[2] Prominent historians of gender, sexuality, and the family have also filed amicus briefs in cases involving same-sex marriage in U.S. state courts and in Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 Supreme Court case that struck down Texas’s anti-sodomy law.[3]

If family history reverberates in public discourse, its resonance in contemporary historical scholarship is by contrast muted. Once upon a time, in the early 1980s, historians of the family could describe the field as a “growth industry” undergoing “spectacular expansion.”[4] They could argue, as one of the field’s founders, Lawrence Stone, did, that “there is scarcely any … major dispute about the nature of change in the past, upon which family history does not somehow impinge.”[5] Twenty-five years later, such bold assertions strike one as a bit overwrought. From “spectacular expansion,” the field has settled into a much more modest productive rhythm. If family history has had some bearing on major historical debates in recent decades, it has not been a particularly outspoken interventor in them. From its dynamic youth, the field has lapsed prematurely into a quiet senescence.

Meanwhile, among self-identified practitioners of the field, breathless enthusiasm has given way to a certain restless frustration. In a review essay on the history of childhood in this journal in 1998, Hugh Cunningham acknowledged the significance of Philippe Ariès, one of the field’s founding fathers, but declared that the scholarship he inspired “has now run its course; it is time … to shift the agenda.” More recently, Cissie Fairchilds asserted that family history “badly needs a new interpretive paradigm.” “Where,” she lamented, “is the next Ariès or Stone who will write a personal, idiosyncratic synthesis of the field which will provide one?”[6]

Yet these scholars would probably agree that family history, while enervated, is hardly moribund. There is no better evidence for this than The History of the European Family, published by Yale University Press and edited by Brown University anthropologist and historian David Kertzer and University of Bologna sociologist Marzio Barbagli. [7] This three-volume work provides an opportunity to take stock of the current state of the field. A brief review of the volumes can serve as a springboard for a broad assessment of what ails family history.

Moving beyond the paths charted by European historiography, colonial and postcolonial societies heretofore marginal to family history suggest new directions for scholarship. In Latin America historically, family and kinship have been fundamental cultural categories, central to political power and economic production, elite domination and plebeian survival, honor culture, the agrarian order, labor systems, entrepreneurship, and migration, among other social formations.[8] Latin America is, moreover, a region whose historical development has been characterized by some of the most persistent and yawning inequities of color and class in the world. Considering these two features of Latin American history in tandem and examining the role of family, kinship, and household in the production and reproduction of social difference may pose a new agenda for family history.

The History of the European Family (HEF) consists of three chronological volumes, containing twenty-nine essays by thirty contributors. In more than a thousand pages of text, these scholars explore family change in Europe from 1500 to the present. The series is at least the sixth in what must surely qualify as a cottage industry of multi-volume histories of private life, women, childhood, and family in the West.[9] That HEF joins such a crowded genre raises the obvious question: what could there possibly be left to say? The project is distinguished by its comparative, comprehensive thrust. For its purposes, “Europe” refers to “all the land from the Atlantic Ocean on the west to the Ural Mountains on the east, from the Arctic Sea in the north to the Mediterranean in the south.” In a field that originally derived its insights from local parish records and village census manuscripts, such a broad-ranging perspective is no mean feat. In contrast to other multi-volume syntheses of family and private life, each essay seeks as comprehensive a comparative reach as possible. To facilitate this enterprise, the volumes are purposefully organized thematically rather than by geographic area.[10]

The contributions vary widely in focus and approach, and in so doing, implicitly raise the question, what is family history? The series gives significant weight to “classic” approaches, including demographic analysis, household economics, and the relationship between families and macro-level economic change.[11] But other approaches are also represented. Essays on material culture explore the relationship of clothing, diet, housing, and spatial organization to family life.[12] Several contributors examine changing family law and social policy.[13] Cultural history, while underrepresented from the perspective of North American scholarly trends, also makes an appearance.[14] Finally, a number of essays are informed by anthropological and sociological perspectives.[15]

Amid this diversity, one leitmotif that emerges is gradual evolution over rupture and persistence over change. This theme informs essays on the Reformation and Counter-Reformation; material culture, parent-child relations, and marriage patterns in the nineteenth century; and the impact of migration on kinship networks and peasant households.[16] If there is a watershed in European family life and structure, the essayists would probably place it in the early twentieth century. Contributions on the last hundred years place greater emphasis on change, in such contexts as household structure, women’s roles, the material conditions of domestic life, and the “quiet revolution” of demographic patterns. Here the watchword is historical convergence: across geographic, cultural, political, and class divides, the essayists argue, families in Europe looked much more similar at the close of the twentieth century than they did at the dawn of the sixteenth.[17] Yet even in recent times, persistence persists. In Eastern Europe, for example, “the geography of family structures” in 1989 retraced centuries-old patterns.[18]HEF’s emphasis on long-running continuities, gradual evolution, and the endurance of family forms in the face of profound historical change is an argument with older interpretive paradigms, which posited a stark contrast between “traditional” and “modern” families.

The continuity leitmotif also has implications for more recent historiographic trends. Much of this scholarship has examined top-down projects to regulate and reform family, gender, and sexuality. The HEF essayists, however, tend to argue that such efforts have limited impact on family behavior. As Alain Blum asks in “Socialist Families?,” an essay whose title is pointedly interrogative, “to what extent does the political decision to transform the foundations of society … actually modify the forms that families take … ?” His answer, for the case of twentieth-century Eastern Europe, is very little. Insofar as political attempts to alter families “did not have any genuine impact on deep-seated behavior patterns,” there is no such thing as a “socialist family.” Other contributors reach parallel conclusions about the limits of bourgeois attempts to engineer working-class family norms and about the inefficacy of the Great Dictators’ pro-natalism. Even the impact of the Protestant Reformation and the Counter-Reformation is downplayed.[19]

In the end, the implicit common denominator that informs the essays of HEF, and perhaps the project’s most important contribution, is a commitment to take the family seriously as a social institution of intrinsic importance. That may not sound like much of a contribution, given that “family” is hardly absent from historical scholarship at the turn of the twenty-first century. Postcolonial scholars, for example, have directed attention to what Ann Laura Stoler has called “the domains of the intimate,” the realm of “sex, sentiment, domestic arrangement, and child rearing.” Yet in this approach, which is particularly concerned with the gaze of moral arbiters, family is a category of interest not on its own terms but in a narrower sense as a site of regulation (and resistance). Such a framework is not misconstrued, but it is not, and does not seek to be, family history. As Lara Putnam has argued in her study of family and community in Caribbean Costa Rica, “practices surrounding gender, kinship, and sexuality at times became central to class struggle and state formation. But it was not always so, and the legitimacy of these practices as objects of study should not rest on this claim alone.”[20] The HEF essays take the family and its internal dynamics to be of intrinsic significance. They ask how families are affected by particular social, economic, demographic, or political processes, and how in turn kinship, household structures, and domestic practices mediate those processes. Implicitly, some essays also address how, in particular historical contexts, these spheres of social life (“family,” “society,” “economy,” “state,” “public,” “private”) are delineated in the first place.[21]

On the other hand, what HEF has to tell us about the family is not necessarily new. Hewing to familiar topics, the essays provide solid overviews of the demographic transition, a reprise of the long-standing comparison between Eastern and Western European family forms, and a collective rejection of older assertions about an abrupt transition from a “traditional” to a “modern” family. Taken as a whole, the series is more an exercise in consolidation than in advancement, of stock-taking rather than envelope-pushing. It showcases what European family historians have accomplished and the diversity of their efforts, but it offers few clues as to where the field is going.

And where is it going? In light of the frustrations expressed by practitioners of family history, a blunt assessment of the field’s current condition is warranted. And alas, the diagnosis is grave. Whatever the accomplishments of the HEF project, it will likely be read mostly by specialists. Today more than ever, family history has become a ghettoized area of study disengaged from broader spheres of historical inquiry. A comparison with a related field, women’s history, is telling. Both family history and women’s history emerged as dynamic areas of inquiry during the new social history boom. Today, women’s history and its offshoot gender history are well established, productive, and vibrant. History departments routinely have several specialists of women and gender on their rolls, courses in these fields are standard curricular fare, and specialized professional meetings and multiple journals provide space for scholarly exchange. Perhaps most telling, scholarship on women and gender has had reverberations far beyond the work of those explicitly identified as practitioners.

Not so family history. Some scholars still self-identify as historians of the family, of course,[22] but the field is hardly a requisite departmental fixture. At least two journals publish work in the field, but there is no professional conference dedicated to the study of the family historically.[23] This is not, of course, to imply that important, innovative, and award-winning work on the family by self-identified family historians is not being produced. It is to say that the field as a whole is rather less than the sum of its parts.

It may be that this state of affairs reflects less marginalization than annexation. Arguably, much of the intellectual terrain once claimed by family history has been appropriated by other fields of inquiry. Once again, reference to women’s history and gender history is telling. These two fields have tackled many research topics that might otherwise be associated with the history of the family. In Latin American historiography, for example, a number of monographs have explored subjects that are, ostensibly, the quintessential stuff of family history: how agrarian politics were refracted in marital conflicts among Chilean campesinos; racialized practices of respectability in turn-of-the-century Puerto Rico; the “modernization” of household patriarchy in Brazil; honor, virtue, and gender in republican Peru; virginity and sexual honor in early-twentieth-century Brazil; conflicts between bourgeois models of family and working-class domestic practices among Chilean copper miners.[24] Yet all of these works are oriented toward and around the historiography of women and gender (and to fruitful effect). That is, the interpretive debates they engage with, the questions that motivate them, and the theoretical frameworks they employ derive from women and gender history. Family is neither the central subject of inquiry nor the principal category of analysis. In this sense, none of these works constitutes “family history.”

Such dynamics of annexation and blurring are surely in one sense a positive development. The topics once associated with family history have not fallen off the historiographic map; they have just been taken up by other subfields. Perhaps this is simply because, in a classic Kuhnian paradigm shift, family history’s interpretive frameworks and methodological tools have been superseded by other, more powerful interpretations and methods. Yet as Louise A. Tilly pointed out back in 1987, the history of women is not the history of the family.[25] The two fields may overlap or intersect, but, driven by different intellectual questions and political concerns, they are hardly coterminous. The explosion of gender history, which postdates Tilly’s thoughtful rumination, has only accentuated this distinction. As feminist scholarship has long labored to show, “women” and “gender” cannot be reduced to “family.”

Nor, it may be added, can family be reduced to women or gender. As Tilly noted, in feminist scholarship “‘family’ is distributed across other concerns rather than being an independent category,” whereas family history takes the family as the principal unit of analysis.[26] Family history is in part concerned with understanding the internal dynamics of that unit. Those dynamics certainly include gender, but may also be, for example, generational. Thus, certain topics of interest to family historians, such as childhood and kinship, may not logically appear on the radar of these other fields.

We cannot, then, re-diagnose family history’s malaise as a case of fortuitous annexation. The malaise remains, but to what might we attribute it? Part of the problem surely lies with the fact that family history is still associated (sometimes justifiably, sometimes not) with certain methodological and theoretical orientations that marked the field’s emergence and have since fallen out of favor. It is worth identifying some of these foundational problems in an effort to assess how they might be overcome.

In its earlier incarnations, family history suffered from several serious false starts and interpretive oversights. For example, some early scholarship was characterized by what in retrospect seems an ill-considered flirtation with psychohistory. In this rendering, the field’s analytic contribution would be to show how, for instance, child-rearing practices in a given society gave rise to particular psychic structures and, by extension, distinct social and cultural forms. Thus, for example, the argument that infant swaddling explained Russian authoritarianism.[27] In retrospect, the logic seems specious, the causality spurious, the essentialism obvious. Psychology‘s appeal to universal psychic structures or stages, even dressed up in different cultural guises, sits uncomfortably with prevailing notions of social constructedness.[28] Yet rejecting psychohistorical approaches meant reopening the problem of the relationship between the “private” domain and social, cultural, political, or economic change. This issue is ultimately crucial to family history.

An even more serious flaw of early family history is that it was woefully unattuned to power dynamics within domestic units, treating family and household as homogeneous institutions whose members harbored common interests. Gender analysis and an attentiveness to women’s position within family and society challenged that assumption, and with it notions of the family in the past as a “haven in a heartless world.”[29] It is on this score that family history has witnessed perhaps its most dramatic transformation, evident in the pages of the Journal of Family History, where women’s status, gender roles, and gender cultures are ubiquitous themes. And while gender is not an analytic focus of HEF, it is addressed by a number of essayists.[30]

Psychohistory may have died a quiet death even as gender was embraced, yet other interpretive and methodological habits die hard. The field was and often still is associated with empirical methods—especially quantitative demographic analysis—that have fallen out of favor. To some extent, the rejection of family history’s empiricism is the predictable prejudice of postmodernism. But it is also true that practitioners at times set themselves up for such criticism. In its most heavy-handed incarnations, demographic analysis dissolved into a systematic but futile counting exercise. Peter Laslett’s Bastardy and Its Comparative History compared illegitimacy rates across time and place but treated illegitimacy as an objective fact that could be abstracted from cultural context and meaning.[31] In some HEF essays, the richness of data similarly substitutes for an explanation of its relevance. An analysis of a widowed spouse’s prospects for remarriage, parsed carefully according to age, gender, and urban versus rural residence, is of limited value without an interpretive framework that justifies why widowhood and remarriage are significant social facts in the first place.[32]

Disembodied empiricism thus remains a challenge for family history, perhaps because the field continues to lack analytical paradigms. Indeed, this dearth of interpretive frameworks—or more accurately, the stubborn persistence of inadequate frameworks in the absence of better alternatives—is perhaps the central problem facing family history. The most troublesome culprit on this score is surely modernization theory. Born under the sign of modernization, family history continues its enduring and ambivalent relationship with this concept. Early practitioners advocated the value of “modernization as a concept for understanding changes in family behavior.” They asked, “what effect … did modernization in the broadest sense of the word have upon family life or family life upon modernization?”[33] The implications of this mode of analysis are, first, that there exists a series of social, economic, and cultural processes that can be grouped together under the shorthand “modernization,” which the family mediates; and second, that families themselves undergo a specific sequence of changes (that is, they “modernize”) in response to these stimuli.

Few scholars today would argue that the history of the family is characterized by a simple transition from tradition to modernity, or even that these categories are particularly useful for understanding family change over time. On one interpretive level, HEF’s vigorous case for continuity over change constitutes a ringing refutation of normative ideas about “traditional” versus “modern” families.[34] Taken collectively, these essays assert that families did not become smaller, more nuclear, more affective, less patriarchal, more isolated—in short, more “modern”—in some unilinear or inexorable fashion.

And yet, there remains a certain ambiguity on this score. Barbagli and Kertzer assert that the history of the nineteenth-century family “is the story, in some respects, of the emergence of the modern family, at least as seen from the vantage point of scholars writing at the dawn of the twenty-first century.”[35] The idea of a modern family—of modern behaviors within the family and modern attitudes toward it—is referenced in a number of essays. In others, modernization is a bogeyman that encroaches inexorably on “traditional” ways.[36] Thus, in a series devoted to refuting notions of stark change and unidirectional progress, that pesky apparition the Modern Family materializes repeatedly nonetheless. Its presence is hardly unique to HEF—nor, indeed, to scholarship on Europe.[37]

Family history’s equivocal but enduring embrace of modernization is part of the field’s broader interpretive orientation, which has tended to seek out metanarratives of unidirectional change and continuity: families became more emotive and affectionate over time, or they were always thus; extended households progressively s