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  • Family Ideals, Colonialism and Law
  • Kenneth M. Cuno (bio)
Göran Therborn. Between Sex and Power: Family in the World, 1900–2000. New York: Routledge, 2004. xii + 379 pp.; tables. ISBN 0-415-30078-9 (pb).
Arland Thornton. Reading History Sideways: The Fallacy and Enduring Impact of the Developmental Paradigm on Family Life. London: University of Chicago Press, 2005. x + 312 pp. ISBN 0-226-79860-7 (cl).
Tamara Loos. Subject Siam: Family, Law and Colonial Modernity in Thailand. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006. x + 212 pp.; ills. ISBN 0-8014-4393-8 (cl)
Brett L. Shadle. "Girl Cases": Marriage and Colonialism in Gusiiland, Kenya, 1890–1970. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2006. xliii + 256 pp.; ills. ISBN 0-325-07094-6 (pb).
Mytheli Sreenivas. Wives, Widows, and Concubunes: the Conjugal Family Ideal in Colonial India. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008. xiii + 169 pp. ISBN 0-253-21972-5 (pb).

Nearly half a century ago, in the heyday of Parsonian functionalism, the sociologist William J. Goode argued that industrialization and urbanization were promoting similar changes in family life globally.1 The trend was toward the "conjugal family," which also happened to be the ideal family form in the late-twentieth-century West. The conjugal family consists of a couple and their children. Its members are free of formal obligations toward elders or an extended kin group, and its children are relatively autonomous in their choice of spouses. Subsequent developments cast Goode's perspective in doubt. Historians discovered that such families, rather than being a consequence of industrialization and urbanization, were predominant in Northwestern Europe centuries earlier. Since then there has been growing recognition that the "modern" conjugal family is to some extent an idealized version of the historic Northwest European pattern. Nor has the conjugal family triumphed in every newly industrializing and urbanizing society. It is even losing its preeminence in Europe and North America, which, ironically, have begun to deviate from the "modern" ideal. Nevertheless, the conjugal family ideal continues to be central to discourses [End Page 282] of modernity. Moreover, its promotion in place of alternate family forms, especially in non-western societies, has often been justified by the association of the conjugal family with relatively higher status for women.

Each of the books under review addresses the question of historical change in family forms, what promoted change and the implications of such change for women. The role of the modern regulatory state and of the law in promoting change in family systems, both intentionally and inadvertently, is another common theme. Göran Therborn, a sociologist, and Arland Thornton, a demographer, offer studies of global change that cover some of the same ground but differ in perspective. Therborn is interested in measuring major long-term shifts in family systems, while Thornton focuses on the influence of developmentalist ideas in promoting these and other changes in family life. Historians Tamara Loos, Brett Shadle, and Mytheli Sreenivas present case studies of the re-envisioning of family life and the rewriting of family law in Siam, Kenya, and India that both amplify and complicate the issues raised by Therborn and Thornton.

Göran Therborn's Between Sex and Power presents a "global history of the family" since 1900 in three thematic sections that address the decline of patriarchy, the changing roles and meanings of marriage, and changes in fertility. Each section compares the past century's developments within five major family systems: sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and North America, East Asia, South Asia, and West Asia-North Africa. There also are two interstitial systems: Southeast Asia, where Confucianism, Islam, and Catholicism are "moderated" by Buddhism and Malay customs; and "Creole" (Latin) America, where African, European, and Native American cultures melded.

Therborn's dominant theme is the retreat of patriarchy—the power wielded by elder men over women and younger men—as sanctioned in laws governing marriage and the rights of women, men, and children within the family. Indices of fathers' and husbands' authority, such as patrilocal marriage, arranged marriage, polygyny, and formalized rules of wives' and children's obedience, eroded the most in liberal Europe and North America, followed by Eastern Europe and East Asia. Twenty-first century Europe and North America have...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 282-292
Launched on MUSE
2010-12-16
Open Access
No
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