Abstract Demographic practices are spatially embedded 'lore'

1. A methodological premise

One of the final waves of cholera to hit London in 1854 led John Snow to take the plunge and find out why. His explanation lays on the different qualities of water provided by different companies in various parts of London [Lilienfeld and Lilienfeld 1980]. Snow's experimental plan to discover which water company carried the infection is part of the history of epidemiology as an induction-based science. However, there was no basically coherent etiological model corresponding to this tenaciously followed intuition that water was the place to look for the cause of the disease and not the equally considered alternative place, the miasmatic air. Snow inferred the existence of a 'cholera poison' transmitted to the population via the water from the mouth of the Thames. Another quarter of a century was to pass before microscope techniques developed sufficiently to permit scientists to isolate the 'cholera vibrio' and thus to work out the cause of the contagion. All the same, Snow's use of 'romantic' epidemiological interpretative categories does not detract from the importance of his insight. It is actually because of this that epidemiologists started reflecting on the channels of contagion - even without a clear or systematic theoretical basis.

The year after the1854 cholera epidemic, Frederic Le Play published in Paris the first edition of "Les ouvriers européens" [Le Play 1855]. From then on, till the 1871 'summa' [Le Play 1871], Frederic Le Play started systematically mapping European regions, using a typology of the organisational models of the household based on two modern variants of the patriarchal ideal type. In the stem-family, continuity is ensured by blood-ties, with one child being singled out as heir general to the home [Note 2]. The unstable (or nuclear) family arises from the union of two autonomous people, and survives just as long as they survive, exerting over the children both a shorter period of care and looser control [Note 3]. Le Play's analysis was much esteemed during his lifetime but quickly lost credence after his death. Emile Durkheim was soon to start a course of lectures, criticising him on two grounds: "firstly that it is impossible to generalise from the case studies which tell us much about the individual family, but little about the society in which it is placed; and secondly that this 'sociographie microscopique' involved the collection of a mass of uninteresting detail" [Brooke 1998].

Current population studies have their own puzzles, too. The stagnation of fertility in Southern Europe is undoubtedly one of them. Nevertheless, just as John Snow faced his epidemiological puzzle by analysing hydrological data and pointing to water pollution, we could explore similar empirical evidence: there is considerable overlap between Le Play's mid-eighteenth-century household model map and the regional TFR map of central-southern Europe in the 1980s. The under-valuation of Le Play's work comes from scorning a non theory-laden 'sociographie microscopique' which, furthermore, is used as propaganda for a Vendéean philosophy of life [Note 4]. Yet, like Snow, although unable to give an acceptable explanation, Le Play probably hit upon a fundamental disparity in social and demographic behaviour in Europe.

Of course, in the absence of an interpretative model, the persistent disparities in Le Play could be dismissed as mere statistical coincidences. In this article I want to tread another path in two different stages. In paragraphs 3-6 I propose to examine closely the overall structure of relationships involved in Le Play's typology, going beyond the household category and trying to include the networks of both kinship and extra-kinship strong ties. This will lead to formulating a hypothesis of a tri-partite model for Western European relationship models. The concluding paragraphs 7 and 8 provide some rough contributions to an etiological model in which the current diversity in regional fertility behaviour is explained by basic persistent anthropological structures. But in order to understand this logical connection we need further premises.


Abstract Demographic practices are spatially embedded 'lore'

Kinship, Family and Social Network: The anthropological embedment of fertility change in Southern Europe
Giuseppe A. Micheli
© 2000 Max-Planck-Gesellschaft ISSN 1435-9871