Between Sex and Power: Family in the World 1900-2000 
by Göran Therborn.
Routledge, 379 pp., £24.99, February 2004, 0 415 30078 9
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The family is a subject on which, for obvious reasons, there is no shortage of public or private views. Google records 368 million items under the word ‘family’, as against a mere 170 million under ‘war’. All governments have tried to encourage or discourage procreation and passed laws about human coupling and decoupling. All the global religions (with the possible exception of Buddhism) and all the 20th-century ideologies have strong convictions on these matters. So have masses of otherwise politically inactive citizens, as the rise of electoral support for religious fundamentalism indicates. It has been plausibly argued that ‘moral issues’ (i.e. abortion and homosexual marriage) won George W. Bush his second term in office.

The passion with which these opinions are held is almost always inversely correlated to knowledge of the facts, even in the holder’s own country: most of the public discourse on the relations between men, women and their offspring is both unhistorical and deeply provincial. Göran Therborn’s comparative survey of the world’s family systems and the ways in which they have changed (or failed to change) in the course of the past century, the result of eight years of intensive thought and research, is a necessary corrective in both respects. Thanks to its global perspective and unique accumulation of data, it should from now on be the standard guide to the subject. In addition, it makes available the sometimes surprising results of a generation of demographic, ethnographic and sociological researches recorded in a bibliography of more than forty pages. How many people knew, for example, that up to the middle of the 20th century by far the highest rate of divorce ever recorded – up to 50 per cent – was to be found among nominally Muslim Malays, that there is less gender bias in domestic work in Chinese cities today than in the USA, that the highest divorce rates in the second half of the 20th century were to be found among the main protagonists of the Cold War, the USA and Russia, or that the most sexually active Western people are the Finns? It is far from common knowledge that the two or three decades of the mid-20th century ‘were the age of marriage and of intra-marital sexuality in modern Western history’ – in 1960, 70 per cent of American women aged between 20 and 24 were married, as against 23 per cent in 2000.

Therborn, whose previous books include European Modernity and Beyond: The Trajectory of European Societies 1945-2000 (1994), is here particularly concerned with three themes, all of them involving changes both in family values and in actual practice, although the text does not always make it easy to follow them. (Therborn’s Scandinavian commitment to ending ‘humanity’s long patriarchal night’ is not an analytical asset.) Two of these themes – the decline of patriarchy and growth of birth control – are unproblematic, unlike the third, clumsily described as ‘the role of marriage, and non-marriage, in regulating sexual behaviour, and sexual bonding in particular’.

Despite some common global developments, notably the spread of birth control, the world’s family patterns have not converged; the process of ‘family change . . . has been neither evolutionary nor unilinear’. The world in 1900 was divided broadly into five family systems – the European (including the New World settlements), the sub-Saharan African, the East Asian, the South Asian and the West Asian/North African – belonging to the two major branches which the social anthropologist Jack Goody has taught us to recognise, the African and the Eurasian. Therborn prefers a ‘geocultural’ division to one based on religion, since, as he sees it, geoculture generally prevails. Hindu and Muslim family practices in North India are similar but markedly distinct from Hindu practices in South India, and African Christianity has had to make substantial practical concessions to African polygyny. The South East Asian and Creole American are ‘interstitial systems’. In the former, ‘the rigid patriarchies of Confucianism, Islam and Catholicism were mellowed by Buddhist insouciance in family matters’; and in the latter, European conquest created the curious combination of rigid patriarchy among rulers, mass miscegenation, and an uprooted non-marital family pattern among the conquered indigenous and the imported slave populations. The imperial conquest of the Western hemisphere, Therborn suggests, produced the first sudden transformation of family structure before the 20th century.

Among Creole Americans male power was macho rather than institutional, but for the great majority of family systems up until the 20th century it was patriarchal, even in the minority of matrilineal systems. It rested on the power of older males over the young of both sexes and on the institutionalised superiority of men over women, though Europe, South-East Asia and Africa proved less unfavourable to women than elsewhere. The West European family, we are reminded, ‘was by far the least patriarchal in a very patriarchal world’. Unexpectedly, women also benefited in the only region of systematic mass polygamy, south of the Sahara, thanks perhaps to the fact that the African family was essentially non-nuclear (‘kin was always more important than spouse’) and to the early public recognition that sex is a legitimate human pleasure. Patriarchy also rested on the overwhelming prevalence of marriage, not necessarily indissoluble, even in South-East Asia and Africa, where weddings are not central rites of passage.

Therborn holds plausibly that, unlike social structures of power and production, ‘family systems do not seem to possess an intrinsic dynamic – their changes are exogenous’: i.e. in the absence of any push from outside, they will reproduce themselves. Of course, the ways in which human groups earn their living – both limitations and opportunities – have always led to adjustments in marriage (by abstention or varying the age of partners) and in child-bearing (by varying the birth-rate or infanticide). The very earliest 18th-century demographers regarded it as almost axiomatic that in any year the number of marriages varied inversely with the price of corn. More generally, the long-established ‘West European marriage system’ that prevailed west of the historic line from Trieste to St Petersburg, the original ‘Iron Curtain’, assumed that marriages would lead to new households (‘neo-locality’), which required the new couple to have initial resources – in agrarian societies, access to land. But, Therborn argues, in settled regions like those of medieval and early modern Western Europe this required systems of land transfer between generations by inheritance. This, he suggests, is what led to the characteristic ‘Western’ marriage system (later exported to settler societies overseas): late marriages at variable ages, a high proportion of the never-married, and ‘a combination of . . . non-hierarchical sexual informality . . . with a strongly normative sexual order’. On the other hand, in Africa, where the majority of subsistence farming, not to mention, in some parts, commerce, was carried out by women, marriage was more than elsewhere a crucial form of labour supply.

What are the outside impulses that lead to changes within the family of unparalleled historical rapidity? Somewhat unexpectedly, what Therborn feels obliged to explain is the long delay in the 18th and 19th centuries before the rapid decline and fall of Western patriarchy in the 20th. Would we not have expected industrialisation to weaken it by severing the place of work from the place of residence, proletarianisation to deprive fathers of power both because they had no property to transmit and because they were now clearly themselves dependent on the owners of land or capital? Did urbanisation not weaken authority as such? Indeed, had male dominance not appeared to retreat, at least among the poor, in the era of ‘proto-industrialisation’ (what used to be known as the putting-out system)?

In fact, the rise of industrial capitalist society protected and reproduced patriarchy, not least because up until the rise of corporate business it was not, and could not yet be, a system operating primarily, let alone uniquely, by market rationality (in many countries this is still the case). The patriarchal family was not only ‘a heavy social anchor’ but an essential mechanism of economic enterprise. Moreover, as 19th-century British industrialisation shows, a prosperous industrial capitalism was to turn its proletarians into a manufacturing working class, very probably class-conscious, but also increasingly composed of males functioning as the primary bread-winners of their family. This became ‘the normative aspiration of the European working classes’.

Perhaps some of Therborn’s surprise is due to what he sees as the priority of anti-patriarchal argument over changes in actual behaviour, although he shows that ideas were not translated into national state action before the 20th century. He dates the argument back to the emergence in the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment of the idea that the position of women in society was an indicator of social progress, though this did not yet mean equal rights of the sexes. Possibly, it had links to radical Protestantism which, with (atheistic) socialism, Therborn sees as the major 19th-century challengers to patriarchy. While the American and French Revolutions were not concerned with the liberation of women, this was to be a central element in socialist and Communist ones. Hence, in the 20th century he sees the major ‘broad ideological currents behind determined thrusts into the fortress of patriarchy’ as, in order of importance: the revolutionary socialist/ Communist movement (notably via the vast effects and influence of the Russian Revolution); the non-Western ‘nationalist developmentalists’ (notably in Turkey); feminist women’s movements, which he does not think were of major significance outside the Anglo-Saxon regions; and ‘a secularised liberalism mainly of Protestant Christian or Jewish – seldom Catholic – provenance’.

From a global point of view it makes obvious sense to insist, with Therborn, that ‘international Communism played a crucial, if not overwhelming role’ at all the major leaps forward in the 20th-century retreat of patriarchy – World War One, the aftermath of World War Two and the great turn from the mid-1960s to the 1980s. However resistant actual family behaviour was to the imposition of Lenin’s model of egalitarian modernism or Ataturk’s westernisation, the massive 20th-century changes between the Balkans and the China Seas could hardly have happened but for the impact of revolutionary supercharged state power. Though Therborn antedates its death, the best expert in the field (Karl Kaser) holds that it was the decades of Communism that put paid to the traditional Balkan zadruga, the ultra-patriarchal extended family.

In the West the decline and fall of patriarchy, far greater than elsewhere until the last third of the century, was based on indigenous dynamics. The impact of organised ideology and state power – the latter chiefly concerned, until the unexpected post-1945 ‘baby boom’, with encouraging childbirth – was therefore less significant and less necessary. Compulsory primary state education for girls as well as boys and the prohibition of child labour, both of which raised the costs of children to parents, were the main ways in which state action directly affected the family. The modern model was pioneered not in the core countries of capitalist development, but on its margins – among (non-Catholic) white settler societies, in Australasia and the North American Midwest and West, but especially in Scandinavia. (Therborn warns us against simple and unilineal models of the relations between economic and cultural transformation, apart from the patent economic correlation of variations in the age of marriage and family planning.)

The general Western pattern appears to be that ideas favouring modernity spread within societies from secularised and educated (middle-class) elites and ‘progressive’ political movements, and outwards by the imitation of influential models of modernity abroad. The progress of birth control in Sicily, analysed in a beautiful study by Jane and Peter Schneider, is an excellent example. Even so, except for the mass decline in child-bearing from 1880 onwards, ideology and legal change ran far ahead of change in actual family and sexual behaviour until the 1960s. This did not become dramatic until the last third of the 20th century even in the West. In fact, the last third of the 20th century saw the most rapid and radical global change in the history of human gender and generational relations, though it has not so far penetrated very deeply into the rest of the world. Therborn is better at recording and monitoring this unprecedented revolution in human behaviour in the developed capitalist countries, and the corresponding upheavals in the post-Communist regions, than in analysing its causes and its relation to the extraordinary acceleration of socio-economic growth and transformation of which it is a part.

Somewhat unexpectedly, his conclusions about the state of the family at the end of the last quarter-century of behavioural revolution are undramatic, not to say trite. Humanity is likely to continue to carry on with varieties of the old family (‘the modal pattern of long-term institutionalised heterosexual coupling’), only – at least in the post-1968 West – in a less standardised bourgeois form. Some recent developments are worrying, notably the ‘commodification’ of sexual and personal relations, but none is ‘necessarily fatal or even threatening to the existing institutional set-up. They only indicate that the future will have its problems too.’ Such statements are surprising, because they are at variance both with Therborn’s own analysis and with some of the evidence to which he draws incidental attention.

He has himself formulated the problem lucidly: family systems are held in balance. When they are disturbed by internal contradictions or – in this case – exogenously, a given set of social arrangements is destabilised. The disruption may or may not be managed by re-equilibrating, restabilising mechanisms. If it isn’t, ‘there arises the need for a second phase of change . . . a phase of setting a direction of change and of organising the institution anew.’ But if this does not succeed ‘there will be a shorter or longer period of anarchy, after which the institution in question will either change (including disappear) or relapse into its previous form.’ It can hardly be denied that the developments surveyed by Therborn amount to a historically sudden and spectacular disruption of the long-lasting norms and arrangements by which genders and generations were linked in societies, at least since the invention of agriculture. When the number of extra-marital births in developed countries rises, in 40 years, from 1.6 to 31.8 per cent (Ireland), 1.4 to almost 25 per cent (Netherlands), 3.7 to 49 per cent (Norway), or when, as in Canada, the mean number of children per woman falls from 3.77 to 2.33 in the single decade of the 1960s, we are clearly facing a revolution in social and personal behaviour. One might have expected a less superficial enquiry into the consequences of this extraordinary disruption. The only aspect Therborn considers seriously is the strictly demographic, which is likely to reduce Europe from holding a quarter of the world’s population in 1900 to a fifteenth in 2050.

Here Therborn’s own strong identification with the Scandinavian ideals of progressive gender and sexual emancipation gets in the way of his analysis, skewing his view of the family’s historic social functions. It is perhaps no accident that the book’s index contains more references to ‘divorce’ than to ‘children’, to ‘sexuality’ than to ‘inheritance’, far more to ‘marriage’ than to all these put together and none to any form of ‘adoption’ or other constructed forms of kinship. His book considers marriage primarily as a sexual order, separate from though intertwined with the social order, which incidentally allows him to open it to same-sex partnerships. For him this comes before its other functions (‘a choice deriving from early 21st-century experience’): as an arrangement for procreation and bringing up children, as a mechanism for social exchange and integration into wider communities, and as an establisher of social status of age-groups and householding. Curiously, he seems to show little interest, at least in this context, in the parent-child or tri-generational unit as a medium of material and cultural transmission and as a system of social support within and between generations, or with the married couple as an income-generating unit.

Is it still adequate since the 1970s, as economic inequality rises sharply within developed capitalist societies, to see the decline of ‘the housewife family’ from its mid 20th-century zenith as entirely ‘driven not – as later in many poor countries – by poverty but by a new life-course priority, of independent income and of a career’? Incidentally, Therborn’s own findings suggest that marriage as a sexual order is historically a social norm or ideal rather than a description of reality, except insofar as in some systems it forces all women into formal marriage as virgins and makes (heterosexual) sex virtually impossible for them outside it. Quite apart from the Creole zone, ‘the classical area of centuries of massive coupling outside the norms of the Church and of the law’, he observes the historic informality of the sexual order in sub-Saharan Africa, in parts of which the frequency of marital sex runs a clear second to non-marital sex, and in some regions of Europe, e.g. in the Austrian Alps and north-west Iberia, with their ‘historically accepted proletarian or minifundist deviants from the law of the Church’ and, he might have added, from the celibacy of the priesthood.

Therborn’s own data suggest a less complacent view of the situation created at the start of the 21st century by the earthquake shaking the traditional family. Probably the basic trend of the 20th century – essentially, the emancipation of women from their age-old position of social and institutional inferiority to men – still prevails, but he also observes that ‘where fathers and husbands do not rule, phallocracy or asymmetrical male sexual power may dominate the socio-sexual order, as in popular Creole societies or in the swollen slum cities of Africa.’ Or, as he notes in the post-Communist context, ‘while the power of fathers and husbands does not seem to have increased, that of pimps certainly has.’ In the very period of the most dramatic collapse of traditional standards of sexual morality and behaviour, the male-dominated family has been reinforced by strong religious revivals, ‘often with intense patriarchal preoccupations’. Strongest though this is in Islam, it is far from clear that the victories of US Christian fundamentalism are as ‘Pyrrhic’ as Therborn suggests. Indeed, at present it looks as though under George W. Bush it is about to score further victories in ‘the first and so far the only country to see a successful anti-feminist backlash in the area of the European family system’.

Therborn also acknowledges that the supremacy of the ideal which liberal emancipation shares with consumer capitalism – namely, the satisfaction of individual desires, including the sexual – has some aberrant consequences: not merely the fall of Western fertility far beyond replacement rates but the birth of fewer children than women actually want. He does not mention the consequences, especially in a market society, of the novel and rapidly increasing human capacity to manipulate the genetics of our species (cloning etc). They will inevitably be substantial, unpredictable and almost certainly troubling. The problems created in male-preferring societies in the 1990s, by the combination of birth control and parents’ ability to discover the sex of embryos, are already obvious. In 1995, the Chinese sex ratio at birth was 117 boys to 100 girls. I refrain from commenting on Therborn’s own prediction that the market will solve this in the long run by raising the scarcity value of girls.

This is a deeply impressive book by a major sociologist, original and mostly persuasive in its historical analysis and remarkable in its survey of the global marital and sexual scene. However, it underestimates the actual and potential effect of the recent revolutionary changes in the human family, unprecedented in their scale and speed, both globally and in the Western societies in which it has gone furthest. In my view it also underestimates the relationship between effects on the family of the Western cultural revolution of the last third of the 20th century and its economic equivalent, the belief in a theoretically libertarian capitalism which thinks it can function without the heritage that gave it much strength in the past, the rules of obligation and loyalty inside and outside the traditional family, and other proclivities which had no intrinsic connection with the pursuit of the individual advantage that fuelled its engine. As neo-liberalism triumphed in economics its inadequacy could no longer be concealed. In the light of the contents of this book, it may be suggested that we are also reaching this point in the ideology of cultural libertarianism.

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