Just Living Together: Implications of Cohabitation on Families, Children, and Social Policy

By Alan Booth; Ann C. Crouter | Go to book overview
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Contemporary Cohabitation: Food for Thought
Nancy S. Landale
The Pennsylvania State University

In 1982, John Hajnal wrote an influential article in which he argued that the preindustrial family system of northwest Europe was distinct from that in most of the rest of the world, especially Asia (Hajnal, 1982). Northwestern Europeans were considered to be unique because of several features of their family formation system, namely the late age at marriage for both men and women, the establishment of independent households at marriage, and the high proportion of households containing unrelated young adult servants. These features of family formation have been attributed to the existence of a stem family system, an arrangement in which land is left to a single heir. Under such a system, non-heirs must gain access to an independent livelihood prior to marriage and heirs must wait to marry until their father is ready to relinquish control of the land. Because land was relatively scarce in preindustrial northwest Europe, the stem family system led to a pattern of late age at marriage and high rates of permanent celibacy (Hajnal, 1965). In contrast, most other regions of the world had a joint household system, in which households often contained more than one married couple and newlywed couples typically lived with the groom's parents. The joint household system was conducive to early marriage because newlywed couples could draw on the resources of a larger family unit.

It is clear from the historical record that a unique marriage pattern existed in preindustrial northwest Europe. However, some family scholars (e.g., Goody, 1996) argue that classification of the family formation systems of the past into two discrete types may oversimplify reality. For example, under the European pattern of separate residence, it was not uncommon for newlywed couples to set up households adjacent to one set of parents and to continue to engage in complex economic and noneconomic relations with them. Under the joint household system, important aspects of family life sometimes took place within subgroups within the household rather than the household as a whole. For example, shared food consumption is often considered a defining feature of household membership. However, under the joint household system married couples and their children sometimes prepared and consumed their meals apart from other household members. These examples suggest that classifying household systems of the past into two separate categories may mask important ambiguities in their defining features and overstate the differences between them. Accordingly, Goody (1996) argued for the utility of thinking about systems of household formation broadly in terms of a


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Just Living Together: Implications of Cohabitation on Families, Children, and Social Policy
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