Kinship & strong ties: concentric circles round the family Conclusions. In search of symptom-formation factors

6. Familism and asabiyyah. Towards a tripartite typology of family models

Can we assign a specific identity to the Mediterranean social interaction model, which is located by Le Play in the unstable or neo-localist family model (close to Northern-European countries), but unlike them is marked by asymmetrical roles in the partnership and dense and kinship dominant social network?

The geography of family structures and practices sometimes intertwines with the geography of social practices and cultures, producing new problems. The economic debate about industrial districts has opened yet another classic issue of political science: the civic culture too (the ethos of the community good taking priority over family affairs) has its own geography. Apart from Tocqueville's America, the civic culture is predominant in Northern-Western Europe, but Robert Putnam [1993] found it in Italy also, just in the stem-family regions.

Familism is the opposite of civic culture: the ethos where the good of the family takes priority over community needs. Familism also has its own geography; Banfield [1958] described it as the prevailing ethos in Southern Italy. Dalla Zuanna [1995] summarised the nature of familism in the following three points: 1) most people arrange their own life based on the family, both as household and as kinship; 2) the individual utility function is overwhelmed by the utility function of one's own family; 3) society is organised in such a way that strategies based on individual utility are less successful than strategies based on family utility. The first point clears up the link between the familist culture and the underlying anthropological structures of stem-family and close-knit network. The two latter points, tracing the functioning strategy of familistic home, clarify a possible link between anthropological embedding and the current bent for strong demographic restraint:

"In a familistic society engaged (..) in processes of upward social mobility, an (additional) child is a very heavy burden. In a long period horizon (..) familistic parents want their children to have a social status higher than or at least equal to their own status. Therefore the familial investment is very strong (..) To sum up, a well-off familistic society generates few children because it invests too much in those children" .

Dalla Zuanna's interpretation of fertility decline in Italy is intriguing, because it supports the hypothesis of familism as a normative framework. However it appears to depend upon the hypothesis that familistic culture is uniformly spread throughout Italy: "the recent fertility decline can be interpreted if we assume familism as the background noise of the whole of Italian society..". How can we reconcile this hypothesis of overall uniformity in family strategies both with Le Play's different family models and with the different family cultures generally attributed to the South and to the Centre-North of Italy?

Actually, the division of the social network of Italian families into its three main components (household, non co-resident relatives and non kinship strong ties), measured by the Social Barometer, gives some evidence of a slightly different geography than Le Play's maps (tables 7-10). The frequency of household components among the strong ties is higher in the regions of Central-Southern Italy, as a consequence of current delayed demographic transition. The frequency of non co-resident kinship in the network (proxy for the close-knit network of Bott's model) is systematically higher, in 40-year-olds and over, in Central-Northern Italy (core of the stem-family area). On the other hand, the frequency of non-kinship strong ties is high throughout the life course only in north-eastern Italy, i.e. principally in Veneto, the only probable location of the unstable, loose-knit network family.

So, if we want to understand the rationale behind the geography of family patterns in Italy - and maybe elsewhere - we need two rules that can strengthen our method of analysis. First, we must give up any interpretation of the social and demographic European dynamic at the purely country aggregation-level, but also, perhaps, at the regional (NUTS 2) level. E.g., the two Le Play regimes in Southern Italy intertwine and alternate, depending on the local features of urbanisation and productive organisation. Delille [1988] emphasises how the patri-local stem-family tradition prevails in hilly areas divided into farms and among the urban high classes, whilst the neo-local nuclear family tradition is dominant in the large landed estates and among the urban lower classes.

Above all we need to replace the dichotomous typology with a tripartite one to grasp the difference not only between stem family and unstable family, but also between a Northern-European unstable family regime and a Mediterranean one. A similar aim is pursued by Reher [1998] who, in exploring historical premises, before differentiating between family models in Europe, arrives at an analogous tripartite division. He began from two distinct (even though conjugable) readings, both taking into account the structural conditions that make a 'rational choice' out of some everyday practice [Note 45] and clarifying the cultural roots of the Mediterranean model, which stems from the peculiar local reply to structural stresses:





"In the Northern part of the continent Christianised forms of familial organisation ended up by meshing gradually with existing Germanic legal and social traditions based on the importance of the tribe, the individual and the visible social position of women. In southern-Europe the influence of the Germanic tribes was much more superficial and short-lived. Besides, from the early eighth century on, a series of Muslim incursions occurred, strongest in Spain and Portugal and in the Balkan peninsula but also present in Southern Italy, which tended to bring back oriental family structures, so central to Islamic societies, that are based on the overriding importance of kin ties".

Reher suggests a process of hybridisation of the stem-family by a different model, which is prevalently based on "kin ties" and "extended family loyalties". If we wish to explore this model, a capital text is at our disposal: in the Mouqaddima [Note 46], Ibn Khaldun's theory of collective action hinges upon the concept of 'Asabiyyah, i.e. 'esprit de corps', group solidarity. 'Asabiyyah [Gabrieli 1930] is the abstract from the noun 'asabah', i.e. male sibs of a common lineage. 'Asabiyyah is based upon blood bonds, reciprocal aid - the Polanyi reciprocity - produced both by the 'nasab' (genealogy) and indirectly by some non blood ties, such as alliance (hilf) or patronage (wala) [Note 47].

If we attribute to the concept of 'Asabiyyah' the extended meaning of 'alliance among kin' [Note 48], we can easily realise how exactly it looks like the concept of a close-knit network of the Mediterranean area. In describing "small-scale (primitive) societies" Bott [1957] in fact stressed that the elementary (stem-) family

"is encapsulated not only within a local group but also, particularly in the sphere of domestic affairs, within a corporate kin group (..). When there are corporate local groups and kin groups, segregation of conjugal roles is likely to become even more marked than that described above for urban families with close-knit networks. Marriage becomes a linking of kin groups rather than preponderantly a union between individuals acting on their own initiative".


The Italian Social Barometer data show that the ideal type of family encapsulated in its kinship is present both in the Centre-North and in the South of Italy. In both these regions the web of affiliations is mostly circumscribed with blood-bond ties, and with few non-kinship ties. Nevertheless, while in Central-Northern Italy kinship acts as a bridge towards the land of weak ties, in the Mediterranean unstable family the kinship circles of different families are inclined to intertwine with each other.

On the other hand (table 11) the Mediterranean unstable family and the North-European one are somehow similar, as both are integrated in a larger land of ties. However in the North this is the land of weak ties, whilst in the South - where the extra-kinship network is traditionally shorter [Trumbach 1978] - a different, but equally effective, network is woven by the intertwining of different kinship systems, that is by an alliance among families. The key of family-centred social reproduction is here, therefore, a policy of kinship: it acts by means of collateral line relationships, which weave different family threads into a single close-knit web of reciprocities.


Kinship & strong ties: concentric circles round the family Conclusions. In search of symptom-formation factors

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