Skip to content


Column: Chapters| Alan Macfarlane.





ONE OF THE most difficult things for us to understand, or even to see, is our family system. We swim within it from the moment we are born and we take its structures as natural, normal and unquestioned for some years. Furthermore, since we do not question or think consciously about it, it is not something which teachers believe we need to be taught about.

When I came to write a Letter to Lily on how her family works, I became aware that no-one had explained to me the basic elements of the English family system in which I had been raised. I also realized that if they had done so, if I had just had a few lessons at both my schools about how our families work and how this compares to others around the world, placing it in a wider context, it would have helped me to face better the process of growing up with all its usual tensions and anxieties.

The teachers were not to blame, for they neither saw it as something needing explanation nor, if they had cast around for theoretical guidance about how our English system works, would they have found much by the time I left my undergraduate course in 1963 which would have given them a helpful picture of the matter. Of what little there was, most of it was misleading.

For example, if they had, even a few years later in 1967, listened to the eminent anthropologist Sir Edmund Leach giving his ‘Runaway World’ Reith Lectures, or read Ronald Fletcher’s Britain in the Sixties: The Family and Marriage (1962), they would have, in both cases, learnt that the English family system was very recent, an invention or product of the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the industrial and urban revolutions. Before then England had the same large and all-purpose family system as the rest of the world. This has proved to be wrong and it was precisely in the 1960s that Peter Laslett and his colleagues in Cambridge were starting to chip away at the myth.

My teachers might have gained more by reading comparative anthropology and particularly the popular work of Margaret Mead such as Growing up in Samoa (1928) and Coming of Age in New Guinea (1930). Mead pointed out that, in Melanesian societies, puberty was not the problem it was in her contemporary America. Children did not rebel against their parents and there was no battle of wills through adolescent years. Yet even Mead was just a start, for she knew little about the deep history of the Anglosphere family system. She described the difference but did not really analyse what caused it.

So, by the time I started on my doctorate, although I suppose I was vaguely aware from my life as a child in India and two later visits, that the English family was different from the Indian, I did not have the tools to make sense of it. I had no understanding of the central features of the system in which I was brought up and which has deeply shaped my character and thinking.

I suspect that there were several factors which began to push me into an interest in comparative family systems and to realize how extraordinarily important the differences are. One was a tension between my Scottish father’s more clannish and extended family system, and my mother’s extreme individualism in her English family. This was a tension repeated, in a lesser way, in my life with Sarah. A second was trying to understand why I, and generations before me, had been sent home from the Empire and why I had been sent out at such an early age, eight, to board with strangers and had spent two thirds of my life for the next ten years living away from my family. What was going on?

When I encountered during my witchcraft doctorate, the full diary of a seventeenth century English clergyman, Ralph Josselin, and began, in 1967, to start to write a book about him, I focused on his family, writing The Family Life of Ralph Josselin (1970). I was astonished that, well before the modern family was supposed to have been invented, Josselin’s family structure and sentiments seemed almost identical to mine. I found that the terminology he used, the inheritance of his property, the patterns of authority, the grief at his childrens’ illness and death, the quarrels with children and disowning of his oldest son, all mirrored what I experienced in my life.

The shock of the peculiarity of his, and my own, family system, which I had begun to be able to put in perspective as I trained as an anthropologist from 1966 was brought home by fieldwork in Nepal. There I saw the normal system, found in most of the world:

    • Children remained under parental authority until their parents died.
    • Marriages were still largely arranged.
    • There was no separation of the family and the economy.
    • Property was jointly owned.
    • Parents were just trustees for a communal fund.

In Nepal…’the family was, as many anthropologists proclaimed… the institution that determined every-thing else.’


In the Himalayan village, there was a lively interest in dead ancestors who could come back to trouble or bless your life. People knew their exact kin ties to hundreds of people. In everyday conversation people were always referred to by their kinship position—oldest, middle, younger son or daughter, father of X, daughter of Y. In other words, the family was, as many anthropologists proclaimed, the infrastructure, the institution that determined everything else. Religion, politics, economics, all were shaped and determined by family relations.

When I came back to England and started on research as a historian in Cambridge in 1971, this interest continued and was invigorated by the presence and friendship of Peter Laslett and the Cambridge Group for Population and Social Structure. Peter had become interested in family structures when he studied, as a world authority on John Locke, the controversy towards the end of the seventeenth century between Robert Filmer, who had written Patriarcha or the Natural Power of Kings (1680) and John Locke. Filmer had put forward a theory of absolute royal power based on the analogy of the patria potestas, or parental power, in Roman Law. John Locke opposed this, saying the theory did not apply in England with its tradition of balanced sovereignty and a family system which made children equal to their parents when they grew up.

I later realized that this debate extends all over the world. Currently it is again being fought out between the Confucian view of the natural and absolute power of parents over children, husbands over wives, older over younger, which existed in China for two thousand years, and modern, western ideas of a Lockean kind.

The friendship and encouragement of the new Professor of Anthropology in Cambridge, Jack Goody, who had been my external examiner for the M.Phil. thesis I had done on English sexual behaviour at the L.S.E., became important. Jack was one of the world’s greatest experts on kinship and he encouraged me to devote my attention to this. It was the subject I was studying as a Research Fellow when I came to Cambridge. This was one of the reasons why Jack asked me, after he had ensured my appointment to a Lectureship in Social Anthropology in January 1975, to take over the eight first-year lectures on the subject.

These lectures had been given a few years before by Meyer Fortes, a world authority on kinship, and then by Esther Goody, also a specialist. I had replaced Esther as a Lecturer, so it was perhaps natural that I should take this on. Having to master the basics of kinship and marriage and to explain this to a large audience of over a hundred new students for about ten years was a huge challenge. It did force me to understand the basics of the huge anthropological literature and provided the groundwork for later work I did in this field.

The real difficulty in understanding the most important feature of the English family system is because that feature is precisely the relative unimportance of kinship. It is an absence

One of the reasons for the difficulty of understanding the English family system is not just its peculiarity, though it is true that the Anglosphere system is different from the major tribal or peasant systems in Africa, South America or Asia, and even across Continental Europe (only Japan, I later found, has an almost identical system to that in England). The real difficulty in understanding the most important feature of the English family system is because that feature is precisely the relative unimportance of kinship. It is an absence, and absences can only be seen after serious comparative understanding of presences.

The difficulty is that, unlike all other civilizations, except, strangely, many of the simplest Hunter-Gatherer groups, the kinship system in England is very modest and functionally unimportant. In England, for a thousand years at least, as I learnt through the following years, English society was held together by non-kinship institutions.

England had a strong, centralized, feudal system, a market economy with full monetization, and above all a highly sophisticated and all-penetrating legal system which separated individuals from groups and gave them rights and protection. This is what made English kinship ‘weak’.

In all other advanced civilizations, kinship is the tool of wider institutions. Political power, as in Roman Law or Confucian imperial systems, uses the father as the lowest level of the political system. Your allegiance to your father mirrors and re-enforces, and is upheld, by your allegiance to the Emperor. The religious authorities use the father as the lowest level priest, through family rituals and ancestor veneration. The economic system is based on family ownership.

Because all the institutions in England were equally powerful, that is the law, politics economy and ideology, and none predominated, the effect was to make the family into mainly a child-rearing institution, central in the first years and generating some emotional attachments, setting moral standards and shaping character in formative years. After that, for some years, one keeps quite strong family contacts, but even these, except within the nuclear family, fade out for many people, especially after marriage.

Here, I am talking about the ninety-eight per cent of the population below the level of the high aristocracy and royal family. There the vast fortunes and family estates meant that family dynamics were of much more concern and the pressures on marriage and wider family politics had much greater repercussions. This was the group often featured in literature. Hence anthropologists, sociologists, and even historians such as Lawrence Stone, who had read aristocratic literature came away with a distorted impression.

For the rest, it was different. Indeed, most of English literature, Shakespeare, Defoe, Dickens and others, as well as the extensive autobiographical literature which I came to investigate – diaries, letters, autobiographies, travels – showed this. The individualism and anti-family tone of England was commented on with astonishment by people from outside England — and even by the Scots.

All the sources I investigated showed that English society was mainly based on contractual, constructed, non-kin relations, whether as servants or apprentices to masters, employed to employer, friend to friend, and as member of the numerous associations, or just drinking together or playing together.

My book Origins of English Individualism, with its subtitle ‘The Family, Property and Social Transition’ is largely about this topic. It argues that the English are alone, separate and fully autonomous. In law, in politics, in religion and in the economy, people are not bound by their families. This may seem to be the only way to those brought up in the system. Yet it is totally different from the experience of most of humanity in the past and even the present.

One of the things that most interested me was how this unusual system was generated and maintained, and its psychological and social consequences. In terms of institutional construction, I discovered that the unusual English practice of sending children away from home from about the age of eight onwards, as I had been sent away, was the key. Whether they went as servants, apprentices or to noble households and later to expensive boarding schools, they became dependent on non-kin. The sending away broke the innate force of parental power. Children became economically and socially independent.

Such a system was maintained through the mechanisms of a money economy, where you could place yourself on the labour market and, after childhood, could not depend on family property. It was underpinned by the legal system where infants and children had individual legal rights against their parents. There was no family property, parents could disinherit some, or all, of their children, crystalized in the medieval legal latin phrase, nemo est heres viventis, no-one is the heir of a living person.

Parents could not dictate their childrens’ religious or political views, and vice versa. The important people in a person’s life very soon became chosen friends, colleagues, mentors. This has been my experience and it appears to have been the English way, insofar as we can see it in the documents, for a thousand or more years.

Some of the psychological effects particularly intrigued me. One was something I explored more fully in my Letter to Lily and is related to Margaret Mead’s work. In the English system, there is a built-in tension between love and freedom, between the parental desire to protect, and to exercise power, and perhaps exploit and depend on children, and the desire and need for children to become fully autonomous, free, adults. This is dealt with in the old system of sending children away young and was given as the motive in one of my favourite early observations on the whole system.

This was written in about 1500 by Andrea Trevisano, the ambassador from Italy to the court of Henry VII, Trevisano later becoming a Pope.1 He remarked that ‘the want of affection in the English is strongly manifested towards their children; for after having kept them at home till they arrive at the age of 7 or 9 years at the utmost, they put them out, both males and females, to hard service in the houses of other people, binding them generally for another 7 to 9 years. And these are called apprentices….’

Trevisano dismissed the native’s explanation that it was ‘in order that their children might learn better manners,’ believing that it was because the parents ‘like to enjoy all their comforts themselves, and that they are better served by strangers than they would be by their own children….if they had their own children at home, they would be obliged to give them the same food they made use of for themselves.’ 54 The author found this shedding of the young repulsive. If the parents had taken them back when their apprenticeship was over ‘they might, perhaps, be excused’ but ‘they never return.’ Instead, they have to make their own way, ‘assisted by their patrons, not by their fathers, they also open a house and strive diligently by this means to make some fortune for themselves.’ 55 In sum, parents were not the people to bring up their own children.

Nowadays, less children are sent away to live in other households.  Yet, having watched the psychological development of my own children and grandchildren, I found that though they stayed at home until they left around the age of eighteen, there was the same battle. Over the years from about twelve onwards (all were girls and matured earlier), the authority of the parents diminished, their feeling that they should protect and direct, was faced by growing independence, self-confidence and the individual will of the children. There was a battle. As Oscar Wilde put it, ‘Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes, they forgive them.’ The huge literature, as I saw it in Shakespeare, in Ralph Josselin’s diary and in many children’s stories, attests to what was a kind of necessary game or struggle.

After the first period of confrontation it is also interesting to look at the moment when children leave for good especially if, as nowadays, it is often later. Whatever the battles and resentments, whatever the costs in time, money and effort, parents often feel a mixed sense of guilt, sadness, a loss of purpose, combined with a relief which brings further guilt, when their children fully leave home. It is often a phased process. You are off to ‘Uni’ and back for the holidays, you leave for a job or to live with someone and then a bust-up brings you back for some months or even a few years. Yet, in the end, it happens.

The final psychological challenge is when the parents become sick, old or both. People often feel both responsibility, but also resentment, as the pressure from parents looms again. John Locke provided guidance by suggesting that we only owe to our parents that degree of love which they showed us when we were young and in their care. It is like allegiance to the King in his contractual theory of sovereignty, all a matter of reciprocity. If the King or your parents behave as they should, show care and concern, look after you in a selfless and self-sacrificing way, show you empathetic love, then you should do the same to them. If they broke the contract through selfishness, and particularly through cruelty, the contract is broken.

This is a consolation, yet even those who left home with a feeling that they did not like their parents, who seemed to have been less than loving, are still faced, as those parents age and sicken, with a sense of responsibility. They do not like them, and would not choose them as friends, but at a certain level they still love them. This may even pressure them to try to take their aged parents, or surviving parent, back into their families. A ‘granny flat’ may work, yet unless things are carefully worked out, this is often disastrous for an obvious reason.

When children leave home, they become the full governors, in charge, the decision-makers. If they go back into the parental home, or their parents come to live with them, the old struggle between freedom and protection starts again. The impossibility of shared sovereignty was recognized from very early on. There was a medieval story about a man who saw his son making a little trough out of wood. He asked him what he was doing, and the boy said that it would be used to feed his parents when they became old, as he saw them treating their parents like animals.

A number of seventeenth century and earlier texts said that it was impossible for two families to live under one roof without a struggle for dominance. In the ensuing battles, one side has to give way, either the returning parent resumes dominance, or the other way around. The archetypical examination of this is, of course, Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’, where, when the King gives up his lands and returns to live with his two older daughters in succession, they treat him with cruelty and he goes mad. It is a situation difficult to translate into other cultures, even when the family system is eerily like the English one. Even the film-maker Kurosawa in his film ‘Ran’ based on Lear, completely changes the family dynamics.

The whole principle of the peculiar English system is that freedom is based on independence. The one exception is in marriage when, somehow, though often not very successfully, two people merge themselves into each other and forgo some of their freedom to accommodate the other. The way this can be done is through genuine affection, if not love. You turn the other into a friend, as well as a lover, ‘one blood and one flesh’. You share interests, you continue to get pleasure from joking and playing mental or physical games together. You find that it is giving the other person pleasure, winning their esteem and seeing them happy, that makes you most happy. Cooking them a nice meal, bringing them some flowers, keeping their shirts smart, all the little things express and give reciprocal pleasure. A good deal of it is explored in great English literature such as John Donne’s poetry and many novels.

So, the family system I grew up in has shaped me, but not imprisoned me. It is the system which has seeped across the world as W. J. Goode analysed in a book that influenced me greatly at the time, World Revolution and Family Patterns (1963). This made me particularly happy to win the American Sociological Association 1987 W. J. Goode Book Award for my book on English Marriage and to receive a very nice letter from Professor Goode. Yet I can now see that Goode’s belief that this Anglosphere family system would eliminate all others, like belief that western democracy, capitalism, and monotheisms would also eliminate all rivals, looks increasingly unlikely as we move on through the Asian century.

The English family system, derived from its Germanic roots, and preserved on a bounded island, has had a tremendous effect on the world. With its system of tracing ancestral ties through both lines, what anthropologists call cognatic descent, it makes it impossible to have bounded kinship groups, clans or lineages. Through its system of inheritance, which privileged one heir, impartible inheritance, which is rare, it preserved private property. Thanks to its ‘Eskimo’ kinship terminology, which isolates out the nuclear family with special terminology, and then makes rings of family about which most people know little, beyond first cousins, it emphasizes the separateness of the nuclear family. It helps people drop the ties to distant relatives which are found in most societies, both for good and bad.

The English population patterns of late marriage, the extraordinary early growth of a money economy and ‘capitalism’, the pre-conditions for the industrial revolution, and the growth of Protestantism are all parts of a pattern. Modern civilization derived from the industrial revolution could not, and would not, have happened without this family system. It was a necessary, but not a sufficient cause, for there are similar family systems, among Hunters and Gatherers, including the Eskimos or Inuit, on islands, such as Sri Lanka or Japan, where there was no indigenous growth of an industrial civilization.

The Japanese case is particularly interesting for its concepts of descent, inheritance and terminology have been almost identical to those in England for over a thousand years, an odd coincidence on these two large islands. Yet Japan only went through an industrial revolution, no doubt helped by this system, after the western powers started to impinge seriously in the later nineteenth century. This was the theme of my Radcliffe-Brown Memorial Lecture for the British Academy in 1991.

English literature, the dynamics in many of Shakespeare’s plays, for example, and most English novels and poetry is full of evidence for this unusual family system, expressed in the central feature of romantic love marriage that I wrote about in my book Marriage and Love in England. Yet all of this is a product of its restrained, rather atomized, and comparatively non-intrusive character. It ensures freedom and equality, but can also lead to David Riesman’s Lonely Crowd.

I learnt this through my upbringing and did not understand what was going on. My search for the deeper patterns of our family system can be interpreted in one way as being generated by that moment when, aged six and three-quarters, my mother left a small present at the foot of my bed and then disappeared for two years to the other end of the world. Or the first nights in a dormitory of strangers at the age of eight.

A life of studying the peculiar Anglosphere system, its roots and consequences, and comparing it with what I have found in anthropology books and fieldwork around the world has given me some understanding of it. I can see the structures which shaped me, irrespective of the desires of my parents. I consequently feel more at peace – and I hope that you do too, after reading this!

Alan Macfarlane is an anthropologist and historian and a Professor Emeritus of King’s College, Cambridge. He is the co-editor of The Fortnightly Review, the author or editor of 20 books and numerous articles on the anthropology and history of England, Nepal, Japan and China. Much of his work has focused on comparative study of the origins and nature of the modern world. In recent years he has become increasingly interested in the use of visual material in teaching and research. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Historical Society. His essay, “Concepts of Time and the World We Live In” was published the The Fortnightly Review in 2010, and his book The Invention of the Modern World appeared in serial form in The Fortnightly Review in 2012. An archive of his work in The Fortnightly is here and his Enchantment and Modernity will be published in 2021.


  1. A relation, or rather a true account of the Islands of England, About the year 1500, translated by C. A. Sneyd (Camden Society, 1848).

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *