Familism and asabiyyah. Towards a tripartite typology of family models Post Scriptum. Flowing back into the river-bed of the stem-family

7. Conclusions. In search of symptom-formation factors

Reasoning on the anthropological frame underlying the current demographic transformations in Europe, three main arguments have been developed here. First, the European patterns in fertility decline are regionally embedded 'lore', roughly concentrated in three bands at different latitudes and overlapping Le Play's geography of family models. And this overlap concerns not only demographic dynamics but also both economic and political ones. On the one hand the predisposition of sibs to 'embark on common entrepreneurial initiatives', typical of the stem-family, takes the shape of the 'family-firm' in Central-Northern Italy industrial districts; on the other the importance of blood-ties in stem-family areas is the incubator of the ethnocentric philosophy of 'little homelands'.

Secondly, the anthropological roots of European demographic cleavages cannot be reduced merely to the household; they are also to be found in the concentric circles of strong ties. Crossing Le Play's family classification, according to external strategy (leaving the family, alliance among sibs), with Bott's family typology, according to segregation in the internal role-set, we find that both the stem-family area and the unstable area in Southern Europe are marked by a small, close-knit network of strong ties, with kinship predominance. The Italian Social Barometer data confute the hypothesis of a large Italian network both of relatives and friends, and confirm Bott's findings. Close-knit network and kinship dominance are also structural characteristics of a 'familistic' society, strategically prone to strong fertility control.

Third, the kinship dominance area is not homogeneous within itself: different patterns of social network organisation are to be found in it. In the stem-family area, social support hinges upon a network of kin (consanguineous), whilst in the unstable Mediterranean area social support hinges upon an alliance primarily among different kindred units, then upon a network with many relatives-in-law.

A clear claim for future research emerges from these results: we can no longer avoid investigating the inertial anthropological localisms where today's demographic dynamics are embedded. From this point of view to pose the alternative between converging or diverging European demographic dynamics is only a misleading question. Reher [1998] emphasises it, basing his statement upon the valuable category of 'path dependency' [Note 49]. Weber [1904/1905] was working on a similar issue when he wrote: "development paths too can be constructed as ideal types".

But a good sociography is not enough. We must also try to understand the interlocking of structural conditions, rational choice, practices and norms. An open question remains: why, in the present historical circumstances, do we see a drastic drop in fertility behaviour precisely in the regions where the importance of the family agency (in the shape of the stem-family or of familistic kinship alliance) is embedded in the anthropological rules of social reproduction [Note 50]? How can we explain the relationship between family predominance as anthropological embedding and family collapse as demographic reaction?

It may be useful to reconsider these questions in the light of the cognitive dissonance theory. Festinger's theory [Elder and Caspi 1988] can be summarised by saying that whenever a person holds two or more 'cognitions' (including beliefs and norms, preferences or emotions) that are inconsistent with one another, and the tension produces psychic discomfort and physiological painful arousal, an unconscious pressure is set up to adjust one or more of the elements in the set, by changing or blocking some of the dissonant cognitions, so as to reduce the tension and restore consonance.

There is no doubt that, over the last decade, not only one part but the whole of Europe has come to the zenith of a long period process of homogenisation in the name of modernism and secularisation [Lesthaeghe 1991]. However, we know that this long process has brought to light strong contrasts between economic conditions and expectations about the way of life [Note 51]. It is equally evident that, in the last two decades of the century, the final outcome of this process is as far off as behavioural standardisation. As we have seen before, Northern Europe favours self-fulfilment by procreational choice outside marriage, whereas Central and Mediterranean Europe preserves the marital bond at the expense of the maternal blood bond - two opposing strategies which, however, for several years, have both contributed to the same declining trend in fertility.

Faced with such tension between resources and expectations, various parts of the continent have used diverse adaptive strategies. So what 'law-like statement' can help explain why? Analysing the similar problem of changes in philosophy of life among 'the children of the Great Depression', Elder and Caspi [1988] resort to a social mechanism that they defined as "principle of accentuation".

"Social change creates a disparity between claims and resources, goals and accomplishments and the corresponding loss of control prompts efforts to regain control. (..) Adaptive responses are shaped by the requirements of the new situation, but they also depend on the social and psychological resources people bring to the newly changed situation. Individual and relational attributes, such as coping styles and the marital bond, affect adaptation to new circumstances. The accentuation principle refers to the increase in emphasis or salience of these already prominent characteristics during social transitions in the life course."

Tesser and Achee [1994] pose the same problem of indeterminacy among different mechanisms to get out of a dissonance situation. They suggest a solution going beyond state variables and introducing "path dependence or hysteresis" [Note 52]. According to them [Note 53], a not very frequent pattern of behaviour, under strong opposite social pressure, tends to further dissipate with time, just as a frequent pattern of behaviour tends to further increase: their thesis is similar to the principle of accentuation.

Also the bifurcation of demographic patterns in Europe may be attributable to the same mechanism. The persistent prestige of the marital bond, in Mediterranean countries, leads not only to protecting it but also to highlighting its importance at the cost of mother-child links. The traditional weakness and instability of conjugal ties in Atlantic countries becomes accentuated by complete dissociation from procreation. The various European regions adapt their own demographic behaviour to mitigate the effects of dissonance by barricading themselves into the fortress of their respective strong cultural specificities.

As a by-product of this thesis, Elder and Tesser & Achee help us identify some contextual characteristics that can explain the diversification mechanism. What "symptom-formation factors", to use Brown and Harris' terminology [Brown and Harris 1978] [Note 54], justify the appearance of one 'symptom' rather than another when there is a crisis in a 'body'? Although many processes can concur in these geographical cleavages, stratified according to latitude [Note 55], both Elder and Tesser & Achee focus their analysis on the role of practices and norms, i.e. the stratified relational systems, as 'factor-formation' systems.

As a matter of fact we observe today the following sort of social feedback. While historically different social practices gradually crystallised in the shape of different inertial anthropological structures (norms and values), these in turn embed the current social transformations (whatever economic, political or technological factors cause them) into different new patterns of social practice.


Familism and asabiyyah. Towards a tripartite typology of family models Post Scriptum. Flowing back into the river-bed of the stem-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