affective individualism

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An alleged (though controversial) change in family life, said to have accompanied the demographic, industrial, and capitalist revolutions which occurred in 18th-century England, and since experienced widely in other modernized and modernizing countries. The term affective individualism is applied to this process, being the formation of marriage ties on the basis of personal attraction, guided by norms of romantic attachment.

A number of authorities (including L. Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500–1800, 1977) have argued that the 18th century saw a revolution in familial norms. Hitherto, families (even nuclear families) were deeply embedded in a wider network of community involvements (including close relationships with other kin), so that the family was not a major focus of emotional attachment and dependence for its members. Among other things, therefore, sex was instrumental (necessary to propagate children) rather than a source of pleasure; as indeed was marriage itself (which was undertaken for economic or political reasons, rather than feelings of romantic attraction). For reasons connected with industrialization (the precise causality varies between accounts), this form of family life gave way rapidly to the ‘closed domesticated nuclear form’, characterized by intimate emotional bonds, domestic privacy, a preoccupation with love and with the rearing of children for expressive rather than instrumental reasons. By extension, this process is alleged to have accompanied the spread of capitalism and industrialization throughout the globe, especially to the so-called traditional societies of the Third World.

The theory of affective individualism as an invention of modern societies has been strongly challenged—most notably by Alan Macfarlane (see The Culture of Capitalism, 1987)—mainly on the grounds that it posits as revolutionary a series of changes which were incremental and long pre-dated the processes of industrialization. See also family, sociology of.

Subjects: Sociology.

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