Review of Michael Anderson’s ‘Family Structure’

Family Structure in 19th Century Lancashire, by Michael Anderson

This review was written many years ago as an assignment for a course at Lancaster University run by Angus Winchester and Michael Winstanley. The course provided an incredibly stimulating and intellectually exciting experience and inspired the subsequent researches that form the basis for this website. I decided to republish the review of Anderson’s work after reading a book by John Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past, the first edition of which has been made available as a free and legal download. [1]

Gaddis demolishes the pretensions of the practitioners of those pseudo sciences that include economics, political science and sociology. He makes laughable their claims to occupy the scientific high ground, wittily undermining the shaky foundations on which they erect their fantastic ‘systems’. He treats with withering derision their invention of that strange creature ‘rational man’. He argues that their ‘scientific method’ is rooted in the 19th century and Newtonian physics and ignores the paradigm shift in methodology that quantum physics heralded early in the last century. Not only that, but they fail the basic test of Newtonian physics: they are singularly bad at prediction and replication. Who would trust a sociologist to plot the course of a space rocket?

The long-practised research methods of the historian, on the other hand, would, Gaddis argues, win the approval of the quantum physicist; he provides numerous parallels between the ways the two operate. He clearly demonstrates that history stands out from the pseudo sciences and can show them the way to integrate the latest scientific thinking in their research work.

Michael Anderson manages to infect a very useful study of family life in 19th-century Preston with the very worst of that pseudo-science gobbledygook that Gaddis castigates, as this review hopes to show. The absurd reductionism that Gaddis ridiculed can still be found in journals, to judge by a recent item in the Guardian which describes economists Peter Leeson and Jacob Russ of George Mason University in Virginia arguing that the witchcraft trials in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries reflected ‘non-price competition between the Catholic and Protestant churches for religious market share’.

Unlike most other material on this site, this review is signed since it seems impolite to criticise other people’s work anonymously.


The first point to make in addressing this publication is that it is not sufficient to confine the study simply to the work of historians. Anderson was a sociologist who raided historical sources to cast light on a subject that was greatly exercising many of his fellow sociologists: the place of the family in contemporary society. His book was one of a series of Cambridge studies in sociology. This is not to belittle his skills as a historian nor the lessons he offers to practising historians: his book, as he himself rather immodestly puts it ‘… breaks new ground in a number of ways. ’ [2]

But, as he makes clear in his preface, he was writing a sociological account of family structure which might incidentally be of interest to the historian: ‘This book is a sociological study of the impact of urban-industrial life on the kinship system of the working classes of nineteenth century Lancashire … also, I hope, of interest to many social historians.” [3] His point of departure was the 1960s Bethnal Green of Willmott and Young’s sociological study [4], not Victorian Preston even though that town is the subject of his book. Willmott and Young and their fellow researchers painted a picture of working class life lived within an extensive family network. This situation struck Anderson as paradoxical:

All the sociological literature that I had read implied that industrialisation typically and at least to some extent disrupted pro-existing kinship systems. The historical writings stressed that pre-industrial family patterns in Britain, at least among the poorer sections of the population, were predominantly of a nuclear kind. By contrast, the writers on family patterns in modern “traditional” working class communities were adamant that kinship relationships in such communities were well developed. It thus, superficially at least, appeared that modernisation in Britain had increased not decreased kinship cohesion. Why …? [5]

Anderson has found his subject and a research vacuum, ‘… when this research began, hardly any work had been done on any aspect of family life during the period of industrialisation.’ [6] He is rightly suspicious of contemporary accounts because of the bias inherent in their almost invariably middle-class perspectives and their focus on the atypical. According to Anderson there was only one published study touching on Victorian working-class family structure at that time, and even that, ‘… because [its] topic was largely incidental to [its] main purpose, … [and] confined [itself] to a few tables and some stimulating discussion.’ [7] Anderson had the field to himself.

Unfortunately, before embarking on his study proper, Anderson dons his sociologist’s hat and indulges in a whole chapter of the worst kind of ‘sociologese’. He does warn us, ‘Readers who find this chapter rather heavy going at this point in the book may prefer to leave a detailed reading of it until they have seen the theory in action in chapter 7.’ [8] Wise readers will heed this advice; even wiser readers will never return since chapter 7 reads well on its own and a great deal of head-scratching misery will thus be averted.

Chapter 2 does indeed present an ugly hurdle right at the beginning of the book, offering what Anderson describes as a ‘structural level actor-based perspective’ of the family. The opening of the ‘psychic profit’ section gives a flavour of the chapter’s style, ‘An exchange theory formulation would assume that an actor, faced with a problem and a number of alternative sources of solution to that problem, would, in the absence of uncertainty or time considerations, and of cultural or internalised pressures towards any one relationship, seek to enter a relationship for the solution of the problem with whichever actor or collectivity gave him maximum returns (satisfactions) in return for minimum outgoings (dissatisfactions).” [9] Such baggy wordiness infects the whole chapter.

Why did Anderson do it? An answer can perhaps be found in the introduction he wrote to a book of readings on the sociology of the family which he edited and which was published at the same time that Family Structure appeared. Here he reveals the insecurity that bedevilled empirical sociology in the Sixties: its practitioners were fearful that their studies were not sufficiently rigorous and were out of step with the major theoretical developments in the subject. Rather similar to the situation obtaining in some schools of history at that time and then later with the post-modernists. As Anderson comments, ‘…the reputation of the sociology of the family among professional sociologists is still rather low. Many see it as an academic dead end which contributes little or nothing of importance to the discipline as a whole as methodologically naive and conceptually underdeveloped.’ [10]

To combat such adverse criticism he prescribes ‘… a new “scientific” approach pushing explanatory theory-building and based on rigorous hypothesis testing.’ [11] This is presumably what he was attempting in his Chapter 2. It doesn’t work; the theoretical superstructure he imposes simply dilutes and obscures the impact of his core findings. It is these findings, together with his innovative and illuminating methodology, which redeem the book and which has ensured its continuing appearance in the literatures of both history and sociology. Citation lists reveal scores of references to the work in both fields. Few if any seem interested in his theoretical constructs: a check of publications [some years ago] supplied 80 abstracts, all of which seemed to be concerned with the concrete implications of his findings.

What Anderson did that was of lasting importance was to take a seemingly impenetrable jungle of millions of facts (the hand-written census enumerators books for a large town) and team cutting-edge computer technology with judicious sampling to render form out of chaos. He chose to study the period from 1830 to 1865 when data was becoming available on family relationships through such fact-gathering processes as the decennial census. His chosen place was Preston because in such Lancashire towns industrialisation was becoming fully-fledged, resulting in the ‘ differentiation of workplace from home, concentration of work into large units, money wages, regular hours of employment, and the absence of ownership by the workforce of the means of production.’ [12]

Such a state of affairs would not so much result in, as require a particular form of family structure — the nuclear family – according to prevailing sociological thinking; and the form flourished, it would seem, in pre-industrial England, providing one of the necessary prerequisites for industrialisation. Yet Anderson’s careful analysis of his data revealed that:

… in spite of migration, residential mobility, industrial employment, and high mortality rates, most people managed to maintain relationships with their family, both the current nuclear family, and the family as a web of wider kinship relationships. The very fact that migrants and the widowed and the old made efforts to move near to kin suggests that it was a functionally important unit, too … [13]

Such interdependence was desirable if people were to avoid the frequent crises that were a common feature of life in early-Victorian industrial towns, given the inadequacy of public provision for social care and the absence of networks of helpful neighbours.

Where one can take issue with Anderson’s otherwise impeccable analysis of the data is in his argument that these extensive relationships flourished or declined simply according to how profitable they were to the individuals involved, ‘… crucial to my interpretation is the fact that, in most of the cases noted, the relationships, and particularly the costly relationships, which were maintained were mutually advantageous within a rather short time period[14] (emphasis in original).

He portrays a society made up of calculating individuals raised in the Gradgrind school of social interaction:

… if reciprocation must be delayed then trust must also be high even in a two-person situation and both parties must be able to do without the resources invested in the relationship for the period until reciprocation occurs. If the problem requires help from more than one person the numbers must be large enough so that the amount demanded by the person in need from each of the contributors in any time period is not greater than each is prepared to invest in this way … [15]

The widespread reaction that Anderson’s narrow portrayal provoked can be seen in the response to the publication of Marguerite Dupree’s Family Structure in the Staffordshire Potteries: 1840-1880 in 1995, which covers similar ground to Anderson, and also makes profitable use of census enumerators’ returns. Thus, Lydia Murdoch found that, ‘… in contrast to Anderson’s picture of short-term, calculative family relations in Preston, Dupree maintains that family members in the Potteries often helped each other through long-term crises, even when there was no hope of reciprocity’. [16] Reed Geiger commented that Dupree:

… lays out and criticizes in detail Anderson’s model of family relationships. He assumes that each family member acts out of calculation of his or her individual advantage and seeks to use the family as one resource among others in achieving his or her own goals. For Dupree, the family is more than a collection of individual profit maximisers. It is an association whose relationships are strong and primary. [17]

Why should Anderson omit such an important dimension in family relationships? He cannot have been unaware of it since warm, non-instrumental relationships figure so strongly among the families in Willmott and Young’s Bethnal Green study – one of the key studies that Anderson took as his starting point. Two explanations are possible. Firstly, it could be that 19th– century Preston was different from both the Potteries and Bethnal Green communities, both of which seem to have been more stable and longer-established than was Preston’s. A second and more probable explanation is that Anderson wanted to present a work that was academically respectable in the light of the prevailing orthodoxy in sociology. It had to be ‘scientific’: hypotheses are to be tested by limiting variables to those which lend themselves to easy measurement, and the insertion of ‘ceterus paribus’ clauses dispose of the messier, more personal aspects of family relationships. Such conservatism in a work which really did break new ground only served to weaken the impact of what Anderson had to say.

Peter Smith

[1] ‘The Landscape of History – How Historians Map the Past – J L Gaddis.Pdf’, accessed 4 January 2018, https://cdn.preterhuman.net/texts/history/The%20Landscape%20of%20History%20-%20How%20Historians%20Map%20the%20Past%20-%20J%20L%20Gaddis.pdf.
[2] Michael Anderson, Family Structure in 19th Century Lancashire (Cambridge University Press, 1971), vii.
[3] Anderson, vii.
[4] M. Young and P. Willmott, Family and Kinship in East London (London: Penguin, 1962).
[5] Anderson, Family Structure, 1.
[6] Anderson, 3.
[7] Anderson, 4.
[8] Anderson, 5.
[9] Anderson, 9.
[10] Michael Anderson, Sociology of the Family: Selected Readings (London: Penguin, 1971), 8.
[11] Anderson, 8.
[12] Anderson, Family Structure, 17.
[13] Anderson, 66.
[14] Anderson, 164.
[15] Anderson, 171.
[16] Lydia D. Murdoch, ‘Review of Family Structure in the Staffordshire Potteries’, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 27, no. 3, Winter (1997): 514.
[17] Reed Geiger, ‘Review of Family Structure in the Staffordshire Potteries’, The Journal of Modern History 69, no. 2 (June 1997): 343, https://doi.org/10.1086/245500.