The American Historical Review Vol. 112, Issue 2

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From The American Historical Review Vol. 112, Issue 2.
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Presented online in association with the History Cooperative.

Review Essay

Whither Family History? A Road Map from Latin America


Family values are back with a vengeance. As pundits pontificate and spin doctors strategize, historians of the family have periodically joined in the fray. Scholars have appeared in the popular media offering historical perspectives on marriage and divorce, childhood, cohabitation, working mothers, child custody, and same-sex unions. The family is an institution peculiarly subject to mythification, and more often than not, historians have sought to set the record straight about "the way we never were."1 Meanwhile, historical perspectives on the family have found their way into legal reasoning. In Halpern v. Canada, the landmark 2005 decision that paved the way for same-sex marriage in Canada, both sides marshaled historical evidence in an effort to bolster their claims.2 Prominent historians of gender, sexuality, and the family have also filed amicus briefs in cases involving same-sex marriage in U.S. state courts and in Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 Supreme Court case that struck down Texas's anti-sodomy law.3


      If family history reverberates in public discourse, its resonance in contemporary historical scholarship is by contrast muted. Once upon a time, in the early 1980s, historians of the family could describe the field as a "growth industry" undergoing "spectacular expansion."4 They could argue, as one of the field's founders, Lawrence Stone, did, that "there is scarcely any ... major dispute about the nature of change in the past, upon which family history does not somehow impinge."5 Twenty-five years later, such bold assertions strike one as a bit overwrought. From "spectacular expansion," the field has settled into a much more modest productive rhythm. If family history has had some bearing on major historical debates in recent decades, it has not been a particularly outspoken interventor in them. From its dynamic youth, the field has lapsed prematurely into a quiet senescence.


      Meanwhile, among self-identified practitioners of the field, breathless enthusiasm has given way to a certain restless frustration. In a review essay on the history of childhood in this journal in 1998, Hugh Cunningham acknowledged the significance of Philippe Ariès, one of the field's founding fathers, but declared that the scholarship he inspired "has now run its course; it is time ... to shift the agenda." More recently, Cissie Fairchilds asserted that family history "badly needs a new interpretive paradigm." "Where," she lamented, "is the next Ariès or Stone who will write a personal, idiosyncratic synthesis of the field which will provide one?"6


      Yet these scholars would probably agree that family history, while enervated, is hardly moribund. There is no better evidence for this than The History of the European Family, published by Yale University Press and edited by Brown University anthropologist and historian David Kertzer and University of Bologna sociologist Marzio Barbagli. 7 This three-volume work provides an opportunity to take stock of the current state of the field. A brief review of the volumes can serve as a springboard for a broad assessment of what ails family history.


      Moving beyond the paths charted by European historiography, colonial and postcolonial societies heretofore marginal to family history suggest new directions for scholarship. In Latin America historically, family and kinship have been fundamental cultural categories, central to political power and economic production, elite domination and plebeian survival, honor culture, the agrarian order, labor systems, entrepreneurship, and migration, among other social formations.8 Latin America is, moreover, a region whose historical development has been characterized by some of the most persistent and yawning inequities of color and class in the world. Considering these two features of Latin American history in tandem and examining the role of family, kinship, and household in the production and reproduction of social difference may pose a new agenda for family history.



The History of the European Family (HEF) consists of three chronological volumes, containing twenty-nine essays by thirty contributors. In more than a thousand pages of text, these scholars explore family change in Europe from 1500 to the present. The series is at least the sixth in what must surely qualify as a cottage industry of multi-volume histories of private life, women, childhood, and family in the West.9 That HEF joins such a crowded genre raises the obvious question: what could there possibly be left to say? The project is distinguished by its comparative, comprehensive thrust. For its purposes, "Europe" refers to "all the land from the Atlantic Ocean on the west to the Ural Mountains on the east, from the Arctic Sea in the north to the Mediterranean in the south." In a field that originally derived its insights from local parish records and village census manuscripts, such a broad-ranging perspective is no mean feat. In contrast to other multi-volume syntheses of family and private life, each essay seeks as comprehensive a comparative reach as possible. To facilitate this enterprise, the volumes are purposefully organized thematically rather than by geographic area.10


      The contributions vary widely in focus and approach, and in so doing, implicitly raise the question, what is family history? The series gives significant weight to "classic" approaches, including demographic analysis, household economics, and the relationship between families and macro-level economic change.11 But other approaches are also represented. Essays on material culture explore the relationship of clothing, diet, housing, and spatial organization to family life.12 Several contributors examine changing family law and social policy.13 Cultural history, while underrepresented from the perspective of North American scholarly trends, also makes an appearance.14 Finally, a number of essays are informed by anthropological and sociological perspectives.15


      Amid this diversity, one leitmotif that emerges is gradual evolution over rupture and persistence over change. This theme informs essays on the Reformation and Counter-Reformation; material culture, parent-child relations, and marriage patterns in the nineteenth century; and the impact of migration on kinship networks and peasant households.16 If there is a watershed in European family life and structure, the essayists would probably place it in the early twentieth century. Contributions on the last hundred years place greater emphasis on change, in such contexts as household structure, women's roles, the material conditions of domestic life, and the "quiet revolution" of demographic patterns. Here the watchword is historical convergence: across geographic, cultural, political, and class divides, the essayists argue, families in Europe looked much more similar at the close of the twentieth century than they did at the dawn of the sixteenth.17 Yet even in recent times, persistence persists. In Eastern Europe, for example, "the geography of family structures" in 1989 retraced centuries-old patterns.18HEF's emphasis on long-running continuities, gradual evolution, and the endurance of family forms in the face of profound historical change is an argument with older interpretive paradigms, which posited a stark contrast between "traditional" and "modern" families.


      The continuity leitmotif also has implications for more recent historiographic trends. Much of this scholarship has examined top-down projects to regulate and reform family, gender, and sexuality. The HEF essayists, however, tend to argue that such efforts have limited impact on family behavior. As Alain Blum asks in "Socialist Families?," an essay whose title is pointedly interrogative, "to what extent does the political decision to transform the foundations of society ... actually modify the forms that families take ... ?" His answer, for the case of twentieth-century Eastern Europe, is very little. Insofar as political attempts to alter families "did not have any genuine impact on deep-seated behavior patterns," there is no such thing as a "socialist family." Other contributors reach parallel conclusions about the limits of bourgeois attempts to engineer working-class family norms and about the inefficacy of the Great Dictators' pro-natalism. Even the impact of the Protestant Reformation and the Counter-Reformation is downplayed.19


      In the end, the implicit common denominator that informs the essays of HEF, and perhaps the project's most important contribution, is a commitment to take the family seriously as a social institution of intrinsic importance. That may not sound like much of a contribution, given that "family" is hardly absent from historical scholarship at the turn of the twenty-first century. Postcolonial scholars, for example, have directed attention to what Ann Laura Stoler has called "the domains of the intimate," the realm of "sex, sentiment, domestic arrangement, and child rearing." Yet in this approach, which is particularly concerned with the gaze of moral arbiters, family is a category of interest not on its own terms but in a narrower sense as a site of regulation (and resistance). Such a framework is not misconstrued, but it is not, and does not seek to be, family history. As Lara Putnam has argued in her study of family and community in Caribbean Costa Rica, "practices surrounding gender, kinship, and sexuality at times became central to class struggle and state formation. But it was not always so, and the legitimacy of these practices as objects of study should not rest on this claim alone."20 The HEF essays take the family and its internal dynamics to be of intrinsic significance. They ask how families are affected by particular social, economic, demographic, or political processes, and how in turn kinship, household structures, and domestic practices mediate those processes. Implicitly, some essays also address how, in particular historical contexts, these spheres of social life ("family," "society," "economy," "state," "public," "private") are delineated in the first place.21


      On the other hand, what HEF has to tell us about the family is not necessarily new. Hewing to familiar topics, the essays provide solid overviews of the demographic transition, a reprise of the long-standing comparison between Eastern and Western European family forms, and a collective rejection of older assertions about an abrupt transition from a "traditional" to a "modern" family. Taken as a whole, the series is more an exercise in consolidation than in advancement, of stock-taking rather than envelope-pushing. It showcases what European family historians have accomplished and the diversity of their efforts, but it offers few clues as to where the field is going.



And where is it going? In light of the frustrations expressed by practitioners of family history, a blunt assessment of the field's current condition is warranted. And alas, the diagnosis is grave. Whatever the accomplishments of the HEF project, it will likely be read mostly by specialists. Today more than ever, family history has become a ghettoized area of study disengaged from broader spheres of historical inquiry. A comparison with a related field, women's history, is telling. Both family history and women's history emerged as dynamic areas of inquiry during the new social history boom. Today, women's history and its offshoot gender history are well established, productive, and vibrant. History departments routinely have several specialists of women and gender on their rolls, courses in these fields are standard curricular fare, and specialized professional meetings and multiple journals provide space for scholarly exchange. Perhaps most telling, scholarship on women and gender has had reverberations far beyond the work of those explicitly identified as practitioners.


      Not so family history. Some scholars still self-identify as historians of the family, of course,22 but the field is hardly a requisite departmental fixture. At least two journals publish work in the field, but there is no professional conference dedicated to the study of the family historically.23 This is not, of course, to imply that important, innovative, and award-winning work on the family by self-identified family historians is not being produced. It is to say that the field as a whole is rather less than the sum of its parts.


      It may be that this state of affairs reflects less marginalization than annexation. Arguably, much of the intellectual terrain once claimed by family history has been appropriated by other fields of inquiry. Once again, reference to women's history and gender history is telling. These two fields have tackled many research topics that might otherwise be associated with the history of the family. In Latin American historiography, for example, a number of monographs have explored subjects that are, ostensibly, the quintessential stuff of family history: how agrarian politics were refracted in marital conflicts among Chilean campesinos; racialized practices of respectability in turn-of-the-century Puerto Rico; the "modernization" of household patriarchy in Brazil; honor, virtue, and gender in republican Peru; virginity and sexual honor in early-twentieth-century Brazil; conflicts between bourgeois models of family and working-class domestic practices among Chilean copper miners.24 Yet all of these works are oriented toward and around the historiography of women and gender (and to fruitful effect). That is, the interpretive debates they engage with, the questions that motivate them, and the theoretical frameworks they employ derive from women and gender history. Family is neither the central subject of inquiry nor the principal category of analysis. In this sense, none of these works constitutes "family history."


      Such dynamics of annexation and blurring are surely in one sense a positive development. The topics once associated with family history have not fallen off the historiographic map; they have just been taken up by other subfields. Perhaps this is simply because, in a classic Kuhnian paradigm shift, family history's interpretive frameworks and methodological tools have been superseded by other, more powerful interpretations and methods. Yet as Louise A. Tilly pointed out back in 1987, the history of women is not the history of the family.25 The two fields may overlap or intersect, but, driven by different intellectual questions and political concerns, they are hardly coterminous. The explosion of gender history, which postdates Tilly's thoughtful rumination, has only accentuated this distinction. As feminist scholarship has long labored to show, "women" and "gender" cannot be reduced to "family."


      Nor, it may be added, can family be reduced to women or gender. As Tilly noted, in feminist scholarship "'family' is distributed across other concerns rather than being an independent category," whereas family history takes the family as the principal unit of analysis.26 Family history is in part concerned with understanding the internal dynamics of that unit. Those dynamics certainly include gender, but may also be, for example, generational. Thus, certain topics of interest to family historians, such as childhood and kinship, may not logically appear on the radar of these other fields.


      We cannot, then, re-diagnose family history's malaise as a case of fortuitous annexation. The malaise remains, but to what might we attribute it? Part of the problem surely lies with the fact that family history is still associated (sometimes justifiably, sometimes not) with certain methodological and theoretical orientations that marked the field's emergence and have since fallen out of favor. It is worth identifying some of these foundational problems in an effort to assess how they might be overcome.


      In its earlier incarnations, family history suffered from several serious false starts and interpretive oversights. For example, some early scholarship was characterized by what in retrospect seems an ill-considered flirtation with psychohistory. In this rendering, the field's analytic contribution would be to show how, for instance, child-rearing practices in a given society gave rise to particular psychic structures and, by extension, distinct social and cultural forms. Thus, for example, the argument that infant swaddling explained Russian authoritarianism.27 In retrospect, the logic seems specious, the causality spurious, the essentialism obvious. Psychology's appeal to universal psychic structures or stages, even dressed up in different cultural guises, sits uncomfortably with prevailing notions of social constructedness.28 Yet rejecting psychohistorical approaches meant reopening the problem of the relationship between the "private" domain and social, cultural, political, or economic change. This issue is ultimately crucial to family history.


      An even more serious flaw of early family history is that it was woefully unattuned to power dynamics within domestic units, treating family and household as homogeneous institutions whose members harbored common interests. Gender analysis and an attentiveness to women's position within family and society challenged that assumption, and with it notions of the family in the past as a "haven in a heartless world."29 It is on this score that family history has witnessed perhaps its most dramatic transformation, evident in the pages of the Journal of Family History, where women's status, gender roles, and gender cultures are ubiquitous themes. And while gender is not an analytic focus of HEF, it is addressed by a number of essayists.30


      Psychohistory may have died a quiet death even as gender was embraced, yet other interpretive and methodological habits die hard. The field was and often still is associated with empirical methods—especially quantitative demographic analysis—that have fallen out of favor. To some extent, the rejection of family history's empiricism is the predictable prejudice of postmodernism. But it is also true that practitioners at times set themselves up for such criticism. In its most heavy-handed incarnations, demographic analysis dissolved into a systematic but futile counting exercise. Peter Laslett's Bastardy and Its Comparative History compared illegitimacy rates across time and place but treated illegitimacy as an objective fact that could be abstracted from cultural context and meaning.31 In some HEF essays, the richness of data similarly substitutes for an explanation of its relevance. An analysis of a widowed spouse's prospects for remarriage, parsed carefully according to age, gender, and urban versus rural residence, is of limited value without an interpretive framework that justifies why widowhood and remarriage are significant social facts in the first place.32


      Disembodied empiricism thus remains a challenge for family history, perhaps because the field continues to lack analytical paradigms. Indeed, this dearth of interpretive frameworks—or more accurately, the stubborn persistence of inadequate frameworks in the absence of better alternatives—is perhaps the central problem facing family history. The most troublesome culprit on this score is surely modernization theory. Born under the sign of modernization, family history continues its enduring and ambivalent relationship with this concept. Early practitioners advocated the value of "modernization as a concept for understanding changes in family behavior." They asked, "what effect ... did modernization in the broadest sense of the word have upon family life or family life upon modernization?"33 The implications of this mode of analysis are, first, that there exists a series of social, economic, and cultural processes that can be grouped together under the shorthand "modernization," which the family mediates; and second, that families themselves undergo a specific sequence of changes (that is, they "modernize") in response to these stimuli.


      Few scholars today would argue that the history of the family is characterized by a simple transition from tradition to modernity, or even that these categories are particularly useful for understanding family change over time. On one interpretive level, HEF's vigorous case for continuity over change constitutes a ringing refutation of normative ideas about "traditional" versus "modern" families.34 Taken collectively, these essays assert that families did not become smaller, more nuclear, more affective, less patriarchal, more isolated—in short, more "modern"—in some unilinear or inexorable fashion.


      And yet, there remains a certain ambiguity on this score. Barbagli and Kertzer assert that the history of the nineteenth-century family "is the story, in some respects, of the emergence of the modern family, at least as seen from the vantage point of scholars writing at the dawn of the twenty-first century."35 The idea of a modern family—of modern behaviors within the family and modern attitudes toward it—is referenced in a number of essays. In others, modernization is a bogeyman that encroaches inexorably on "traditional" ways.36 Thus, in a series devoted to refuting notions of stark change and unidirectional progress, that pesky apparition the Modern Family materializes repeatedly nonetheless. Its presence is hardly unique to HEF—nor, indeed, to scholarship on Europe.37



Family history's equivocal but enduring embrace of modernization is part of the field's broader interpretive orientation, which has tended to seek out metanarratives of unidirectional change and continuity: families became more emotive and affectionate over time, or they were always thus; extended households progressively shed extended members, or else they were always more or less nuclear; families were once private havens that became subject to the heightened interventions of a heartless world, or they were previously open to worldly welter and have more recently cocooned inward; childhood was discovered at some felicitous moment in history, or else it has always existed.


      One of the most persistent of these narratives concerns the evolution of sentimental relations within the family. Debates about familial affectivity were initiated in the 1960s by Philippe Ariès. In his seminal Centuries of Childhood, Ariès posited that it was only in the early modern period that childhood was discovered as a distinct life stage, children became valued as children, and the sentimental family emerged. The book's provocative contentions catalyzed a protracted scholarly debate. Some supporters extended Ariès's findings, arguing not only that children were not recognized as such, but that they were undervalued and even widely mistreated in the past. Skeptics countered that families in the past shared affective relations much like those today. HEF itself has been interpreted as a decisive intervention in the sentiment debate. The Yale University Press editor who sponsored the books observed, "The bottom line of the project is to show that while history has molded the family unit across the centuries, there are many continuities ... Lives in the past were very similar to our own in terms of emotions, relationships and ambitions."38


      The debate's staying power is understandable, for the issues at stake are of profound humanistic significance. Were our forebears fundamentally like us? Is our tendency to believe otherwise just another iteration of the "enormous condescension of posterity" about which E. P. Thompson warned? Or is the lesson instead that practices and values we may wish to think of as innately human are in fact profoundly dependent on particular material or demographic conditions that have, historically, proven relatively circumscribed? Buried at the heart of the debate is a question about what ultimately defines our humanity.


      These are weighty considerations indeed, but ones that have arguably grown stale. Scholars engaged in this debate continue to recapitulate familiar arguments, devoting an inordinate amount of intellectual energy to the questions that Ariès posed almost fifty years ago.39 What is more, framing inquiry about the family in terms of sentiment and affectivity risks leading us down a conceptual dead end. This is so to the extent that it implies a focus on psychological relationships at the expense of social relationships.40 Unless we are willing to accept the psychohistorical contention that child-rearing practices shape social and political forms—that swaddling inspires political authoritarianism—such an approach risks turning us away from a consideration of the family's social context and political significance. It is then all too easy to dismiss the family as a purely "private" institution, of little "public" relevance. Whether parents have always loved their children may have profound humanistic ramifications, but as typically framed, it is the sort of question that engages family historians to the exclusion of others.41


      Arguably, many of the meta-questions that have animated family history—Have family members always loved each other? What form did the household take at a given time and place? When did childhood emerge?—have been approached in similarly self-referential ways. Feminist scholars have succeeded in establishing the public import of "private" life and the social and political import of gender, but family historians have been less successful at making this claim. Consequently, family history has morphed into a relatively self-contained subfield disengaged from scholarship beyond its immediate thematic purview. The central challenge facing the field is to link the family to broader narratives of historical change.



Where are we to seek inspiration for such an endeavor? Hugh Cunningham has suggested that "a history of childhood ... must be a global history."42 His comment serves as a reminder that the histories of children and the family have been overwhelmingly dominated by scholarship on the United States and Western Europe. The three HEF tomes showcase the extraordinary accumulation of knowledge about the family in the European past—and highlight how little we know about such topics in other parts of the world. Perhaps to an even greater extent than in other historical fields, the Western experience has set the agenda in terms of the themes, questions, and approaches of family history.


      This situation may be changing. The expansion of world history has inspired growing interest in global perspectives on family and childhood.43 Meanwhile, scholars of non-Western history have long engaged with the history of the family, though there remain huge swaths of unexplored territory.44 Could a greater engagement with global and historiographic peripheries revitalize the history of the family?


      The practice of family history beyond its traditional terrain is certainly a promising development. Nevertheless, non-Western perspectives will not in and of themselves necessarily lead us to ask new questions and pose alternative paradigms. One reason is that a "global perspective" may in practice mean incorporating non-Western societies and cultures not on their own terms, but as living tableaux of Europe's past. This is the perspective that, for example, takes child labor in contemporary South Asia as a Rorschach test for nineteenth-century England. In reviewing a book on education and child labor in contemporary India, Cunningham refers to "the most fundamental shift in the experience of childhood" in the West as the transition from children as producers to children as consumers. The work in question, he notes, "aims to show why this vital transition has not occurred in a particular non-Western culture."45 Yet such a perspective takes non-Western historical trajectories as deviations in need of explanation, flattening the cultural and historical specificity of other parts of the world into shadows of Europe's former selves (and in so doing, demonstrating yet again the incredible staying power of modernization theory in discussions of family). Equally important, even as it turns to new cultural contexts (South Asia), it poses old themes and questions originally formulated in the European context (about the disappearance of child labor). If the "globalization" of family history implies this sort of recapitulation, it is unlikely to guide the field out of its intellectual rut.


      Indeed, Euro-American historiography has often set the agenda for family history in other parts of the world. An example is the literature on child abandonment in Latin America, one of the better-researched topics in the history of childhood and family in the region. With a few exceptions, such studies look remarkably like those in Europe. Based on documentation from foundling homes, which became common in Latin American cities in the late eighteenth century, these studies address such familiar questions as how many children were abandoned, who these children were, and whether honor or poverty explains the practice. Noted historian Maria Luiza Marcífilio's study of abandoned children in Brazil is illustrative. Marcífilio explores the plight of orphans through the prism of the institutions that succored them. But buried halfway through her book is an intriguing observation. In Brazil, Marcífilio notes, institutional structures for assisting poor children were circumscribed; instead, "the informal or private system of rearing foundlings in the homes of families was the widest system of protection ... and [it was] present throughout the whole history of Brazil." She concludes that this practice "renders the history of assistance to abandoned children [in Brazil] original."46


      But even as Marcífilio identifies extra-institutional mechanisms as the defining characteristic of Brazilian child welfare practices, the orphanages remain her thematic and methodological focus. She thus misses the chance to develop a potentially fruitful line of inquiry into labor systems, conscription, slavery, race, and class, and how a focus on children, household, and family might illuminate these topics. This missed opportunity speaks to the way that the Euro-American frameworks around which family history has developed can distract us from the potentially illuminating specificities of other cultural and historical contexts.


      Ultimately, it is these specificities themselves that suggest alternative historical questions about the family. One of the most conspicuous themes running through the history of gender, sexuality, and family in Latin America is the pervasiveness of "deviant" popular practice in the face of strident but largely ineffectual dominant prescription.47 That prescription mandated the formation of patriarchal families based on formal, indissoluble marriage, endogamy, legitimate procreation, and careful control of female sexuality. Multiple authorities, from the Catholic Church, to capitalists, to colonial, liberal, developmentalist, and welfare states, have strenuously propounded some version of this model. Yet Latin American families have historically exhibited little relation to it. So-called "non-marrying" behaviors have been so widespread in the region as to cast serious doubt on the conventional demographic assumption that nuptiality is the "basis of the family." Illegitimacy rates, commonly accounting for 25 to 40 percent of births, and sometimes more, have exceeded by many orders of magnitude those in Europe. Female headship, rare enough throughout most of European and North American history that it was not even recognized as a modal form by family historians, has accounted for 25 to 45 percent of households in some late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century communities, from Brazil to Chile to Venezuela to Nicaragua. Historians have invoked the term "matrifocal" to characterize families from seventeenth-century Lima to nineteenth-century São Paulo.48


      Ultimately, the conformity/deviance framework does little to elucidate these patterns. For one, the notion of deviance seems ill-suited to describing socio-sexual practices that are endemic. Moreover, the framework reduces certain behaviors to simply deviations from a norm, rather than exploring the possibility that they are, as Steve J. Stern has suggested, "symptoms of a distinctively patterned culture."49 And this is to say nothing of the framework's normative valence.


      If the deviance/conformity binary does not adequately describe family patterns in Latin America, nor can evolutionary visions of family change account for them. In other words, the persistent coexistence of popular realities and elite prescriptions poses a powerful counterpoint to modernization theory. The "modernization" of the family implies the progressive subordination of popular norms to such bourgeois values as privacy, individualism, hygienization, heightened affect, greater maternal investment, and the emotional rather than economic valuation of children. But as Claudia Fonseca has pointed out for Brazil—and the same could be said of most Latin American societies—the history of such values is less one of progressive adoption than of contentious coexistence: "the popular [working-class] family ... far from being a mere antecedent to the modern family, grew and was consolidated simultaneously with it." In the absence of effectual public policies, such as the family wage or universal schooling, or the requisite material conditions, the values and practices of an elite minority have remained just that.50


      There is no better illustration of this point than Nancy Scheper-Hughes's deeply evocative ethnography of infant mortality and maternal love in a Brazilian shantytown. Scheper-Hughes reaches the controversial conclusion that poor mothers' neglect contributes to the deaths of their ill infants. But her "political economy of the emotions" shows with great nuance that infant mortality and maternal attitudes are rooted in a context of profound material deprivation and political indifference. Her work is important to family historians for two reasons. First, it demonstrates that when an analysis of sentiment is contextualized within "the micropolitics of class and power relations," it transcends the psychological to take on broad social and political relevance.51 Second, the emotional practices she describes are hardly "traditional" cultural survivals; they are products of an immediate material and political context. If, following Fonseca, they coexist with the diverging values and sentiments of a dominant culture, indeed are continually produced in dialogue with that culture, then progressive models of family change (i.e., modernization theory) do little to elucidate them.52


      These divergent family cultures hold lessons not only for Latin Americanists but for family historians in general. They hint at the importance of examining how marriage, filiation, child rearing, kinship, and household structure articulate with social hierarchy. Latin America's "family system" emerged in, and was sustained by, a social order riven by stark distinctions of color and class. Patterns of elite prescription and popular practice, indeed the very definition of norm and transgression, have often been mapped onto the fissures of class, race, and ethnicity. Demographic research has long demonstrated marked differences in family practice and structure among different social groups in Latin America. Not surprisingly, marital and sexual "nonconformity" has been concentrated in (though not limited to) particular socially and racially marginalized populations. Meanwhile, the hierarchical social order itself generated "nonconformity." Marriage was often logistically and economically inaccessible to the poor, and social and legal norms of endogamy have been a major factor in encouraging consensual unions and illegitimacy. In this context, familial practices became enmeshed with other markers of difference in structuring social hierarchy. Colonial elites' claim to limpieza de sangre, or blood purity, a cultural concept that referred to ethnic, racial, and religious origins but also to a bloodline untainted by illegitimate birth, captures this conceptual linkage.


      These observations suggest the need to reflect on the relationship between family and broad cultures of inequality. A brief survey of scholarship on Latin America that does so can suggest, however cursorily, one alternative framework for analyzing the family historically.



The imbrication of family and hierarchy is hardly a new idea. It lies at the heart of a foundational, if deeply problematic, work of Latin American social thought: Gilberto Freyre's 1933 classic The Masters and the Slaves: The Development of Brazilian Civilization.53 Freyre was concerned with the evolution of Brazilian society, a process he located in "the Big House," the slave plantation household in colonial northeast Brazil. That is, he contended that the development of Brazilian civilization could be traced through what he called a "domestic history" of the sugar plantation. A chief architect of theories about the benign nature of Brazilian slavery and the myth of racial democracy, today Freyre is the object of (a justified) skepticism, when not disdain, in academic circles. Yet in the course of his racialized, and racist, meditations on Brazilianness, Freyre implicitly recognized the social and historical resonances of gender, generational, and racial hierarchies within the household, and he identified the significance of children's social roles in these hierarchies. It is in this sense that his work is potentially relevant to family historians.


      In Freyre's rendering, the household was a site for interaction and exchange between the three groups whom he identified as the cultural-racial basis of Brazilian society: Amerindians, Europeans, and Africans. Children and youth were integral to the domestic history of intercultural exchange in that they operated as cultural and linguistic interfaces, as "points of contact," between these groups. As in other colonial societies, native children were the subjects par excellence of evangelization efforts. They also served as reverse conduits "through which there flowed a precious portion of the aboriginal culture," as when young Amerindian catechists taught European padres the Tupi language. Meanwhile, Freyre asserted, white children became ciphers of African cultures and languages through their nurses. Thus, relations across race, sex, and generation—"the alliance of Negro nurse and white child, of slave girl and young mistress, of young master and slave lad"—were constitutive of relations between the Big House and the slave hut.54


      If Freyre keenly intuited the intimate operations of racial patriarchy, he also unabashedly celebrated it as the quintessence of that which is unique and valuable in Brazilian civilization.55 But we do not need to accept his nostalgic rendering of these relations as benign or harmonious to agree that they were formative. Freyre was an armchair historian, and his assertions—based on anecdotal evidence and filtered through his own thick cultural lens—certainly require cautious scrutiny. These vigorous caveats notwithstanding, there is something to be gleaned from his analytic approach. Freyre identified households as key sites of transculturation, and children as important agents in these processes. He demonstrated the links between socialization, the ways cultural knowledge is transmitted and transformed, and the exercise of social power. On a broader plane, he showed how family relations, "private" spaces, and children are implicated in the making of social and racial hierarchies at the heart of Brazilian society. Today Freyre is considered a scholar of race and slavery. He is rarely considered a historian of the family or childhood. Yet more than three decades before Philippe Ariès, Freyre pioneered a very different sort of "intimate history," one that, cautiously approached, suggests a model for the field's contemporary practitioners.56


      The way in which domestic arrangements are constitutive of societal hierarchies has been explored in other scholarship as well. It was the subject of Verena Martífinez-Alier's 1974 classic Marriage, Class and Colour in Nineteenth-Century Cuba. Martífinez-Alier's study examined interactions across social and racial boundaries, and how these boundaries are drawn in the first place, through the prism of family and sexuality. Interracial marriage was illegal in nineteenth-century Cuba, and social and racial endogamy was the norm, but interracial unions were extremely common. The central contention of her work was that kinship, marriage, household structure, and "sexual values" in Cuba reflected and reinforced hierarchies of color and caste. Specifically, she argued that widespread concubinage, matrifocality, and the "sexual marginalization" of non-white women were produced by "the hierarchical nature of the social order." Her study pointed to the significance of marriage as a means of reinforcing social difference, and of family origin as a marker of status. The analysis concerned the interactions of race and gender, but also marriage mores and kinship practices. Moreover, she was concerned with social practice, not just prescription. Martífinez-Alier is of course not the only author to explore the causes and effects of socio-racial endogamy, but she did so particularly clearly.57


      One issue deserving further exploration that is alluded to, but not necessarily treated in, works on marriage, sexuality, race, and caste is the place of children in preoccupations about, and attempts to manage, social and racial mixing. Because the most tangible consequence of interracial sex is mixed-race progeny, it seems likely that racially stratified colonial and postcolonial regimes will pay particular attention to these children. Certainly the experience of post-conquest Cuzco bears this out. During the turbulent first years of the conquest, the Spanish town fathers directed their energies toward an unlikely enterprise: founding a cloistered nunnery for their mestiza daughters. They did so, according to Kathryn Burns, because the success of Spanish hegemony rested on Spaniards' ability to reproduce their own culture and religion. In the absence of Spanish women, mestizas—the illegitimate daughters of Spanish fathers and Andean mothers—would be socialized as nuns, wives, and servants, and as Christian and Spanish, in the protective confines of the convent. Meanwhile, mestizo males were regarded as a danger to the colonial order as a result of their "unsatisfying, interstitial position" within it.58 It is noteworthy that efforts to root mestizos and mestizas in colonial society focused squarely on socialization, and hence on children. To the extent that this is true of other societies founded in ethno-racial and cultural mixture and stratified by hierarchies of color, class, and caste, children and childhood will constitute a fruitful focus of analysis.


      The case of late-nineteenth-century Chile, a society whose salient characteristic was its caste-like distinctions between social classes, supports this assertion. Here, as in nineteenth-century Cuba, illegitimate unions of lower-status women and higher-status men were common. But hypodescent—the principle that offspring acquire the group membership of the inferior parent, regardless of sex—was not operative as in interracial unions in Cuba. Illegitimate children's future status was never predetermined, as they could go on to acquire the status of either their mothers or fathers. Yet this very contingency presented a problem: for how in a society organized around "natural," categorical social distinctions could there be individuals without an unequivocal social classification? Paternity suits implicitly addressed this problem. Courts considered paternal recognition to be proven only when illegitimate plaintiffs could show that they had been incorporated into their father's social status. Thus, judges determined filiation not by investigating illegitimate individuals' biological origins, but rather by "reading" their social class through testimony about upbringing, education, and social environment. The process by which children of socially "mixed" unions acquired a social status shows particularly vividly how the logic of kinship was inseparable from everyday practices of social class. An illegitimate person's assimilation into the maternal or paternal kin group and social station was never a foregone conclusion; it involved a thoroughly contingent, even fortuitous, process early in the child's life. In other words, caste was acquired through socialization. The myriad domestic arrangements that characterized child-rearing practices in nineteenth-century Chile are therefore fruitful terrain for exploring the reproduction of social hierarchies.59


      Such observations point to the ways in which an analytic focus on children, child rearing, and socialization can illuminate the politics of racial, ethnic, class, linguistic, religious, and other categories of difference. Children may expose hidden vulnerabilities of the social order, how differences formally deemed innate and immutable are in practice reflexively treated as acquired and precarious. As Ann Laura Stoler observes of European and Eurasian children in the multiracial Dutch Indies, "at issue was the learning of place and race. A focus on children underscores which elements of difference were considered necessary to teach—and why agents of empire seemed so convinced that the lessons were hard to learn."60 Bianca Premo's study of child rearing and colonial politics in Lima is a vivid illustration of "the learning of place and race." She demonstrates that social reproduction was the business of a broad swath of colonial society: not just biological mothers and fathers, but wet nurses, nuns, priests, and the masters and mistresses of slave and servant children. Such a rendering of social reproduction requires a flexible notion of family—one that extends beyond affinal and consanguineous relations (to include kinship born of fostering relations, or crianza, and ritual kinship, or compadrazgo) as well as beyond the category of the household (since it could take place in convents, for example).61 Premo's work dissects the social mechanisms by which children and youth learned their place in the color-class order—and how these mechanisms belie a characterization of child rearing as a "private" function.


      Even as children must learn difference, as Freyre noted, they are often uniquely positioned as "points of contact" at the interface of those differences. This social location, which implies a distinct capacity to traffic across social, cultural, and linguistic boundaries, to adapt and to interpret, may be regarded from the point of view of adults as inherently dangerous. If children are adaptable and receptive, they are also vulnerable to "outside" influences, prone to disregarding social boundaries or being spirited across them. As myriad historical examples can attest, when such boundary crossings occur, they can make for explosive encounters between social groups. They can also make for unique vantage points on the boundaries themselves. The racialized struggle surrounding the custody of Irish orphans adopted by Hispanic families in turn-of-the-century Arizona is one example. The case of Edgardo Mortara, the clandestinely baptized Jewish boy whose kidnapping by papal authorities in nineteenth-century Italy touched off a showdown between religious and secular forces, is another.62 It is striking that children—social beings who at least in the cultures referenced here are associated with private spaces—can simultaneously inhabit far-flung social frontiers. This seeming paradox serves to illuminate how societies' outermost boundaries in fact run right through their innermost sanctuaries.


      These observations raise an important possibility: could the history of childhood, a field elided here with the history of the family, represent a distinct, and analytically superior, alternative? Certainly the history of children and childhood, with its focus on the roles of children in a variety of institutional contexts (in schools, orphanages, and courts; at work; in the street), points to one conceptual strategy for linking "private life" to "public" contexts. Yet viewing childhood through the lens of public institutions does not necessarily make for more broadly relevant history.63 What is more, in some cultural contexts, it may be that the most important institutional context of children's lives is, in fact, the family. Marcífilio's finding about the relative importance of private households in the rearing of orphans alludes to this fact for the Latin American case. And as studies have shown, family is a central reference for "homeless" street children in the region.64 Fields that have emerged out of family history and have begun to develop identities of their own—and here we might mention, in addition to the history of childhood, the history of marriage—may lead us to develop new interpretive frameworks. But it seems unlikely that they will dispense with the family as a category of analysis, nor even that we would want them to. Messy and analytically imprecise, "family" is also capacious and flexible. A globalized or comparative history requires such a concept to accommodate the full range of cross-cultural and historical variation.65



The examples cited above illustrate just some of the ways in which family and caste have been imbricated historically. Language provides further evidence. The term mestizo referred to a person of mixed, usually European and indigenous, descent, but in many colonial Iberian societies, it was also a synonym for "illegitimate." That is, it denoted an ethnic category but also a filiation status, an elision that, of course, reflects the association of the two categories in social practice. The term criado had a similarly revealing double meaning. Derived from the Spanish or Portuguese criar, "to rear," a criado was (and is) a servant or household dependent, particularly a young one. The term references the widespread practice of fostering and its relationship with servitude, since fostered children were often reared as domestic servants or slaves. In both instances, the language of familial status and domestic practices coincides with that used to designate ethnicity or social station. The linguistic interconnections of family and hierarchy have ancient origins. As David Herlihy has noted, the Latin root familia originally designated a band of slaves, and the Latin pater, or father, denoted "not a biological parent, but a holder of authority." Language thus reflects how authority—not consanguinity or marriage—"was at the core of the ancient concept of family."66 And of course the language of kinship also obfuscates domination. Idioms of masters as fathers, mistresses as mothers, and servants, slaves, and captives as sons and daughters mask power relations by naturalizing them. Such filial idioms have been common in Latin America, as elsewhere, historically.67


      The interpenetration of family and hierarchy may be especially obvious in Latin American societies, and in colonial and postcolonial settings generally, yet the dynamic is by no means unique to them. "We all of us distinguish those who are of our kind from those who are not ... by asking ourselves the question, 'Do we intermarry with them?'" observed British anthropologist E. R. Leach.68 As with marriage, so too with kinship: if kinship denotes a special propinquity to some, it must denote distance from others. Slavery itself is in part defined by family—or more accurately, by the absence thereof, as in Orlando Patterson's notion of "natal alienation," in which the slave is epitomized by his or her isolation from kinship networks.69 The interconnections of family and hierarchy are myriad, and their diverse manifestations across time and space suggest ample terrain for exploration. Yet family history as a field has paid surprisingly little attention to these issues.


      A globalized history of childhood and family must address "the gulf in life experience separating the children of the wealthy from the children of the poor," across societies and within them.70 The Latin American experience further suggests that childhood, domestic arrangements, and familial ideologies may be constitutive of these differences in the first place. Family produces and reproduces, demarcates, mediates, and elides social difference. Analysis of these complex dynamics can illuminate family practices, social order, and the connections between them, and in so doing, pose a new research agenda for historians of the family.


I am grateful to Thomas Abercrombie, Nancy Cott, Alyshia Galvez, Michael Grossberg, Steven Mintz, and Shobana Shankar for valuable advice, encouragement, and feedback on this essay. The comments of the AHR editors and anonymous readers were also extraordinarily helpful. Finally, I thank audiences at the Latin American History, Economy, and Culture Workshop at New School University, as well as the Columbia History Department's Faculty-Graduate Student Symposium, who read and commented on this essay.

Nara Milanich is Assistant Professor of History at Barnard College, where she specializes in modern Latin America. She is completing a manuscript tentatively entitled The Children of Fate: Families, Social Hierarchies, and the State, Chile, 1850–1930, to be published by Duke University Press. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Social History and Estudios Interdisciplinarios de América Latina. She received her Ph.D. from Yale University in 2002.

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