Family Systems and Marriage Patterns

In the subproject ‘Agency, gender and family systems’ we will elaborate on existing typologies of family forms in the world, in particular with respect to female agency. Moreover, we will link our indicators to economic performance. Well-known is the typology created by John Hajnal (1965, 1982) who was the first to show that family formation in north-western Europe was characterized by late and infrequent marriage, when compared to the rest of the world. In addition to late marriage, the area stood out with the life-cycle service and neo-local household formation. Another rather influential typology, based on the combination of co-residence and inheritance practices, has been developed by Emmanuel Todd (1985, 1987, 1990). Based on differences in kinship ties, David Reher (1998) has sketched ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ family systems in respectively northwestern and southern Europe. Others focus on the nature of differences in interpersonal relationships between property-based and power-based societies (Tsuya et al 2010). Finally, Göran Therborn (2004) has proposed a ‘geocultural road map’ that divides the world into broad regions in which people (even belonging to different religions) share basic attitudes towards sexuality, marriage and gender relations.

For our purpose, we will take out crucial elements from these typologies, and combine them with data from population censuses (IPUMS) and the Ethnographic Atlas, to arrive at a ‘world map of female agency’. We will focus on patterns of marriage, co-residence and inheritance.

Marriage. Even now, there are wide differences in the world in parental control on marriage as well as in age at marriage, differences that strongly reflect past patterns (Kalmijn 2007, Therborn 2004). Clearly, arranged marriages at an early age reflect much less agency and autonomy than a free choice of partner at a relatively advanced age. According to Edlund and Lagerlöff (2006), the shift from arranged to the ‘love’ marriage redirected marriage costs from the parents to the couple, inducing investment and human capital accumulation. Moreover, when wives were (much) younger than their husbands, their position tended to be weaker still (Todd 1987). Culture and religion co-determined the relative positions of husbands and wives. Finally, demographic imbalances at the marriage market may exert an influence of their own. Thus, a relative scarcity of women might strengthen their bargaining position (Angrist 2002).

Co-residence. According to anthropologist Michel Verdon, people will strive to live in ‘atomistic’, nuclear families, in order to maximize their individual autonomy (Verdon 1998). However, as one’s livelihood often depended on co-working an indivisible family plot, co-residence of several married couples occurred frequently and in many forms. When the older couple remained at the head of the extended household, the autonomy of the younger generation was often severely limited. In cases of ‘community families’ with more than two co-residing couples, as in China, authority depended on (male) birth order as well (Lee and Campbell 1997).

Inheritance. Family norms regulate the transfer of material assets from one generation to the next. Rules of transmission favoring one child over the other, or one gender over the other, affect personal agency and thus human capital formation. There are diverging hypotheses on the causal mechanisms. According to Todd (1987) the strongest positions for (relatively older) women occurred when women could inherit and were part of the senior couple in a multigenerational household. In his view, the ‘stem family’ societies of Central Europe and Japan, offered women strong positions with a beneficial effect on educational investments. However, other authors emphasize the positive effects of ‘uncertainty’ with respect to inheritance. Thus, in the ‘absolute nuclear family systems’ of, among others, Holland and Great Britain no one was assured of an inheritance, leading to a relatively individualistic and enterprising mentality, which in its turn was related to economic success (Duranton et al 2009).

With respect to demographic behavior we expect that gender equity and (female) agency is reflected in access to education and relatively early adoption of birth control. Female agency will also be reflected in female labour market participation and limited gender wage differentials. The family-related agency indicators will also be directly related to the economic performance indicators (e.g. Kick et al 2000).

One of the challenges will be to uncover the direction of causal chains. Past family patterns explain not only the current regional variation (within Europe) in housing and care for the elderly by children or other kin (Keck and Blome 2008), but also economic performance (Duranton et al 2009) and demographic behaviour (Kalmijn 2007). What is still unknown, however, is by what mechanism of path dependency traditional family systems have survived and still exert influence. Family norms and marriage patterns may have a long history, but they are not immutable. Economic change can engender new behavior (e.g. earlier marriage; migration, nuclearization of families), which may stimulate or hamper further economic development. Thus, the project will also take account of alternative explanations for the relationship between family structures and economic growth and potential causal flows in the reverse direction.

This research is being conducted by Sarah Carmichael at Utrecht University.