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UNIT 13: Family and Household



An individual's earliest and most profound experience of the world takes place at home. The experience of family life leaves a distinctive and lasting imprint, and shapes our understanding of how the world outside the home works. However, the meaning and nature of family and household varies widely across cultures and over time. Like the concepts of gender and community, families were socially and culturally constructed, not biologically determined. Yet whatever their form, familial units were used by peoples around the world to construct the order of their lives at home and they influenced — and were influenced by — the hierarchies of social and political life in the wider world.

This unit explores how families and households — the most intimate and basic social organizations — intersected and interacted with ideas, institutions, and communities from ancient times to about 1750. Too often, historians have ignored the private, daily realm of human activity in favor of large-scale political affairs and the actions of "great men."

Recently, however, world historians have approached family differently: as evidence for the variety and commonality of world history, as models for ordering the world, as evidence of the dynamic nature of the past, and as a way to bring the ordinary and familiar into global perspective. While reconstructing the history of families can be difficult, historians have learned to mine rich sources that frequently document the ways families and households functioned in the past, including oral testimony, mythology, genealogies, life histories, legal codes, archaeological excavations, language, and literature.

Historians have found that families and households are universal in world history, but that their specific form is a product of culture and historical change. Moreover, the historical record as represented by official documents — such as codes of law — merely reports the prescribed or dictated ideal behavior; actual historical practices often differed greatly from ideals.

Finally, families interacted with and were influenced by various large structures — political, economic, and ideological. Indeed, the dynamism of historical change is evident not only in the rise and fall of rulers, states, and empires but also in the shifting patterns of family and household over time and across cultures.


Time Period: 500 BCE- 1750 CE

Family units are nearly universal in world history. By studying these units, world historians explore the familiar patterns of kin groupings and family social relations while placing these patterns in larger regional, cultural, and global contexts. In other words, studying family groups allows world historians to probe the social, political, and economic frameworks within which families in different parts of the world develop. These frameworks, in turn, help world historians understand the role gender plays in family relationships, and how gender ideologies are formed in the wider context of social relations. Studying families provides world historians with unique perspectives on the global past, and reminds us that although the global patterns we talk about may be vast, most people experienced these patterns on a daily basis through their roles as family members.

AP Themes:

    Examines change and continuity by exploring the ways in which family structures changed over time in Europe, China, and the Islamic world.

    Explores systems of social and gender structure by focusing on how family groupings reflected the wider gender ideologies of their home societies, and how gender ideologies did not always reflect actual family relationships.

    Discusses cultural and intellectual developments by looking at the ways in which families were influenced by the cultural traditions and beliefs of the wider society.


  • Question 1: How can we use the study of families and households to explore broad political, economic, or ideological themes in world history?
  • Question 2: What kinds of evidence do historians use to recover family and household histories?
  • Question 3: What are some of the ways that family and household structures have varied across cultures and changed over time?
  • Question 4: What is the relationship between family/household and political order? What is the relationship between family/household and religion?


How is this topic related to Increasing Integration?

The experience of living in a family or household integrates nearly all humanity. Families and households provide a nearly universal setting that meets basic human needs — from birth to death — around the world.

How is this topic related to Proliferating Difference?

At the same time, the exact structure of families and households vary widely, and reflect the different cultural and historical settings in which they occur. In addition, family and household structures change over time, creating differences between past and present forms.

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