Carle C. Zimmerman, family, and civilization

Allan C. Carlson introduces Carle Zimmerman’s “Family and Civilization,” with two photos from my time at Notre Dame so far:

Carle Zimmerman was the most important American sociologist of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. … Zimmerman focused on the family virtues of farm people. “Rural people have greater vital indices than urban people,” he reported. Farm people had earlier and stronger marriages, more children, fewer divorces, and “more unity and mutual attachment and engulfment of the personalit[ies]” of its members than did their urban counterparts.

Zimmerman’s thought ran sharply counter to the primary thrust of American sociology in this era. The so-called Chicago School dominated American social science, led by figures such as William F. Ogburn and Joseph K. Folsom. They focused on the family’s steady loss of functions under industrialization to both governments and corporations. As Ogburn explained, many American homes had already become “merely ‘parking places’ for parents and children who spend their active hours elsewhere.”

Up to this point, Zimmerman would not have disagreed. But the Chicago School went on to argue that such changes were inevitable and that the state should help complete the process. Mothers should be mobilized for full-time employment, small children should be put into collective day care, and other measures should be adopted to effect “the individualization of the members of society.” …

Zimmerman wrote Family and Civilization to recover that “actual, documented, historical truth.” The book stands as an extraordinary feat of research and interpretation. It sweeps across the millennia and burrows into the nature of otherwise disparate civilizations to reveal deeper and universal social traits. To guide his investigation, Zimmerman asks: “Of the total power in [a] society, how much belongs to the family? Of the total amount of control of action in [a] society, how much is left for the family?”

By analyzing these levels of family autonomy, Zimmerman identifies three basic family types:

(1) the trustee family, with extensive power rooted in extended family and clan;

(2) the atomistic family, which has virtually no power and little field of action; and

(3) the domestic family (a variant of Le Play’s “stem” family), in which a balance exists between the power of the family and that of other agencies.

He traces the dynamics as civilizations, or nations, move from one type to another. Zimmerman’s central thesis is that the “domestic family” is the system found in all civilizations at their peak of creativity and progress, for it “possesses a certain amount of mobility and freedom and still keeps up the minimum amount of familism necessary for carrying on the society.” …

Zimmerman focuses on hard, albeit enduring truths. He affirms, for example, the virtue of early marriage: “Persons who do not start families when reasonably young often find that they are emotionally, physically, and psychologically unable to conceive, bear, and rear children at later ages.” The author emphasizes the intimate connection between voluntary and involuntary sterility, suggesting that they arise from a common mindset that rejects familism. He rejects the common argument that the widespread use of contraceptives would have the beneficial effect of eliminating human abortion. In actual practice, “the population which wishes to reduce its birth rate … seems to find the need for more abortions as well as more birth control.” Indeed, the primary theme of Family and Civilization is fertility. Zimmerman underscores the three functions of familism as articulated by historic Christianity: fides, proles, and sacramentum; or “fidelity, childbearing, and indissoluble unity.” While describing at length the social value of premarital chastity, the health-giving effects of marriage, the costs of adultery, and the social devastation of divorce, Zimmerman zeros in on the birth rate. He concludes that “we see [ever] more clearly the role of proles or childbearing as the main stem of the family.” The very act of childbearing, he notes, “creates resistances to the breaking-up of the marriage.” In short, “the basis of familism is the birth rate. Societies that have numerous children have to have familism. Other societies (those with few children) do not have it.”

It seems like we’re moving from the “domestic” family of the late 20th century to flirting with the “atomistic” family being more the norm in the early 21st century.