We are family!

Mary Jo Maynes and Ann Waltner, The Family: A World History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Maynes and Waltner are both professors at the University of Minnesota and experts, respectively, on the use of social science in European history and Imperial China.  The two have put forth this text as part of the New Oxford World History series, whose purpose is to offer an alternative to the “old” way to of doing world history.  When I first began teaching in 1994, my world history class fit into this “old” style – it was chiefly a history of Western Europe on whose base I attempted to add as much of my particular non-western field of interest (Asian history) as possible.  The second time I taught the course, I offered another variation on the “old” style – a focused study on leaders and architects of so-called “great civilizations” (vii).

The Family and other books from the series make an attempt at something different.  The aim is to try to examine the human experience on a larger scale, while retaining the power to examine specific moments in time.  The family, as a composite human experience, is quite an old entity.  The authors make clear that while families have existed for a long time, they are not natural constructions.  Families are, over the course of human history, different things to different people.

Maynes and Waltner describe two methods in which the family will be central to their book.

  1. the family and how it changes over time is a focus (marriage, child-rearing, how genders determine labor patterns, etc.)
  2. the family as an agent of change (families create the larger social culture around them including national identities, religious belief, etc.)

In addition, the authors kindly provide their readers with a sense of how they choose to define the family.  “Families are small groups of people linked by culturally recognized ties of marriage or similar forms of partnership, descent, and/or adoption, who typically share a household for some period of time” (ix, x).  Maynes and Waltner additionally point out that their time span is ambitious as they are attempting to discuss this concept over roughly 12,000 years of history.

Not unlike yesterday’s text, The Family reads a bit like a grouping of separate essays, but the authors are consistent in returning to their two main themes in each section.  In addition, a helpful Epilogue and Chronology section tie ideas and information together for the reader.  Each chapter pulls together both a series of ideas and a specific time period to give readers a bird’s eye view of the family across the globe.  What’s truly impressive is the scope and distance traveled throughout the text – in Chapter 3, “Ruling Families: Kinship at the Dawn of Politics (ca. 3000 BCE to 1450 CE)” readers can see the author’s efforts clearly.  This section gives us commentary on the royal family of Mesopotamia, power in Egyptian families, dynastic rule (chiefly patrilineal) in China, interactions between family and authority among the Mayans, and the family in Timbuktu!  Whew! (30 – 48)

Many chapters include helpful illustrations, maps, and charts to help make sense of the “big history” picture sought by Maynes and Waltner.  Ultimately, as one might expect, the authors conclude that families shape and in turn, are shaped by historical forces (think of Marjane Satrapi’s wonderful Persepolis and what it says about family in revolutionary Iran).  Migratory patterns, increased ability at communication, reproductive technology, and open discussion of issues such as sexual orientation all contribute to the definitions of family (117-122).

The Family is a must for teachers and students of world history.  Paired with a smart book like Kenneth Pomeranz’ The World that Trade Created and a strong piece of historical fiction like V. S. Naipaul’s Half a Life or Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall ApartThe Family would provide students and instructors alike with that which is desperately needed in the history classroom – human beings and their stories.

Addendum: I finally checked my office mailbox after a week or so and found the June 2013 hard copy of the American Historical Review awaiting my eye.  This edition’s AHR forum focuses on “Investigating the History in Prehistories” and all of the topics look as though they would augment a reading of The Family.  In particular, Daniel Lord Smail and Andrew Shryock examine the use of objects in burial pits and attempt to track relationships across space and time.  The other pieces in the section look equally interesting though, especially when conceived of in relation to the first three chapters of The Family.

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