Prior to the 1960s, there was a consensus among scholars that family life in England and other northwest European societies in the centuries before 1800 was characterized by great family solidarity, little individualism, overwhelming control of parents over adolescent children, a young age at marriage, universal marriage, marriages arranged by parents, and large households, with children, parents, grandparents, and married aunts and uncles living together. This consensus also held that sometime before 1800 there had been a great family transition in northwest Europe wherein these attributes of family life had been replaced by little family solidarity, great individualism, little control of parents over adolescent children, an older age at marriage, many people never marrying, marriage arranged by the couple through courtship, and small households consisting primarily of parents and children. However, beginning in the 1960s a new wave of family research showed that the characteristics of northwest European family life of the 1800s that had previously been thought to be of relatively recent origin—the result of the great transformation—had actually existed for many centuries, at least back to the 1300s. These discoveries caused many scholars in recent decades to see the long-believed great transformation of family life in the Western world as a myth.

    In Reading History Sideways: the Fallacy and Enduring Impact of the Developmental Paradigm on Family Life (University of Chicago Press, 2005), Idocument how the myth of the great family transition was created by the application of developmental thinking and methodology to voluminous quantities of cross-sectional data about family life from around the world. Scholars of the 1700s and 1800s believed in a developmental model of history that assumes that all societies are on the same pathway, with each going through the same stages of development, but that the pace of change along this developmental trajectory varies across societies. The result of this differential rate of progress, according to this approach, is the existence of societies at different stages of development at any specific period of history. With this framework, scholars created a methodology for writing history that, instead of following a particular society across time, compares various societies at the same time, a method I characterize as reading history sideways. This reading history sideways approach assumes that the previous conditions of life of a more advanced society can be proxied by the life situations of a contemporary society believed to be at an earlier stage of development. That is, the contemporary society perceived as less developed is used as a proxy for an earlier historical period of the society that is perceived as more advanced. Also, in this model, societies perceived as more advanced are used as models for the future trajectory of a contemporary society perceived as less advanced.

    One of the important discoveries of the 1700s and 1800s was that family life in northwest Europe during this period varied substantially from family life in other parts of the world. Compared to family life in many other parts of the world—with extensive family solidarity, little individualism, overwhelming control of parents over adolescent children, a young age at marriage, universal marriage, marriages arranged by parents, and large and extended households—family life in northwest Europe could be characterized as having relatively little family solidarity, great individualism, little control of parents over adolescent children, an older age at marriage, many people never marrying, marriages arranged by the couple through courtship, and small and nuclear households. With their belief that northwestern Europe was at the pinnacle of development and other parts of the world were less developed, scholars of the 1700s and 1800s concluded that as northwest Europe had developed it had gone through a great family transition that had changed its family system from being like those observed elsewhere to being what was observed in northwest Europe at that time. It was only in the 1960s and 1970s that this great family transition before 1800 was discovered to be a myth.

    An Engine of Worldwide Family Change

    The second story of Reading History Sideways is the use of developmental thinking and methodology and the conclusions of several generations of scholars about family change to create a set of propositions about society, family life, and the fundamental rights of human beings that have been a force for family change during the last two centuries. These developmental models and the conclusions drawn from them provided new mechanisms for judging human institutions and evaluating the legitimacy and usefulness of the many different ways of organizing human societies. They showed the direction for future change and the mechanisms that people could employ to facilitate progress and well-being, and in this way became the engine for many social, economic, and familial changes.

    More specifically, developmental thinking and methods and the conclusions of several generations of scholars grew into a powerful set of propositions—that I call developmental idealism—that would drive many fundamental changes in family life around the world. This developmental idealism states that a modern society that is industrialized, urbanized, highly educated, and with high levels of knowledge and technology is desirable. Developmental idealism also indicates a preference for modern families, defined as having high levels of individualism, high status of women, mature marriage, marriage arranged by the couple, the autonomy of children, small households, and controlled and low fertility. In addition, developmental idealism suggests that a modern society and modern family are causally connected, with a modern society being a cause and/or effect of a modern family system. Finally, developmental idealism emphasizes that individuals have the right to be free and equal, with social relationships based on consent.

    Developmental idealism has been disseminated widely around the world—through a myriad of mechanisms—and has been an exceptionally powerful force for family change during the 1800s and 1900s. During these two centuries developmental idealism has been an important source of family change both in Western societies and elsewhere. It has been an important force in many recent family changes including declines in childbearing, increases in age at marriage, the increase in the autonomy of young people, growing egalitarianism between women and men, increases in divorce, increases of independent living among both the young and the elderly, increases in sexual activity and cohabitation outside marriage, and the growing emphasis on individual rights as opposed to the norms of the larger community. Reading History Sideways documents such family change in a diversity of settings including Western Europe, the United States, Latin America, the Middle East, China, and South Asia.

    Of course, as developmental idealism was disseminated around the world, it met with indigenous social and cultural systems that were also powerful in that they had for centuries provided models for family and social life. It is not surprising that the messages of developmental idealism created substantial tension and conflict with indigenous historical social and cultural systems. Although there have been examples of quick and simple acceptance of developmental idealism and family change, more often developmental idealism has been met with sophisticated evaluation, resistance, and adaptation. The end result, however, has been substantial family change both in the Western world and elsewhere, with the result often being a hybridized form that mixes indigenous approaches with those of developmental idealism.

    A Research Agenda

    In the closing pages of Reading History Sideways I observe that despite the overwhelming influence of developmental idealism on international family change, we still only have limited understanding of the worldwide distribution of developmental idealism among ordinary people, the factors influencing the adoption of the beliefs of developmental idealism, and the mechanisms by which it influences family structure and relationships. The reason for this limited knowledge concerning developmental idealism and its relationship to family change is that the research community has not focused a systematic research agenda on developmental idealism, the forces disseminating it, and the way it has influenced family life. In order for us to obtain this understanding we need a systematic program of international data collection and analysis about developmental idealism and its role in everyday life. My colleagues and I are currently launching this program of research.

    Although the implementation of this research agenda has just begun, several accomplishments have been achieved in collaboration with several colleagues at both the U-M and elsewhere. The first is the successful implementation of pilot studies in Argentina and Nepal. Both of these pilot projects utilized semi-structured interviews, focus groups, and survey research technology to design and test tools that could be used to obtain systematic data about developmental idealism and related concepts in these two countries. These pilot studies were successful in collecting useful data in both Argentina and Nepal.

    The study in Argentina collected data through both focus groups and surveys. The Nepal project is a pilot study that combines in-depth interviews, focus groups, and survey interviews, with primary emphasis on the surveys.

    In Argentina, between 52 and 61 percent reported a positive correlation between development and age at marriage, and couples getting divorced or separated. And, nearly 50 percent reported a positive correlation between development and men and women doing the same work, valuing one's family less, and women never marrying. This suggests a strong understanding of the relationship between development and several dimensions of family behavior—a correlation that is consistent with the development model and development idealism.

    Between 64 and 93 percent of Nepalis reported that people marrying at older ages, respect for women, married couples using contraception, and children living away from older parents are more common in rich, developed, and educated places than in poor, traditional, and uneducated places. The 90 plus percent reporting a positive correlation between education and women's status, spouse choice, and the use of contraceptives is quite remarkable.

    Additional data collections are in various phases of planning, design, and implementation in other parts of the world. Building off of these projects, we have formulated plans to create a set of survey questions and protocols that can be administered in a wide array of countries. Here our goal is to design questions and procedures that can be used to collect similar data in many different countries, while at the same time recognizing that the particularities of local cultures, languages, and meanings will make the achievement of this goal challenging. We plan to test the questions and procedures that we design in four disparate countries, including Argentina, China, Egypt, and the United States. Finally, we are planning to implement questions from both this comparative project and from our pilot study in Nepal in a panel study in Nepal to evaluate the influence of developmental ideas on family behavior in that country.

    More information about the current research agenda on developmental idealism and worldwide family change can be found on the web at <>. As new projects and findings emerge, information about them will also be posted at this web address.

    Arland Thornton is professor of sociology, director of the Population Studies Center, and research professor at the Survey Research Center at U-M.