and Family Structure:
Theses on the Global History of Families
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
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
Ë literature review and modeling the impact of migration Ë 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 Ë 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 øfamily.Ó
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
The term øfamily,Ó 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 øthe human family.Ó
Since no one definition will do, here are three main ways in
which I will use the term øfamilyÓ 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. øFamily structureÓ 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 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
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:
are multigenerational, and linked to a given territory. In them
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
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:
without migration (as above) Ë taken as the standard for comparison
with a small proportion of in-migrants
with a large proportion of in-migrants
with a moderate proportion of in-migrants
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.
were numerous on wifes side and on husbands side.
are agreements between families, with protection for each party.
from these areas, usually by young men, leaves shortage of men,
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
approval of elders who are not present.
are small on wifes side and on husbands side.
are in surplus; many are unable to marry, form households, or
children; others seek far for partners.
after two generations (over half a century) can multigenerational
strong enough to control the marriage of young people.
Regions with a moderate proportion of in-migrants
Most marriages were under control of families.
in-migrants (generally male) could marry into established families,
that families were large on wifes side and small on husbands
in-migrants (commonly female) joined established families, whether
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
leave as migrants, so that females are in surplus in the region
remain unmarried or join families as subordinates or in polygynous
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 øsauvageÓ). Initial mixes among
these were known as mulatto (white and black), m¹tis (white
and Indian), and grif (black and Indian). With the passage
of time, more complex mixtures were observed and a more complex
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
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,
resultant patterns of family life.
2. Migration everywhere made families
smaller Ë in biological, residential, and social
terms Ë in comparison
to the standard of non-migratory zone and in comparison to earlier
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.
same token, migration
reduced the ability of young people to call on relatives for
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
parental homes and
have started families by their own choice.
For zones of high in-migration (e.g. Barbados)
zones of interaction, such as the Caribbean from the sixteenth
a range of family structures in which young people created their
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,
could form polygynous
8. Socially defined families included
many female heads of household.
9. The new terms and categories of social
differentiation (by birthplace, color, status, etc.)
in areas of high in-migration, where differences from the home
For zones of moderate in-migration (e.g. Java)
10. Regions with sizeable minorities
of in-migrants developed new structures for linking
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
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
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.Ó12 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,
4 Michael Anderson, Approaches to the
History of the Western Family, 1500-1914 (London, 1980);
Louise Tilly, øWomens History and Family History: Fruitful
Collaboration or Missed Connection?Ó Journal of Family History
12 (1987), 303-315; Maria Beatriz Nizza da Silva, øIntroduction,Ó
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, øRecent Change and the Periodization of
American Family History,Ó Journal of Family History 20
6 Patricia Seed, øThe Church and the
patriarchal Family: Marriage Conflicts in Sixteenth- and
Seventeenth-Century New Spain,Ó in Silva, Families in the
Expansion of Europe, 29-38. For another recent compilation,
see Andre Burgire, Christine Klapisch-Zuber, Martine Segalen,
and FranÆoise 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
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,
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,
øPrinciples of Cohesion in Cohabitation and Marriage,Ó 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 www.databank.neu.edu)
seeks to collect, transform, and post on the Web a worldwide
set of data on selected variables in trade, migration, and family