John C. Caldwell’s review of Reading History Sideways

John C Caldwell. Reading history sideways: the fallacy and enduring impact of the developmental paradigm on family life – Thornton, Arland Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 2006, 12 (1), 222-223.

Reproduced below with permission of Blackwell Publishing.

This book is an amplification of Thornton’s 2001 presidential address to the Population Association of America (Demography 38, 449-65). It is the product of great scholarship with around one thousand bibliographic listings and perhaps five thousand text references, mostly at the foot of pages.

The book has two major themes. The first is that of ‘reading history sideways’, which is defined to mean taking cross-sectional data at any specific time to conclude that it demonstrates a progress from some less developed to more developed state, thus showing the direction of change. This is called the ‘developmental paradigm’. The argument in the book is that from about AD 1500 European voyagers discovered what were held to be more backward societies than their own (especially with regard to the nature of the family), and that European thinkers consequently concluded that European societies had developed from such origins. The second is that the developmental paradigm has given birth to ‘developmental idealism’, which is the ideology that a central aim should be to accelerate change in developing world families, and perhaps much of their societies, towards that of the Western model.

The error of the developmental paradigm is shown by summarizing the findings of the Cambridge Group’s work on the English family (Laslett and associates, Wrigley and Schofield, McFarlane) back to the early sixteenth century, and McFarlane, with shakier data, to 1300. There is much discussion of English individualism and nuclear family residence but little note of Goody’s ideas on the very peculiar nature of Western European society emerging from the Roman Empire under the moulding influence of the Western Catholic Church. The strongest part of the book is the analysis of how the discovery of very different societies around the world shaped the beliefs of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century philosophers about the earlier evolution of the European family.

What is much less convincing is the argument that developmental idealism emerged from belief in the developmental paradigm. My impression is that early voyagers were intrigued by societies very different from their own, thought many of them lacked the institutional structures of Europe, and were convinced that they had suffered from a lack of Christianity. Certainly, nineteenth-century missionaries thought that they were bestowing Christian enlightenment, which, admittedly, had as major elements the Christian (or European) family and biblical literacy.

The most contentious argument, and the one on which the work owes its strongest claim to furthering the advance of knowledge, is that modern development advocacy owes its origin to mistaken ideas about how the European family evolved. On the contrary, such advocacy seems to me to be based on the obvious difference in wealth and living standards between the West and most of the rest of the world. There was increasing agreement first between Third World populations and colonial administrators and then between the former and international agencies that becoming richer was a worthy aim. This meant identifying those Western institutions that appeared to be helpful in furthering that quest. Certainly, small families were hardly likely to be part of that agenda before the twentieth century. Even when the family planning movement began its great leap forward in the second half of that century, the central aim in developing countries was to slow societal population growth to allow economic development and lessen the chances of famine. One problem in the second half of the book is that lessons learned from the development (or lack of development) of the English family seem to be subtly transferred to understanding all social change.

On the family and its change the book is an encyclopaedic source. The main difficulty in following up references is that the great majority, even when substantiating very specific points, do not provide page numbers. Instead we are pointed to whole works, often very large books, with up to ten undifferentiated books in a single footnote. Either the author or the University of Chicago Press have developed beyond referring to centuries. Indeed, it becomes something of a shock to realize that the 1900s is no more likely to refer to the first decade of the twentieth century than to the last. Yet, there are provocative ideas in the book which may provide an agenda for anthropological research.

– John C. Caldwell, The Australian National University

Publication details for Reading History Sideways: The Fallacy and Enduring Impact of the Developmental Paradigm on Family Life.