Men loooooved Nuclear Families

In reading Family Structure, Institution, and Growth(link to pdf) by Avner Greif, I happened upon this fascinating little tidbit:

Relative to the kinship family structure, the nuclear family has both growth-enhancing and growth-retarding properties. For example, while the nuclear family enhances flexibility in economic decision-making, kinship groups can better provide social safety nets than the nuclear family. European corporations, however, enabled non-kin to benefit from safety nets while retaining the nuclear family structure. In the contemporary west, the state — a corporation — fulfills this role.

Basically, Greif says the welfare state allowed men to have nuclear families (wherein they have more freedom) rather than larger kinship groups (which provided economic security, but were stifling). I think these limited conclusions about the economic reasons for the switch may be correct, but there’s a lot here that’s not being said.

Men are the economic actors in patriarchal societies and they benefited from the increased decision-making freedom without a loss of security that comes with the switch from kinship to nuclear families. However, women were screwed.

Many domestic tasks benefit from economies of scale (especially watching + educating children) and dividing these up by family unit makes them more difficult and time-consuming. States (then and now) rarely provided much support to women and children who lose a breadwinner to death, injury, abandonment, etc, which is exactly the situation where kinship groups excelled — keeping women and children in a larger family of support. In many kinship groups women had a certain amount of power based on the norms and structure of the group. This disappeared, as nuclear families allowed men to directly control ‘their’ woman, a situation that could be benevolent or tyrannical.

So men didn’t gain more economic freedom at no cost, as Greif’s paper implies. Rather, the expense was women’s safety net. Of course, from a patriarchal point of view, that was another plus.

1 comment to Men loooooved Nuclear Families

  • Oren Gal

    Interesting point but I wonder if it is true that women were better off in kin-based societies.

    Women who live nearby can cooperate in home production while the intra-household bargaining power of a woman might be higher if her husband has no other wives or men in the household to support him.

    In pre-modern India widows were often expected to ‘voluntary’ join their husband upon his death. In China, a widow without a son had no group to rely upon. Finally, Greif claims that many of the pre-modern corporation were aimed to provide for the family upon a husband’s death.



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