Household patterns in historic Europe and the present demographic choices Kinship & strong ties: concentric circles round the family

4. The co-ordinates of Le Play's household typology

Curiously, since the hypothesis of more distinct household patterns in Europe again attracted the attention of social scientists, Le Play's contribution was rediscovered but also underestimated or misunderstood [Note 18]. In 1990 Hollinger and Haller [1990], confuting the hypothesis of the nuclear family type as the dominant type in all advanced industrialised countries, said: "modern historical family research has disproved convincingly the earlier assumption of the predominance of the extended 'stem' family (Le Play [Note 19]) in pre-industrial Europe". But such an assumption is hardly attributable to Le Play. In fact the authors go on describing analytically three 'European cultural areas' with different family structures in pre-industrial times: and two of these three areas are similar to the Le Play's unstable and stem family. Describing a Europe split into two social and demographic models of reproduction, hinging upon 'weak' and 'strong' families, Reher [1998] writes:

"The geography of strong and weak family systems does not appear to follow the classic division of Europe into stem-family and nuclear-family regions. The dividing line, in some ways, is actually much simpler, with the Centre and North of Europe together with North American society characterised by relatively weak family links, and the Mediterranean regions by strong family ties".

At least two arguments explain the recurrent misunderstanding of Le Play. The first one, as already stated, is the disaggregation level the authors use for their territorial analysis: passing from country to regional level is enough to trace clearly the cleavage between the area of the stem-family and fertility stagnation and the world of unstable families and fertility recovery [Note 20]. A second argument concerns the lack of clarity in the definition of the stem-family and more generally of Le Play's family typology.

It is common opinion [Todd 1983] that the stem-family category is founded upon two co-ordinates: a) the degree of neolocalism (liberal model) or patrilocalism (authoritarian model) in the residence at marriage, and b) the rules of inheritance. Nevertheless Caroline Brettell [1991] has confuted the prevalent hypothesis among historians and anthropologists, arguing (at least with respect to the Italian case) that "inheritance practices are not determinative" in discriminating the family models. Behind a lifestyle, Brettell suggests, we should glimpse both an economic calculus and a 'philosophy of life' [Note 21]. Behind a social practice producing social norms, we can see either a system of costs and benefits or a system of values (a meaning-giving system) sedimented in time. As Reher [1998] says, "historically the strength of familial ties appears to have conditioned the way in which succession was carried out in stem-family regions" [Note 22].

In Le Play's typology, then, the rule of inheritance is perhaps subordinate to the rule of the placement of the residence after marriage. As a consequence, the basic cleavage among family models divides patri-local (patriarchal or stem) and neo-local (unstable) families [Note 23]. Cross-tabulating this variable with the frequency of complex (extended and multiple) households, Laslett [1983] proposed a typology of forms of organisation of the home in traditional Europe (table 5) that overlaps Le Play's map, and where the crucial cleavage distinguishes a north-western area, characterised by predominant neo-local residence, from a large and compound stem-family area, where the neo-local residence is less widespread or a minority, even though present, practice [Note 24].


Moving from a country-level analysis to a regional (NUTS 2) one, Laslett's typology can also become inaccurate and the demarcation lines already mentioned in §3 appear again. For instance, Rowland [1983] shows how placing the whole of Spain in the Mediterranean area could conceal the peculiar stem-family culture of the Cantabric-Pyrenean area. As for Italy, Barbagli [1991] has constructed a more analytical typology (table 6) where Southern Italy is - coherently with Le Play - placed into the unstable and neo-local family area, whereas a further cleavage between North-western and North-eastern Italy is not found in Le Play.


To sum up, we are a long way from understanding clearly what the stem-family really marks, but it is geographically unquestionable that the stem-family has its own specific identity. The satisfactory overlap between the maps of traditional household patterns and of current fertility decline confirms the nexus between current changes in demographic behaviour and the persistence of some anthropological structures and practices concerning the formation of the family. A similar result is found by Holdsworth [1998], who traced the Spanish regional map for the age of transition to adulthood.

But the influence of anthropological embedment goes beyond strictly demographic behaviour. The modern relevance of the Le Play cleavages (either within the European map or simply within the boundaries of only one country, like Italy) can be extended to other facets of social reproduction. E.g. the compound geography of the regional neo-local and patri-local family model, described in Barbagli's typology, is perfectly reflected in the map of the architectural forms of farmhouses in Italy [Note 27].

Moreover, the Central-Northern regions of Italy marked by the traditional predominance of the stem-family also experienced in the Eighties the upsurge of a new kind of capitalism, the Marshall 'industrial districts' [Piore und Sabel 1984], hinging upon a network of 'family- firms' managed by a group of sibs, exactly as in Le Play's sketch of the stem family: "(the other children leaving the household) can in turn both become totally independent of each other or embark together on some enterprises..". Italian studies into the 'informal economy' have underlined some crucial qualities of the family-firm: its ability to cope, using non-standard strategies, with all the tensions emerging in a changing society, its autonomy of organisation that makes it a perfect mechanism of crisis management, its resources of flexibility. All this extra-skill of functional adaptation, not only to changes in the social system but also to transformations of the productive system, seems to be a distinctive feature of the stem-family, or - as anthropologists [Linton 1936] have already noticed - of the consanguineous family.

Finally, it would be useful to reflect on the fact that the orographic backbone of the stem-family (from the Basque country and Catalonia to the central-European areas of Bavaria, Carinthia and Slovenia) contains the core of Europe's family-based, highly ethnocentric 'little homelands' [Note 28]. These are the very regions in which XXth century history sometimes has seen civil wars, i.e. break-up of a social order based on blood ties [Micheli 1999].


Household patterns in historic Europe and the present demographic choices Kinship & strong ties: concentric circles round the family

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