Strong Families, Weak Families: Reevaluating the Northwest European Family System through Comparative Historical Analysis

Steven Ruggles, University of Minnesota

During the past four decades, historians and demographers have argued that historic Northwest Europe and North America had a unique weak family system characterized by neolocal marriage and nuclear family structure. This analysis uses newly available microdata from 97 historical and contemporary censuses of 37 countries to evaluate whether the residential behavior of the aged in historical Northwest Europe and North America was truly distinctive. The results show that with simple controls for agricultural employment and demographic structure, comparable measures of the living arrangements of the aged show little systematic difference between 19th century Northwest Europe and North America and 20th century developing countries. These findings cast doubt on the hypothesis that Northwest Europeans and North Americans had an exceptional historic pattern of preference for nuclear families.

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Presented in Session 18: Historical Perspectives on Family and Household Change