Summary of Arland Thornton's Reading History Sideways
and its Main Arguments and Conclusions

Reading History Sideways has two main themes: 1) how scholars of the late 1700s and 1800s used developmental thinking and methods to reach conclusions about family life and changes in family life in Europe before 1800—conclusions that in the last half of the 1900s were discovered to be myths; and 2) how developmental thinking and methods and the conclusions of scholars about family change and development became a powerful force for worldwide family change during the 1800s and 1900s.

Origins of Family Myths

In Reading History Sideways I argue that prior to the 1960s scholars believed that family life in England and other Northwest European societies in the centuries before they wrote in the late 1700s and 1800s 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 belief also held that sometime before these scholars wrote their books there had been a great family transition in Northwest Europe wherein these attributes of family life had been replaced by little family solidarity, great individualism, little control of parents over adolescent children, an older age at marriage, many people never marrying,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. I argue that beginning in the 1960s, a wave of new family research showed that the characteristics of Northwest European family life that had previously been thought to be of relatively recent origin—the result of the great transformation—had actually existed for many centuries, probably at least back to the 1300s, although data become very sketchy as one moves back in time. These discoveries caused many scholars in recent decades to see the long- believed great transformation of family life as a myth.

Reading History Sideways documents how the myth of the great family transition was created by developmental thinking and methodology. Scholars of the late 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 necessary 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 placement of societies at different stages of development in 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 perceived as more advanced.

One of the important discoveries of the late 1700s and 1800s was that family life in Northwest Europe during this period varied substantially from family life in other parts of the world, such as Russia, The Middle East, China and India. 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 (or stem) 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 late 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 in such places as Russia, the Middle East, China and India to being what was observed in Northwest Europe in the 1700s and 1800s. Give the huge differences in family systems between Northwest Europe and those in many other parts of the world, this reading of history sideways suggested a huge change in Northwest Europe—what I have called a great family transition. It was only in the 1960s and 1970s that the occurrence of this great family transition before these scholars wrote in the late 1700s and 1800s was discovered to be a myth.

An Engine of Worldwide Family Change

The second main thesis of Reading History Sideways is that developmental thinking and methodology and the conclusions of several generations of scholars about family change were used to create a set of propositions 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 society, family life, and the rights of human beings. 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, the book argues that 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. Developmental idealism states that a modern society that is industrialized, urbanized, highly educated, and with high levels of knowledge and technology is good and to be sought after. 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. Developmental idealism also 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.

Reading History Sideways argues that 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 both in Western societies and elsewhere. I argue that it has been a particularly important force in many family changes during this period, 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.

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. In many instances, developmental idealism has been met with sophisticated evaluation, resistance, and adaptation. The end result, however, has been substantial family change during the past two centuries, both in the Western world and elsewhere, with the result often being a hybridized form that mixes indigenous approaches with those of developmental idealism.

 Reading History Sideways book cover

Recent Pub

Allendorf. Schemas of Marital Change: From Arranged Marriages to Eloping for Love. Journal of Marriage and Family.

Recent Pub

Thornton, Pierotti, Young-DeMarco, Watkins. Developmental Idealism and Cultural Models of the Family in Malawi. Population Research and Policy Review.

Reading History Sideways

The method of reading history sideways is described and critiqued by Arland Thornton

Recent Pub

Binstock, Thornton, Abbasi-Shavazi, Ghimire, Xie, Yount. Influences on the knowledge and beliefs of ordinary people about developmental hierarchies. International Journal of Comparative Sociology.

© 2014
Developmental Idealism
Population Studies Center
University of Michigan