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Migration and Family Structure:
Theses on the Global History of Families

Patrick Manning
Northeastern University


Family history and world history

     This paper is to encourage a closer association of family history and world history, with a focus on the early modern era.  I argue that there exist global patterns of family development and interaction, and that historians are now in a position to begin identifying and exploring them.

     Studies of the family in history have achieved major advances in the past two generations, thanks to work by historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and demographers. Studies in family reconstitution, genealogy, and lineage structures have added depth and detail to the literature on social history for many and perhaps most regions of the world.  Most of these studies have been micro-histories, treating families as localized units.  Indeed, the family is an intimate and private unit, and does not automatically lend itself to world historical analysis. Nevertheless, some broad and comparative studies have addressed such topics as European fertility.1

     Studies of world history, meanwhile, have given little attention to the family.  World historical studies have been most successful in addressing ecological, economic, and political connections across regions.  Womens history, cultural history, social history, and family history have been less fully developed at a global level.2

     The theme of this conference provides an opportunity to explore family history in broader context.  I propose to follow two basic strategies of exploration literature review and modeling the impact of migration and thereby to suggest some fruitful ways to explore family history at the global level.3

     Although most families are local, the history of the family has at least three global dimensions.  First, some individual families are global in extent through travel, families have stretched themselves across great distances, yet continue to function as coherent units.  Second, the interactions among families have had global impact, as when migrations have transported and transformed traditions of family life.  Third, the patterns of family life worldwide have been changed by demographic transitions. 

     A quick look at the latter pattern, demographic transitions, should easily confirm the existence of global patterns in history of the family.  That is, patterns of mortality and natality are everywhere drastically different today, as compared to two hundred years ago, so that one must say that the human family has changed overall.  Most dramatically, the decline in infant mortality to the point where infants are now expected to live means that we have abandoned the habits by which parents earlier sought not to bond too tightly to newborns until it seemed likely that they would survive.  At the other end of the age spectrum, the greater number of old people has changed families in that the elderly now give families, at once, greater productivity and greater dependency.

     The emphasis of this presentation, however, is on the early modern centuries and on the argument that migrations have transformed traditions of family life.

Defining the analytical terrain

     While it is not difficult to argue that a global history of the family must exist, setting the parameters for its study will be a matter of some intricacy.  The global analysis of family history will involve linking the diverse approaches of several disciplines, exploring a mix of local and global patterns in family life, and addressing a selection of the many topics that fall within the rubric of family.  To illustrate a possible navigation of these issues, here are the choices I have made in definition of the family, in analytical approaches to the family, and in topics of study within family history.

     The term family, to begin with, is a multivalent and problematic term.  It is applied at once to the tiniest nuclear units (husband and wife or mother and child) and to such broad aggregations as the human family.  Since no one definition will do, here are three main ways in which I will use the term family in this paper: biological, residential, and social.  First, families are biological families of blood relatives. I have chosen to label a biological familial unit as a pair of biological parents and their direct offspring.  At further stages of remove, the ancestors, the further descendants, and the collateral relatives (siblings, cousins, and other spouses) of the parents are members of their biological family.  Second, families are residential units and households, functioning somewhat independently of blood lines or formal social affiliation.  Third, families are socially recognized units, defined by lineage rules, marriage, and such distinctions as free and slave status.  (The demography of families, meanwhile, is the accounting and analysis of family populations whether they are defined in biological, residential, or social terms.)

     As for approaches to family history, Michael Anderson has divided studies of family history into those emphasizing demography, household economics, and sentiments.  To these Louise Tilly has added a political/institutional approach, and John Demos earlier identified a psychological approach.4  In the literature section below, we will get a sense of the balance of such studies available.  In the modeling section, I will emphasize a demographic approach, but will also mention household economics, sentiments and institutions.

     The list of subjects in family history can be long:  it includes, among others, marriage, inheritance, descent systems, child rearing, natality, residence, and family structure.  I have chosen to focus on the latter as the most workable and the most relevant for global studies of family history. Family structure is a statement of the number and relationships of persons in a family, at any moment or over time.  I t is basically the family as defined in social terms.  Family structure is a composite and dependent variable, depending on biological and residential units, and relying on the definitions setting the social limits of the family.

     Family structure is also a variable on which we have observations and historical debates. Family structure is the variable emphasized, for instance, in the common generalizations that European families are small, nuclear families, while families elsewhere have been large and extended. At a world historical level, family structure provides a subject one can hope to document.  Parish registers are for Christian world only, and not all of it.  But census reports, traveler accounts, and other data of one form or another should permit cross-regional comparison of family structures.

Family in the historical literature

     This sketch of the literature on family history is intended to remind readers of the range of disciplines and area-studies groupings that have addressed the family, and to provide a taste of the variety of approaches and findings that are available.  A more detailed review and comparison of the literature would, I think, be helpful. The linkage of separated literatures, for the case of family history, addresses one of the main objectives of the conference.  In summarizing existing work I will emphasize comparison of the various regional micro-histories. 

     The Journal of Family History conducted a major review of the field in 1986 which, while it addressed a wide range of topics (four of the nineteen articles addressed cross-cultural perspectives), showed that family historians had not yet taken on the issue of migration.  Instead, the major contributions included those of the Cambridge group, led by Peter Laslett, which advanced the study of family reconstitution; the work of Lawrence Stone on the sentiments of family life; and the aggregative work of E. A. Wrigley and R. S. Schofield in combining local records to develop population estimates for all of England.5

     More recently, Maria Beatriz Nizza da Silva has edited a collection of studies in family history of European colonies around the Atlantic.  These studies, which indicate the existence of substantial records for family history in the Americas, extend the approach of European studies, but give particular attention to issues specific to colonial regions.  Patricia Seed, for instance, argues that the Catholic Church in New Spain gave support to young couples who wished to marry despite the plans of their families.  Other studies in this volume give particular attention to marriage, but also to inheritance (especially dowries), divorce, illegitimacy, and family structure.6

     The field of anthropology long provided the analytical core of kinship and family studies, with an elaborate kinship theory and a complex empirical literature based on twentieth-century field studies.  As anthropology went through a devastating self-critique in the wake of decolonization, kinship studies were widely renounced as the imposition of ideal types on the complex realities of family life.7  The anthropological literature thus provides historians with ample data, sophisticated theory, and plenty of reasons to be cautious about both.

     Sociological studies of the family have emphasized quantitative studies based on surveys and censuses. These numerous studies address empirical issues in specific institutional contexts, and are not easy to apply to historical topics.8

     The demographic literature, in contrast, emphasizes conceptual and methodological sophistication.  Recently, as spreadsheets have simplified the quantitative work of calculating life tables, it has become possible for demographers to begin to address migration in more detail.9

     Another axis for reviewing the literature on family is the regional or area-studies dimension.  Studies of Europe and North America are by far the most detailed.  Nonetheless, studies of families in Latin America, East Asia and Eastern Europe also rely on solid documentation.  Meanwhile, Africa, North America, the Middle East, Oceania and South Asia also benefit from substantial anthropological literatures.

     All in all, the literatures relevant to family history are voluminous, with an especially large quantity of new studies conducted beginning in the 1960s.  Few of these studies address either migration or global patterns. Family structure is emphasized most in the anthropological literature, but also in the studies of family reconstitution and stem families.  It appears that studies of family in global context, in order to establish a solid basis for research and interpretation, will require a patient exploration and linkage of existing social science literatures, and will also require new conceptualization and new empirical techniques.

Modeling connections in family history

     To carry out this proposed exploration of migration and family in world history, one needs a model of the changes in family structure brought by migration.  As an heuristic first step, I introduce a familiar model of localized family structure.  Thereafter I add the most basic modifications to family structure brought by migration and considerations of residence.  Thirdly, I address the complications in social identity and social structure brought by migration.  With completion of these steps, the model is ready for historical application.

Family without migration

The formal analysis of families almost always begins by assuming that migration can be neglected, except for the local migrations from one family to another through marriage.  At its most basic, the model for family structure and reproduction begins with a framework in which:

      Families are multigenerational, and linked to a given territory. In them senior generations
       control land, other resources, and access of their offspring to marriage.
      Young people live with their parents or lineages both before and after marriage.
      Young people marry with parental approval, and marry others from the same locality. 
       They accept and carry on the rules of lineage and household.
      Some deviations from these patterns are noted, as with illegitimacy and divorce, and
       they are studied as liminal behavior.

Family with migration:  a demographic model

The first expansion of the basic model is to add migration.10  The typology I propose distinguishes five types of regions, based on their migration patterns:

(1)         regions without migration (as above) taken as the standard for comparison
             with other regions
(2)         regions with a small proportion of in-migrants
(3)         regions with a large proportion of in-migrants
(4)         regions with a moderate proportion of in-migrants
(5)         regions with a moderate proportion of out-migrants

In discussing and applying this model, I assume that migration is both voluntary and involuntary, and that men are most numerous among long-distance migrants.

     Relying on this typology and assumptions, I argue that families differed substantially depending on the regional proportion of migrants, as follows:

Regions with a small proportion of in-migrants;
           Senior levels of multigenerational families controlled land and access to marriage.
           Families were numerous on wifes side and on husbands side.
           Marriages are agreements between families, with protection for each party.
           Out-migration from these areas, usually by young men, leaves shortage of men,
            so that women remain unmarried or enter polygynous marriage.

Regions with a large proportion of in-migrants
           In these regions dominated by migrants, young people can start families without
            the approval of elders who are not present.
           Families are small on wifes side and on husbands side.
           Males are in surplus; many are unable to marry, form households, or have
            children; others seek far for partners.
           Only after two generations (over half a century) can multigenerational families
             become strong enough to control the marriage of young people.

Regions with a moderate proportion of in-migrants
           Most marriages were under control of families.
           Prestigious in-migrants (generally male) could marry into established families,
            so that families were large on wifes side and small on husbands side.
           Subordinate in-migrants (commonly female) joined established families, whether
            willingly or not.  Families were small on wifes side and larger on husbands side.

Regions with a moderate proportion of out-migrants
           Most marriages were under control of families
           Males leave as migrants, so that females are in surplus in the region
           Females remain unmarried or join families as subordinates or in polygynous relationships

     To summarize the model, one may say that zones with little migration have many relatives on both sides of a family, zones with large-scale in-migration have few relatives on both sides of a family, and zones with moderate migration have few relatives on one side of some families. 

Modeling the social complications

     Having modeled human mobility, the next step is to model the accompanying social complications.  These are most obvious for the regions of heavy in-migration.  Among such polyglot populations as the early modern Caribbean and Southeast Asia, it was perhaps inevitable that the variety of ancestries would lead to an emphasis on distinctions by race, birthplace, and so forth.  Families were too weak and fragmented among these new arrivals to provide for much social order.  In response, other categories of unity and distinction developed rapidly: racial or color categorization, generation, legal status (free, slave, citizen, alien), and ethnicity. If these differences had not existed, it might have been necessary to invent them.  What follows is a set of descriptions of several of these categories, to show how they linked to the family.

     In areas of high settlement, people were categorized by birthplace and generation. The distinction of criollo (American-born) and peninsulare (Spanish-born) among whites in Spanish America is well known; blacks, in turn, were known in some parts of Spanish America as criollo (American-born) or bozal (African-born).  Among Japanese migrants, the terms issei, nisei, and sansei described the first three generations.

     Categorization by race or color overlaid the categorization by birthplace and generation.  To use the categorization of eighteenth-century French Louisiana, three ancestral communities were identified as white, black, and Indian (in reality, as sauvage).  Initial mixes among these were known as mulatto (white and black), mtis (white and Indian), and grif (black and Indian).  With the passage of time, more complex mixtures were observed and a more complex terminology developed.

     Legal status distinguished those who were free and slave, and also those who were indentured or ex-slaves.  In addition, colonial regions commonly had different legal or court systems for people distinguished by nationality, religion, or birthplace.

     Marriage practices allowed for significant additional variation in family organization.  One can get a sense of the range of marriage practices by asking of any pair of biological parents whether they are formally married, whether the relationship is monogamous or polygamous (i.e., if either party is in another relationship), whether the parents reside together, and whether the children are recognized by both parents.  Of the sixteen logically possible combinations of these four factors, roughly half were actually utilized with some frequency.11

     In sum, the full range of identifiers for a child included his or her biological parentage (when acknowledged), birthplace (and that of parents), racial or color designation (and that of parents), status (free or slave, along with that of parents), and marital status (including residence) of parents.  All of these social distinctions arose in large measure from migration and became current wherever migration was significant.  The model suggests that certain social patterns recurred widely:  for instance, a female spouse on the small side of a family was likely to be of low status, while a male spouse on the small side of a family was likely to be of high status.

     One limitation of the model is that it assumes migration to begin from a static and localized social structure.  More realistically, any system of families probably reflects the impact of previous migrations.  In the late first and early second millennium, for instance, the migration of Arab, Turkish, and Mongol pastoralists into new areas of the eastern hemisphere brought changes for the migrants and for those among whom they settled.  Similarly, neither European, West African nor Amerindian populations of the fifteenth century were static or lacking in migration. But migration accelerated from the sixteenth century, especially seaborne migration, and started new patterns of connection and change in families which are the focus of this model.

Theses on migration and family structure

            The combined elements of the model (which were themselves inspired by empirical observation) yield a set of predictions on family size and structure. Some of these theses are listed below by region.  If specified more fully, they could be stated in historically testable form.

For the world as a whole

1.     Global patterns of out-migration and in-migration created a mosaic of regions, each
        characterized by resultant patterns of family life. 
2.     Migration everywhere made families smaller in biological, residential, and social
        terms in comparison to the standard of non-migratory zone and in comparison to earlier times.
3.     Migration reduced the ability of senior family members to control creation of new families,
        and increased the ability of young people to decide on starting their own families.  By the
        same token, migration reduced the ability of young people to call on relatives for support.
4.     Development of these new systems laid the groundwork for the marital and non-marital forms of
        families in more recent times, in which young people have increasingly migrated away from
        parental homes and have started families by their own choice.

For zones of high in-migration (e.g. Barbados)

5.     Migrant-dominated zones of interaction, such as the Caribbean from the sixteenth to eighteenth
        centuries, developed a range of family structures in which young people created their own
6.     Free people were able to choose their residence, while those in slavery were assigned their
7.     Formally married couples had small families, and most relationships were non-marital. Becaus
        of the surplus of males, many males were unable to form families. Privileged males, in contrast,
        could form polygynous relationships.
8.     Socially defined families included many female heads of household.
9.     The new terms and categories of social differentiation (by birthplace, color, status, etc.)
        developed especially in areas of high in-migration, where differences from the home societies
        were greatest.

For zones of moderate in-migration (e.g. Java)

10.  Regions with sizeable minorities of in-migrants developed new structures for linking
       multigenerational families to unaffiliated individuals.
11.  Immigrant men of high status were able to marry into well-established local families.
12.  It was to the advantage of immigrant men to reside with their in-laws, to qualify for
       inheritance of family lands and goods.
13.  Immigrant women, unless brought as spouses by immigrant men, came as women without
       power, who entered into families as subordinates.

For zones of moderate out-migration (e.g. Bight of Benin)

14.  Since most out-migrants were male, the regional population became predominantly
       female in the young adult years.
15.  The surplus females either did not form families, or entered into relationships as subordinates. 
       In large numbers they were enslaved, and entered into non-marital, residential, polygynous
16.  Large families were able to build their size by incorporating additional females, but the average
       regional family size declined.

     The point of this model is to argue that early modern family structure was not simply an accumulation of ethnic traditions, but was created out of the demographic, economic and social conditions of what A.J.R. Russell-Wood has called a "world on the move.12 Of course, migrants carried with them an idea of family structure based on the heritage of their homeland.  Europeans and Africans in the Americas and Chinese in Southeast Asia each have brought ancestral patterns with them. Indeed, the migrant-based traditions of the Caribbean or Southeast Asia, once established sufficiently, may have been carried to other regions by further migration.  But the movement of people itself may have been a more significant determinant of family life than has yet been recognized by historians.

     A more detailed conceptualization of this approach, accompanied by systematic global collection of data on family structure and linkage of these observations to patterns of migration, may lead to elucidation and verification of global interactions and transformations in the history of the family.13


1 Ansley J. Coale and Susan Cotts Watkins, eds., Decline of Fertility in Europe (Princeton, 1986).

2 Two surveys of family in world history are G. Robina Quale, Families in Context:  a world history of population (New York, 1992), and Quale, A History of Marriage Systems (New York, 1988). 

3 My attention was drawn to this topic through work on an interpretive, instructional CD-ROM on migration in world history, which introduced me to the impact of migration on family structure, and through it to the possibility of a world history of the family.  Of the thirteen topical and chronological units, Units 4, 6, and 12 give particular emphasis to the family as influenced by migration.  Patrick Manning, Migration in Modern World History, 1500-2000 (Belmont, CA, 2000).

4 Michael Anderson, Approaches to the History of the Western Family, 1500-1914 (London, 1980); Louise Tilly, Womens History and Family History:  Fruitful Collaboration or Missed Connection? Journal of Family History 12 (1987), 303-315; Maria Beatriz Nizza da Silva, Introduction, in da Silva, ed., Families in the Expansion of Europe, 1500-1800 (Aldershot, UK, 1998), xiv.

5 The Journal of Family History, vol. 12 (1987).  See also Peter Laslett and Richard Wall, eds., Household and Family in Past Time (Cambridge, 1972); Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England (New York, 1977); E. A. Wrigley and R. S. Schofield, The Population History of England 1541-1871(Cambridge, Mass., 1981); and Daniel Scott Smith, Recent Change and the Periodization of American Family History, Journal of Family History 20 (1995), 329-346;

6 Patricia Seed, The Church and the patriarchal Family:  Marriage Conflicts in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century New Spain, in Silva, Families in the Expansion of Europe, 29-38.  For another recent compilation, see Andre Burgire, Christine Klapisch-Zuber, Martine Segalen, and Franoise Zonabend, eds., trans. Sarah Hanbury Tenison, RosemaryMorris and Andrew Wilson, A History of the Family, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA, 1966).  See also W. George Lovell and Christopher H. Lutz, Demography and Empire:  a guide to the population history of Spanish Central America, 1500-1821 (Boulder, 1995).

7 Of the numerous accounts of the auto-critique of anthropology, I have been most impressed with Adam Kuper, The Invention of Primitive Society (London, 1988).  See also Kuper, Among the Anthropologists (New Brunswick, 1999).

8 Gene H. Brody and Irving E. Sigel, eds., Methods of Family Research, 2 vols. (Hillsdale, NJ, 1990). For a recent study, see Julie Brines and Kara Joyner, Principles of Cohesion in Cohabitation and Marriage, American Sociological Review 64 (1999), 333-355.

9 John Bongaarts, Thomas K. Burch, Kenneth W. Wachter, Family Demography:  Methods and their Application (Oxford, 1987); Roger Jeffery and Patricia Jeffery, Population, Gender and Politics:   Demographic Change in Rural North India (Cambridge, 1997).

10 This modeling builds on an approach I have used in earlier studies of the enslavement of Africans.  Patrick Manning, "The Enslavement of Africans: A Demographic Model." Canadian Journal of African Studies 15, 3, pp. 499-526; Manning, "Slave Trade:  The Formal Demography of a Global  System." Social Science History 14, 2, pp. 255-79.

11 For instance, there were no marriages which were formalized, monogamous, and coresident in which the parents denied recognition to their children.  But there were informal, polygynous, non-coredisdent relationships in which the male parent denied recognition to his children.

12 A.J.R. Russell-Wood, World on the Move : The Portuguese in Africa, Asia, and America, 1415-1808 (New York, 1993)

13 The World History Databank, a collaborative research effort launched in 2000 at the World History Center, Northeastern University, is designed in part to assemble data for this purpose.  The Databank (at seeks to collect, transform, and post on the Web a worldwide set of data on selected variables in trade, migration, and family structure.


Copyright Statement

Copyright: 2001 by the American Historical Association. Compiled by Debbie Ann Doyle. Format by Chris Hale.

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