Between Sex and Power: Family in the World 1900-2000

By Gsran Therborn

The family is a subject on which, for obvious reasons, there is no shortage of public or private views. Google records 368 million items under the word ‘family’, as against a mere 170 million under ‘war’. All governments have tried to encourage or discourage procreation and passed laws about human coupling and decoupling. All the global religions (with the possible exception of Buddhism) and all the 20th-century ideologies have strong convictions on these matters. So have masses of otherwise politically inactive citizens, as the rise of electoral support for religious fundamentalism indicates. It has been plausibly argued that ‘moral issues’ (i.e. abortion and homosexual marriage) won George W. Bush his second term in office.

The passion with which these opinions are held is almost always inversely correlated to knowledge of the facts, even in the holder’s own country: most of the public discourse on the relations between men, women and their offspring is both unhistorical and deeply provincial. Göran Therborn’s comparative survey of the world’s family systems and the ways in which they have changed (or failed to change) in the course of the past century, the result of eight years of intensive thought and research, is a necessary corrective in both respects. Thanks to its global perspective and unique accumulation of data, it should from now on be the standard guide to the subject. In addition, it makes available the sometimes surprising results of a generation of demographic, ethnographic and sociological researches recorded in a bibliography of more than forty pages. How many people knew, for example, that up to the middle of the 20th century by far the highest rate of divorce ever recorded – up to 50 per cent – was to be found among nominally Muslim Malays, that there is less gender bias in domestic work in Chinese cities today than in the USA, that the highest divorce rates in the second half of the 20th century were to be found among the main protagonists of the Cold War, the USA and Russia, or that the most sexually active Western people are the Finns?
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Review from London Review of Books

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