Origins and Implications of Family Structure across Italian Provinces in Historical Perspective
Abstract: In this study we review the literature on the origins and implications of family structure in historical perspective with a focus on Italian provinces. Furthermore we present newly collected data on three of the main features of family structure: female mean age at marriage, the female celibacy rate, and the fraction of illegitimate births. The data are collected at the provincial level for 1871, the year of Italy’s political unification. The analysis of the data allows us to confirm and quantify the geographic differentiation in family patterns across the country.
We also illustrate the links between family structure and a set of socio-economic outcomes, in the short, medium, and long run.
Distributed by NEP-HIS on: 2017‒06‒25
Review by: Guido Alfani (Bocconi University, Milan)
The recent interest in the long-term determinants of cultural traits has led to a new wave of research on family systems in the past, as well as to debates that renewed old disputes about the actual possibility of identifying areas of coherent family systems and their causal effect on contemporary behaviours. Graziella Bertocchi and Monica Bozzano have been very active in this field, focusing on such a culturally fragmented and varied area as Italy. In this new working paper, they present further evidence at the provincial level from the Italian 1871 census. They show the importance of looking at the sub-national and indeed, at the sub-regional level to identify correctly the prevalent family structures and demographic behaviours. Their data show feeble evidence that the so-called EMP (European Marriage Pattern) is associated with economic development, human capital accumulation and women’s empowerment. These findings are relevant to current debates on European family systems and on their possible permanent effects on cultural traits.
This paper presents new data, at the provincial level, about family structures in Italy in 1871. In that year, the first national census was made after the conquest of Rome and the incorporation of the residual territories of the former Papal States, and Veneto, into the Kingdom of Italy. The authors provide information about family types, female age to marriage, proportion of brides under age 20, female final celibacy rates, and illegitimacy rates. Family types are classified as nuclear vs complex, as well as according to the four-way classification introduced by Todd (1990) which combines residential habits (neolocal vs patrilocal) and inheritance systems (partible vs impartible): absolute nuclear family, egalitarian nuclear family, stem family, and communitarian family. Additionally, the authors build upon earlier research (Bertocchi and Bozzano 2015) to apply their own classification of Italian families, which distinguishes between egalitarian families with late female age to marriage (found to be prevalent, in 1871, in the North-West of Italy), incomplete stem families (prevalent in the North-East), communitarian families (prevalent in the Centre) and egalitarian families with early age to marriage (prevalent in the South).
Beyond the technicalities of the classification, an important contribution of the article is to clearly show, by means of a set of well-drawn maps, the high variability of family types and behaviours to be found across the Italian peninsula, even in contiguous territories. The obvious consequence of this, is to make it much more difficult to neatly characterize different parts of Italy according to their family systems and prevalent demographic behaviours.
Interestingly, the authors focus on characteristics connected to the so-called European Marriage Pattern (EMP), including nuclear residential patterns, relatively late age to marriage and relatively high final celibacy rates. The prevalence of the EMP has been connected to economic success, as originally hypothesized by Hajnal (1965) and as later assumed by many economic historians and economists (for example, Greif 2006; De Moor and Van Zanden 2010). But in this paper, in the authors’ words, “Overall our results show very feeble evidence that the different characteristics of the EMP are associated with economic development, human capital accumulation, or women’s empowerment” (p. 14). However, the authors do find a significant correlation between some of their indicators and measures of contemporary gender balance. For example, gender equality in economic leadership (measured as the rate of women in managerial positions) in year 2009 is found to grow with the female mean age to marriage in 1871 and to decline with the proportion of brides under age 20 and the prevalence of nuclear families. This is in line with earlier research by Bozzano (2016).
The authors are mindful of placing correctly their discussion in the broader context of current research on the long-term impact of family systems and structures done by economic historians and economists. Consequently they provide to all researchers interested in the field a useful survey of the recent literature (although a better coverage of recent demographic and historical-demographic literature would also have been useful – see for example Reher 1998).
This paper is an interesting and important contribution to the renewed pan-European research efforts aimed at identifying the characteristics of past family systems. Although many researchers pursue this objective solely to improve our knowledge of the past, others are driven by the aim of finding long-term determinants of differences in current social and economic behaviour. Two examples of this are the “Patriarchy Index” project (Szołtysek et al. 2017) and the recently-started Institutional Family Demography project (IFAMID) led by Arnstein Aassve, which is currently focusing on the measurement of another of Hajnal’s favoured indicators, the prevalence of life-cycle servants, at the European sub-national level. Yet other scholars have analysed previously-neglected aspects of past societies which could also explain current behaviour – for example godparenthood practices, which began to diverge across Europe at the time of the Reformation and which might have led to differences in ways of doing business (Alfani and Gourdon 2012).
The sub-national scale of analysis is a particularly useful characteristic of this paper. First, it allows (at least on principle) for more precise measurement and greater explanatory power. Secondly, and maybe even more importantly, it reminds us that complexity in the geographic distribution of social systems and behaviours is the common feature of most of the European continent. Indeed, a seemingly frequent characteristic of old debates is that they are easily forgotten – and what might have seemed to be final acquisitions need to be re-discovered and re-discussed, decades later. This is the case of debates about the actual possibility of applying broad generalizations to studies of European social-economic dynamics, the most common of which, both when referring to the European continent, or to Italy alone, seems to be the “North vs South” one. Such debates already involved, in a somewhat defensive position, Peter Laslett and his school, but have been renewed due to the popularity acquired by Todd’s more recent classifications among economists and to some degree among economic historians (interestingly, Todd seems to have been much less influential on historians of the family). The debates about the role played by the EMP in determining economic success, which have recently been the object of intense discussion in the pages of the Journal of Economic History (Dennison and Ogilvie 2014; 2016; Carmichael et al. 2016), have old roots. It is still unclear where current discussion will lead us – whether we are bound to conclude that if we examine European family systems closely, they are in fact too diverse and intermixed to be of much use as indicators of persistent cultural divides, or whether we will finally reach a consensus on broad, documentable differences which do not only fit nicely with our views on European societies (even though such views might be more than a little tainted by prejudice and ideology), but do actually explain something. What is clear is that, in order to make the discussion progress in a fruitful way, we need more high-quality data – which is what this paper successfully delivers for Italy.
There are, of course, issues which might be debated further. For example, this paper (like most of its kind) does not discuss the choice of period to measure differences in past family systems. It is not enough to state that the earliest-available encompassing census is used – is 1871 also the right period to measure such differences? Were not family differences already influenced by the Industrial Revolution and the demographic transition, and were not these processes more advanced at that time in the North (and especially in the North-West) than in the South of Italy? And why did the authors not control in their regression analysis for the pre-unification Italian state to which each province belonged, given that they work on a period immediately following the birth of the Kingdom of Italy? Indeed, why should we rule out the possibility that pre-unification states also had permanent effects, perhaps due to some influence on their local family systems? Finally, how far could family systems in 1871 determine differences in cultural traits today, given the intense internal migration processes that affected Italy? Many northern regions today have a very mixed population if we consider where the current population’s ancestors lived in 1871. Should we not conclude that current cultural traits are better explained by past family systems in provinces of out-migration (mostly the southern ones) compared with those of in-migration (mostly the northern ones)? And how could we take this into account, if indeed it is possible?
But these are questions better left for further research and for future debates, which already seem to be looming on the horizon. For now, we should be grateful to the authors of this paper for providing us with new material to ponder.
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