Families: The Ties That Bind ; the Nuclear Family Is 'The Driving Revolutionary Force of The

The Christian Science Monitor, January 19, 2000 | Go to article overview

Families: The Ties That Bind ; the Nuclear Family Is 'The Driving Revolutionary Force of The


Americans like to romanticize the family.

They cling to the notion that the nuclear family - father, mother, and children all living in the same abode - is a fairly recent development. A misty-eyed nostalgia prevails as they imagine a past in which extended families predominated, with grandparents, in-laws, uncles, and cousins living together. All those built-in baby sitters! All that mutual support! All that wisdom passed daily from old to young!

But myths don't always match reality. As social historians sift through old documents, they are discovering that for much of the past millennium, the nuclear family reigned as the primary family form in Europe and America. Far from being merely a passive domestic unit for procreation and survival, it exerted an influence extending far beyond the walls of home.

The nuclear family is "the driving revolutionary force of the millennium," says Brigitte Berger, author of the forthcoming book, "More Than a Lifestyle Choice: The Family in the Postmodern Age." She sees the entire millennium as an epic featuring this type of family.

Calling this grouping "the carrier of the modernization process," she explains that when people reflect on what the past millennium was about - the rise of democracy, capitalism, and industrialization - they are talking about big structural and institutional changes. Ms. Berger takes the position that these macro-changes actually grew out of the triumph of an all-important micro-unit, the nuclear family.

Stephen Morillo, a medieval historian at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., considers the year 1000 a significant marker for the family. Around that time, he says, the family structure of Western European aristocracy began changing. Instead of continuing to live in loose clans that traced relationships through common ancestors, people began narrowing their lineage, following family connections from father to eldest son.

At the same time, aristocratic families began adopting last names. Surnames were typically the name of a place, such as a castle, that identified the seat of family power.

Between 1000 and 1500, many peasant and merchant households consisting of parents and children and perhaps a few servants also resembled nuclear families. Families with too many children would often lend a child to a family with too few children.

"It was about labor," says Professor Morillo. "It was about getting farm work done." Women also played an important economic role, he notes. Peasant households could not survive without female labor.

As far back as the 13th century, long before the onset of industrialization and democracy, a family system called the proto- industrial family existed in northwestern Europe. One of its distinctive features - marriage by choice rather than parental arrangement - gave individuals the freedom to shape their own future. Another feature, primogeniture, promoted economic stability by passing land to the eldest son, rather than dividing it.

"You didn't split up the family possessions," Berger says. …

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