Debates on marriage patterns

Is there a relationship between the EMP and the shift from kin- to community-based social security?


The nuclear hardship hypothesis (Laslett 1988, Reher 1998) holds the EMP responsible for weakening family links and support, suggesting that, in North Western Europe, individuals only feel responsible for the support of their parents, children and spouses (and not for their siblings). The idea is that the lack of support from the extended family accounts for the rise of institutions with the idea of a ‘moral economy’ in mind, its central principle based on the notion that no one without familial support should be left to die alone (Laslett 1988:170), resulting in, for instance, the English Poor Laws. Among others, Laslett suggests that when people marry late, they are expected to have children at the same time their parents are to become widowed. The EMP, with late marriage and neolocal household formation, is very likely to be responsible for a pattern of more elderly (widows/widowers) living alone. Furthermore, Jack Goody (1983) affirms that the church forbade widows to remarry. Such an impossibility of remarriage would call for creative solutions to provide an income, that is, if we assume that men are breadwinners and/or that two spouses have a higher income than someone single. Together with the remark of Laslett on siblings in North-Western Europe not being used to financially assist a brother or a sister, the fact that women (and men) could not remarry would certainly have huge implications for their standard of living. Retirement contracts and individually arranged pension plans found in medieval England from the thirteenth century onwards clearly show a shift from arrangements in the form of pensions made between pensioners and their offspring to arrangements made with unrelated parties (Clark 1982, Youngs 2006:177). But even the mere fact that arrangements with offspring had to be put down on paper proofs that kin-based social security was, at least in those areas, not obvious.


The distinction the EMP makes between the organization of social security in North-West European countries versus Mediterranean countries is one that is reflected in several dichotomies: Occidentalism-Orientalism, individualism-collectivism, weak family ties-strong family ties. Such divisions, however, often seem much more rigid than reality would prove them to be. Laslett, for instance, wonders whether individuals are actually offered much more help within the extended family, and Reher (1998) suggests that in the South of Europe single parent households are very common, indicating that, although parents might live with their children, those households are often not much bigger than the nuclear households in the northern countries, and not much better off when it comes to family support. Reher makes a division in ‘strong family links’, where traditionally the family has priority over the individual, and ‘weak family links’, where individual values have priority over everything else, and compares his ideas with Goody’s ideas on Oriental versus Occidental family structures. According to Reher, the occidental structure ‘in which the basic cell of social organization became the conjugal pair, and norms for marriage outside the kin group were strictly enforced’ spread over Europe as a precursor of the EMP. The invasion of Muslims in Spain, Portugal and the Balkan would have revived the oriental structure in those areas. In North West Europe, the reformation further emphasized the ‘home as a place of self-fulfillment and of sharing’ and ‘laid grounds for marriage as a partnership’. Reher emphasizes that the strong versus weak family links do not correspond with the classical division in ‘stem family’ and ‘nuclear family’ regions that traditionally have said to divide Europe: strong families are found around the Mediterranean, whereas weak families are found in the Northern part of Europe. The countries in the middle do not easily fit in, and ask for further regional subdivisions on the EMP-map when considering kin- versus community based social security.


However, modern anthropological studies like Death without Weeping by Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1993), about mothers in the slums of Brazil, and The Mountain People by Colin Turnbull (1987), about a famine threatening the Ik in Uganda, show clearly that, in the light of poverty, hunger and disease, even family-ties do not suffice to provide social security. Statements like that by Reher on the Mediterranean:  ‘Mediterranean societies are more pleasant, more comfortable, more conformist, more oriented toward the family group and less dynamic’ (Reher 1998:217), seem in this light rather biased and exotistic. And where there is a tendency to overestimate the social security providing aspects of the extended family, another feature extended families display seems absent from the discussion: most extended families are extremely hierarchic, and their members far from equal to each other in duties and rights or entitlements. Where the rights of the community or the extended family prevail over individual rights it is clear that decisions made in extended families often do not favour (all) individuals. This is especially the case for those at the bottom of the hierarchy; the children, young men and, more specific, young as well as old women, which represent the vulnerable members of those societies, at risk of loneliness, exclusion, abuse or suicide. But rather than opposing both patterns to see which one produces most hardship, a focus on the shift from and the effects of kin-based to/versus community based social security would provide a useful perspective.


The life-cycle-service in itself provides food for thought. Why did farmers and artisans ‘hire’ or board single servants, while sending their own children to other peasants or artisans to help them out, whereas it is very logical to assume that one can produce at much lower cost when relatives help out? It is also clear that the problem of not having enough relatives to work on the farm or in the household has in the past, and even the present, often been solved by enslaving people or putting them in debt bondage. Furthermore, it is not very logical that those contracted servants had to be unmarried and joined the households they worked in, whereas even in Africa and America slaves were mostly living in households of their own and could marry with permission of their masters. Correspondingly, one could also argue that nuclear families were in a better position to accumulate property than joined or extended families, since practice shows they are only by contract obliged to provide close relatives with a share of their income and property. As a result of this, property might end up in the hands of fewer households, making a shift from kin-based to community-based social security, implicating a choice and/or a moral obligation to invest in (organized) charity, a necessity.



> Back to overview of debates