The History Of The Changing Family Structure

Historical theorists such as Peter Laslett and Max Weber have researched the history of the changing family structure at great length, and their findings have amazing applications to modern society.

The primary discrepancies of opinion that occur in theories involving the reconstruction of family composition in Europe during the early modern period of the 17th and 18th centuries are based upon issues of complexity and time. Complexity is a core issue of debate in that while a great number of historians have assumed that only one prominent and essentially linear pattern could explain the evolution of the family over the last three or four centuries, others view the issue as a multidimensional blueprint that delineates family structure on a variety of levels. This is an issue discussed in further detail below. However first I would like to address the issue of time.

In regards to time, there has historically been considerable debate regarding the emergence of the nuclear family. For example, one of the founders of modern sociology, Max Weber (1864-1920), attributed all family structural changes to the social changes spawn by the industrial revolution. He asserted that technology infiltrated society by replacing family loyalties with materialism and egocentricity, and that state bureaucracies began to take over family functions and reduce them to dependent client populations. Weber believed that a society based on technology was a society that had lost its passion and commitment to the priorities of the morally righteous (such as family) because the ethics of our charismatic leaders had been corrupted. He believed that as a new type of society began to emerge from the industrial revolution, new principles of social structure caused a shift to a predominance of nuclear family households as opposed to extended ones. Yet Peter Laslett's careful reconstruction of past populations in England and other countries in western and northern Europe, which emerged long after Weber's, revealed the predominance of the nuclear family household long before the commencement of the industrial revolution.

Laslett clearly shows that both before and after the industrial revolution, young couples in England were expected to set up their own separate households and, that the elderly were also expected to live in different households from their children. Weber on the other hand, asserted that prior to the eighteenth century, it was not common for members of the same family to live separately. In his view however, it was unusual for a group of individuals to put work and material possessions before family, yet the impact of technological change and the increase of material wealth that occurred during the industrial revolution seriously affect family and social relationships and structures.

According to Weber this occurred primarily because prior to the industrial revolution, the primary unit in traditional society was the group, not the individual. Individuals functioned as part of groups in such a manner that their lives were greatly influenced by the group even more so than by their own individual beliefs. People spent more time together in groups in both a physical sense and a social one in that homes were smaller and communities were more tightly knit. Of course, the most important group had always been the family, which encompassed a broad sense of kinship even among those family members living in separate residences. In addition, social groups, guilds and associations were instrumental in providing a feeling of belonging.

Although certain findings of Laslett's, such as the late age of first marriage that was apparently unique to pre-modern Europe, have not been challenged, others, such as the notion of a stable nuclear pattern, have been disputed at length. Similarly, just as Laslett disagreed with some of his predecessors, he used their discoveries and theories to build a foundation for his own. This is evidence that an accurate assessment of the history of family can facilitate social scientists in shedding light upon not only the past, but also on the quandaries existing in the present day, as well as those that may arise in the future.

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