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Collection « Les sciences sociales contemporaines »

Rethinking Households. An atomistic perspective on European living arrangements (1998)

Une édition électronique réalisée à partir du livre de Michel Verdon, Rethinking Households. An atomistic perspective on European living arrangements. London and New York: Routledge, 1998, 220 pp. Collection : ROUTLEDGE RESEARCH IN GENDER AND SOCIETY. Une édition numérique réalisée par Marcelle Bergeron, bénévole, professeure à la retraite de l'École polyvalente Dominique-Racine de Chicoutimi, Ville de Saguenay. [Autorisation de l'auteur accordée le 15 septembre 2007.]

Part I 





When he published The World We Have Lost in 1965, Peter Laslett dropped a bomb on the historical community. Historians had hitherto believed that preindustrial people (and especially women) married young, that preindustrial families were large and their households complex. According to this traditional historical perspective, the great demographic transition to older age at first marriage, to smaller families and to less complex households followed the Industrial Revolution. Using data from English villages, Laslett undermined this traditional view : English households appeared to have been small and mostly nuclear for many centuries before the Industrial Revolution, and women had married relatively late over the same period. With the collaboration of the pioneer of historical demography, Louis Henry and his student Antoinette Fauve-Chamoux on the one hand, and Laslett and his collaborators on the other, this led to a momentous colloquium which resulted in another landmark in the so-called history of the family, namely Household and Family in Past Time (Laslett and Wall 1972). With a few qualifications, the results confirmed what Laslett had perceived in the early 1960s, a theme which he later refined (Laslett 1977, 1983) and which Hajnal repeated in 1983. Over the same years (1969), Laslett and Wrigley had created a now famous research unit, the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure (referred to simply as the Cambridge Group in the rest of this book). The various researchers of the Cambridge Group followed their respective paths, but it is no exaggeration to say that Laslett influenced their work by creating a brand of family history revolving mostly around a specific definition of 'household' (Laslett 1972 ; Hammel and Laslett 1974) and a corresponding typology founded on household composition. This aspect of family history, I shall call 'household history'.

Almost from the beginning, historical studies in household composition came under heavy fire. Many anthropologists, who had been studying 'domestic groups' for decades, did not take very kindly to this kind of approach (for the anthropological critique, see below, Chapter 2), and many family and social historians followed suit. Most of these critiques bore on the two key pillars of the type of household history carried out by the Cambridge Group, namely the very concept of household, and the typology based on it. I shall dedicate Chapter 2 to reviewing those critiques. 

Recently, another social historian, D. S. Smith, criticized the very same studies from a different angle (Smith 1993), one which, from my point of view, reaches to more fundamental issues. He first challenged Laslett's claim that historians prior to him believed preindustrial households to be large and complex. Accusing Laslett of historical short-sightedness, Smith bluntly indicts him of having invented the myth he claims to have refuted. Second, he accuses family historians of theoretical blindness, of neglecting what he calls 'underlying philosophical assumptions' because of their obsession with facts. To illustrate his case, he singles out the discovery of quasi-ubiquitous nuclear households in England and Northern Europe. Instead of getting embroiled in factual concerns with statistics and representativity, he questions the assumptions that underlie current debates, pointing out that only two fundamental stances can be taken about such a phenomenon : either 'a strong, neoindividualist conception', or a cultural view, itself weak or strong. Convinced that only a neoindividualist viewpoint will stir the debate in the right direction, he lashes against the cultural interpretation :


The weak, cultural [view] is less important for social science than the strong neoindividualist conception. Instead of locating the elemental motivation for human action at the level of the individual actor, it merely comments on the 'peculiarities of the English'…. In this weak variant, all cultures are weird, with the English or, by extension, the northwestern European being only the most peculiar of the lot. In the strong version of the theory, the rest of the world outside England and northwestern Europe is peculiar, burdened with coercive institutions and practices.
(Smith 1993 : 345)


In his opinion, Macfarlane and Todd epitomize the most extreme examples of this weak, cultural variant (Smith 1993 : 347 ; Macfarlane 1978 ; Todd 1985). In contrast, the strong, neoindividualist approach puts the individual (and individualist) actor back at the centre of the stage, and would inspire new and more fruitful questions :


If people have a real choice, the strong version of the [neoindividualist] theory predicts that they will live in households no more complex than those of the simple family. Complex households consequently are the result of coercive institutions or norms. Nuclear households are close to being natural, biologically based units.
(Smith 1993 : 347)

According to Smith, this 'strong' neoindividualist version finds its ultimate justification in sociobiology (the 'natural' proclivity of parents to invest in their children) and, if it had been taken seriously, it 'would have created a far more productive and interesting controversy : between the individual and the social as units of analysis, and between the biological and the cultural as the main determinants of behavior' (348).


Smith thus reaches out to anthropology, but to a brand of anthropology (sociobiology) that most of its 'self-respecting' (that is, politically correct...) practitioners would hastily repudiate. Despite what some might regard as a questionable assumption, I cannot help feeling that in some respects Smith is asking the right questions. 

In the debate on the comparative study of households, anthropologists may have added important riders to premature conclusions on the part of historians, warning them that the concept of household is not a self-evident category, and that they might have lumped disparate entities together. It is unclear to me, however, whether anthropologists themselves have taken things much further or not, for a case could be made that they threw the baby out with the bath water. Indeed, many of their objections have led them to abandon altogether anthropology's original programme, namely comparative analysis. Ironically enough, it is now mostly historians, and especially household historians, who have taken up the flag. 

As an anthropologist, I have worked on living arrangements somewhat in the manner of the Cambridge Group (Verdon 1979a, 1979b, 1980a, 1980b, 1987, 1991, 1996a) and, though aware of the difficulties marring this type of research, I nonetheless still believe it possible to give back credibility both to the historical and the comparative studies of households. In this endeavour also I consider that D. S. Smith must be taken very seriously, for he is the first to shift the emphasis from discussions on the household to what he mistakenly calls 'underlying philosophical assumptions' (the term 'philosophical' is somewhat misleading in this context ; one may speak of authors' 'underlying assumptions' about the nature of the phenomena they study, of their underlying presuppositions, postulates or set of axioms, but the link to philosophy is on the whole too indirect to be of any great heuristic value in the type of analysis he advocates). Smith's questions will thus take us directly to the key conceptual issues plaguing household history. 

However, Smith seems unaware that his strong, neoindividualist set of axioms also lives in the works of some family economists interested in household formation (Ermisch and Overton 1985, for instance), economists whose conceptual grid now supports new developments in family demography (Burch and Matthews 1987 ; July 1993). In brief, demographers studying contemporary European families and households, anthropologists interested in European kinship, as well as family historians, not to mention household economists, are trying to account for household composition and, willy-nilly, will ultimately have to share a common set of axioms. In other words, we are no longer talking about a renewed dialogue between family historians and anthropologists but about a 'conference' between many more interlocutors. 

Hence the present venture : I wish to take things where Smith has left them and strive to elaborate a new conceptual and theoretical framework which could sort out, clarify and unify diverse attempts to study household composition in Europe. As we shall see, this new set of axioms will superficially look like Smith's neoindividualism, but superficially only. 

As a result, this book will be divided in two parts. In the first part I will seek to develop an atomistic set of presuppositions from considerations stemming from anthropology and family demography ; in the second, I shall endeavour to demonstrate its heuristic validity by applying it first to two European areas with types of households which have overwhelmingly been described as extremely collectivistic, namely pre-emancipation Russian multiple family households and Western Pyrenean stem families. A chapter on the question of English neolocality and contemporary household 'atomization' in Canada (1971-86) will follow, and I will end by contrasting the set of postulates I developed for Europe to the one which would have to be elaborated in a radically different cultural setting, namely among the Abutia Ewe of southeastern Ghana. Needless to say, I do not see my contribution as an empirical one, since I have selected empirical cases for their paradigmatic value, and will rely on secondary sources when discussing them. What this book strives to achieve is to clarify some issues that have tended to get more and more clouded as years went by ; as such, it remains an essentially programmatic statement. 

I have subtitled this book 'An atomistic perspective on European living arrangements'. In reality, I would have preferred to write 'Western living arrangements', but 'The West' is one of those realities which makes sense only to those who do not feel they belong to it. As it is, I have therefore chosen Europe, and implicitly North America of European extraction, and I have written of Europe as if it formed a unified cultural area. I am aware of the raging debates surrounding the notion of 'cultural area', and of the futility of trying to define them in general. Furthermore, I am equally aware that, within Europe, some areas display sufficient homogeneity to warrant sub-demarcations. But over time and space, so many factors have shaped diversely the European social and cultural landscape that it would be most naive to present it either as a well-delineated, uniform social space, or as neatly subdivided into easily categorized areas. Beneath the variations, however, some convergent themes do make it useful to evoke such a fuzzy concept as Europe. I therefore deny it any cultural boundaries, and confess to using it loosely for its immediate presentational convenience. The same themes that pervade the literature on European residence might be found much further afield, but my concern is not to delineate cultural areas ; it is to identify some common elements which warrant the framework I elaborate.

Finally, I have limited myself to European populations and North American populations of European extraction, partly because this is the literature I know and about which I have written over the years, but mostly because moving further afield would have involved me in different cultural contexts and would possibly have called for vastly dissimilar sets of axioms, as the contrast with Abutia suggests. And, within this general geographical category, I have chosen paradigmatic examples which were presented either as extremely collectivistic or extremely individualistic, to demonstrate how misleading such categorizations are and how, underneath all, the same axioms can be seen to run. I have therefore wilfully neglected such important areas as India, China, Japan, not to mention the Arab world, because each one of them might have called for a different book.

Retour au texte de l'auteur: Robert Vandycke, sociologue, Université de Montréal Dernière mise à jour de cette page le vendredi 2 mai 2008 13:25
Par Jean-Marie Tremblay, sociologue
professeur de sociologie au Cégep de Chicoutimi.

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