History of Family Essay

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European societies during the nineteenth century underwent massive changes. The old social order anchored in kinship, the village, the community, religion, and old regimes was attacked and fell to the twin forces of industrialism and revolutionary democracy. The sweeping changes had particular effect on the family. There was a dramatic increase in such conditions as poverty, child labor, desertions, prostitution, illegitimacy, and the abuse of women and children. These conditions were particularly evident in the newly emerging industrial cities.

The industrial revolution dramatically changed the nature of economic and social life. The factory system developed, and, with its development, there was a transformation from home industries in rural areas to factories in towns and cities of Europe and America. Rural people were lured by the novelty of city life and the prospects of greater economic opportunity. The domestic economy of the pre-industrial family disappeared. The rural and village-based family system no longer served as a productive unit. The domestic economy had enabled the family to combine economic activities with the supervision and training of its children; the development of the factory system led to a major change in the division of labor in family roles.

The separation of work from the home had important implications for family members. Increasingly, the man became the sole provider for the family and the women and children developed a life comprised solely of concerns centered on the family, the home, and the school. Their contacts with the outside world diminished and they were removed from community involvements.

Sociological interest in the study of the history of the family was very strong in the mid-nineteenth century in Western Europe. Prior to the nineteenth century, western thought generally held to a biblical belief in the origins of the family stemming from God’s creation of the world, including Adam and Eve. Although there was recognition of relatively minor familial changes over time, the biblical family form and its underlying patriarchal ideological precepts were seen as continuing intact into the nineteenth century.

Friedrich Engels’ (1972) evolutionary theory saw economic factors as the primary determinants of social change and linked particular technological forms with particular family forms. He depicted a stage of savagery as one with no economic inequalities and no private ownership of property. The family form was group marriage based on matriarchy. During the stage of barbarism, men gained economic control over the means of production. In civilization, the last stage, women became subjugated to the male-dominated economic system and monogamy. This stage, in Engels’s view, rather than representing the apex of marital and familial forms, represented the victory of private property over common ownership and group marriage. Engels speculated that the coming of socialist revolution would usher in a new evolutionary stage marked by gender equality and by common ownership of property. Engels’ main achievement was in defining the family as an economic unit. This has become a major focus in much of the subsequent historical research on the family and is of great theoretical importance in the sociology of the family.

In traditional societies, the family (following the argument of Chicago School sociologists William Ogburn and Ernest Burgess) performed economic, educational, recreational, religious, and protective functions. In modern society most of these functions have been taken over as a consequence of the increased participation of government, economic enterprises, and education. The cornerstone of family life was its companionship and emotional functions. This shift in family functions led to Burgess’s famous classification of family types as moving from ”institution to companionship.” According to Burgess, the institutional family is sustained by external community pressures and involvements; the companionate family, on the other hand, is sustained by the emotional attachments among its members.

Talcott Parsons emphasized the importance of the nuclear family – in the absence of extended kinship ties – in that it meets two major societal needs: the socialization of children and the satisfaction of the affectional and emotional demands of husbands, wives, and their children. Further, the isolated nuclear family, which is not handicapped by conflicting obligations to extended relatives, can best take advantage of occupational opportunities and is best able to cope with the demands of modern industrial urban life.

The classic statement of modernization theory, centering on the family and change, is William J. Goode’s World Revolution and Family Patterns (1963). This work has had a profound impact on the comparative study of social change and the family. Goode’s major contribution is the comprehensive and systematic gathering and analyses of cross-cultural and historical data to attack the notion that industrial and economic development was the principal reason that the family is changing. Goode concluded that changes in industrialization and the family are parallel processes, both being influenced by changing social and personal ideologies – the ideologies of economic progress, the conjugal family, and egalitarianism. Finally, Goode proposes that in the ”world revolution” toward industrialization and urbanization there is a convergence of diverse types of extended family forms to some type of conjugal family system.

Globalization theory has become another perspective in examining family change. Here the emphasis is on an examination of the transnational processes that have an impact on families. Rather than focusing solely on families in the modernized countries or on families in third world societies, of paramount importance are relationships that exist and are experienced by individuals who have family members living in both rich and poor countries.


  1. Coleman, M. & Ganong, L. H. (2004) Handbook of Contemporary Families. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
  2. Engels, F. (1972) [1884] The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Pathfinder Press, New York.
  3. Trost, J. & Adams, B. (eds.) (2005) Handbook ofWorld Families. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.

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