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Book Review


Mary Jo Maynes and Ann Waltner. 2012. The Family: A World History. New York: Oxford University Press. Pp. xi + 168. $19.95 (Hardcover).


     Mary Jo Maynes, Professor of History at the University of Minnesota, and Ann Waltner, Professor of History and Director of the Institute for Advanced Study, University of Minnesota, briefly explore the notion of family across the ages in their concise book, The Family: A World History. Rather than tell the rise and fall of empires, the authors put the family at the center of their world historical story. Their main thesis in this book is that family construction is not natural, but instead is socially and historically constructed and these structures change over time in relation to social and political processes. The authors claim that the family structures affect the social, political and economical aspects of society and that in all places households have been and are the basic units of production, consumption and ritual. The authors write, "Cultural capital and religious values are also transmitted within families; families shape individual and collective predisposition and destinies. Arrangements made by and within families (such as marriage choices, or bequests of property, or decisions about educating children) contribute to social dynamism or stability, alongside and sometimes even more powerfully than economic systems, government policies, or intellectual movements" (X).

     In the first chapter, the authors begin the story of humanity from nearly 15000 years ago, and using different archeological, historical and anthropological accounts investigate social structure of early human beings up to 5000 BCE. Using evidence from skeletal analysis and grave remains, the authors describe how the ancient people's performance and the patterns of social organization change over time, discerning gender differences in social status and labor. Here the authors challenge the notions about early human life; for example, they challenge the concept that the emergence of agricultural modes of life and animal domestication have facilitated human development and, instead, argue that it has imposed and introduced new problems.

     Maynes and Waltner discuss how the emergence and development of religion has been intertwined and intimately connected with family history in Chapter Two, and how each has influenced the other. They rely on the importance of family as the core of the organized religions and as the developing force of religion. In addition, they acknowledge religion for providing the impulse for law codes and prescriptions about family morality. But religion and family were not always in accordance. For example, "while most early religious traditions focused on the family as an important site of religious symbolism and practice, some religious traditions emerged in tension on in competition with the family" (29). Although the authors acknowledge the elusiveness of prehistoric beliefs in afterlife in the absence of textual evidence, they argue that images, carving and burial sites could provide clues about people attitude towards conceptualizing the afterlife. In addition, they investigate familial relations in mythologies and explore familial structures through religious teachings and texts.

     In the third chapter, the authors investigate the familial structures in the highest ranks of old societies as well as the provisions and laws of the political ruling families as these are documented in more detail than other families. They argue that family and political authority have been connected and could reinforce each other; fathers' authority over children and husbands' over wives was backed by law and vice versa. One shortcoming of the book in general, and this chapter specifically, is that the authors do not consider biological and ecological differences among genders and do not consider ecological necessities and forces that impose on family roles (with different male and female roles due to their physiological and mental differences), but assume political forces regarding gender of rulers influenced by political forces in the light of cultural differences. The authors claim that wifely fidelity became important due to its political importance, but do not consider biological, ecological and cultural factors.

     In the next chapter the authors review the family structure of empires and ruling dynasties from 1400 to 1750. The chapter connects the conquests and religious practices across the world in that specific timetable and shows how conquest introduced new marital morality in a region as "conquering imperial rulers had to decide either to form alliances through marriage or collaboration with conquered lineage or kin groups, or else to replace them with alternative lineages or forms of rule designed to circumvent family power" (62). The authors also argue that in the early modern era, the dramatic encounters that shaped global-historical dynamics were familial encounters in the first place.

     Chapter five deals with the interaction between early modern commercial revolution that produced the global marketplace and the family transformations. The authors use different examples of migration to reveal how the global market created global family and business networks. These newly-introduced family ties transmitted kinship, wealth, and trust across countries and continents.

     Chapter six explores familial changing patterns across revolutionary times such as how the development of Europe's factory industry and the emergence of manufactures and technological advances changed family labor systems. For example, it explores how the French Revolution challenged the role of the father in family (patriarchal family concept) by overthrowing the king, when also affected gender's roles in French society. The overthrow of the royal family and the decline of patriarchal influence ignited the early feminism wave, leading to changes in marriage, divorce rights, and right of inheritance.

     The last chapter is about the interaction of politics in family reproduction as well as the monitoring and management of population by the modern states. For example, the authors examine how different states intentionally managed, controlled and interfered in family sexuality and reproduction (e.g. eugenics in Nazi Germany and restriction of population growth in modern China). They write, "The impulses and consequences of state policies affecting families have varied tremendously from one regime to another, sometimes serving democratization and sometimes serving authoritarian and even genocidal goals" (114). Finally, the book concludes on the future of the family by discussing migrations, emergence of reproductive technologies, and homosexual families.

     Although it seems the authors have attempted to explore family life and structure in the past, they seem to repeat the same old historical story with an emphasis on the role of family across human history. Maybe this is because social structure, religion and family structures are not separated. Also authors do not specify which aspect of familial life they want to investigate in this book. For example, in one era it is marriage and sexual unions that they consider, but in another era the focus is on the line of material heritage, etc. Therefore each chapter title could be considered as a separate volume, as they are separate and unrelated.

     This concise book could be of interests of general readers, high school and undergraduate students and also those who are both interested in familial systems and history.

Farid Pazhoohi is a post-graduate student in animal physiology at the Department of Animal Science at Shiraz University in Iran, where he is investigating neuroendocrinology in animal models. Beside physiology, he has conducted experiments in the fields of human perception, evolutionary biology and physical anthropology. He can be reached at


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