Review of The Family: A World History by Mary Jo Maynes and Ann Waltner Oxford University Press
One of the latest volumes in Oxford’s New World History series is The Family: A World History, a slim volume designed for use in classrooms. Both Maynes and Waltner are well-known historians of gender, childhood and family, and the two combine forces here to cover the issue of family across time and space. The book has an ambitious scope—perhaps a bit too ambitious, given that it covers pre-history (in a nod to the Big History movement) to the future of families in fewer than 150 pages. Teachers of world history will find the book by turns maddening in its broad conceptual strokes and useful in its insights into cross-cultural familial comparisons.
The book begins with two short chapters that examine human origins and religion in relationship to the concept of family. This coverage of thousands of years of human history with only a scant historical record makes these chapters merely frames for what will follow, and they will be most helpful to teachers who are setting up the question of how to talk about families in world history. Chapter 3 covers only about five thousand years, from 3000 BCE to 1400 CE, and it focuses around a more concrete concept, namely ruling elites and family power dynamics. The authors provide several excellent examples of the ways in which rulers used families to consolidate power and to legitimate rule, and this chapter ranges across several continents in its geographical scope. While I enjoyed the chapter, I do think that much of medieval world history is missing, and I wished for an additional chapter covering the period from 800-1400, perhaps focusing around family use of resources for economic or social gain.
Unquestionably the book’s best sections are those explaining the role of families in the modern world, especially from 1500 to the present. These chapters are rich in explanatory detail and include many engaging examples that will draw students into the topic. The early modern chapter is particularly strong in its comparison of the role of religion and religious politics on family life, specifically in Reformation Europe. Similarly, chapter 5 provides a wonderful comparison of how families experienced and shaped global trade networks—in the Atlantic slave trade, in Chinese merchant networks, and in the Sephardic diaspora. This may rate as the strongest chapter in the book. Later chapters include topics that align closely with major world history textbooks and that would serve well as a supplemental reading. Revolutions in politics and industry, modernization and its struggles, and the state oversight accompanying total war are all covered. The epilogue of the book raises important contemporary questions that students will find relevant and compelling about the future of the family in world history. In particular, debates about genetic engineering, international adoption, and gay marriage provide for interesting possible discussions at the end of a world history course.
While the book is short and somewhat uneven in its coverage, it accomplishes its goal of putting family at the center of the narrative of world history. It would be most useful in a modern world history course (post-1400) and for university students, rather than high school students. The authors have included a few pertinent maps and illustrations, and the whole book could easily be incorporated into a course utilizing one of the main world history texts.
Reviewed by Tammy M. Proctor, Wittenberg University
Edited by Andrae M. Marak
(c) 2014 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 8, Spring, 2014. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]