MPIDR Working Paper

Family organisation and human capital inequalities in historic Europe: testing the association anew

Szołtysek, M., Poniat, R., Klüsener, S., Gruber, S.

MPIDR Working Paper WP-2017-012, 40 pages (May 2017).
Rostock, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research

Keywords: Europe, economic and social development, historical demography, patriarchy, spatial analysis


There has been growing interest in the question of whether variation in family systems is a factor in the disparities in growth, development, and human capital formation. Studies by proponents of the field of New Institutional Economics have suggested that differences in family organisation could have considerable influence on regional developmental inequalities in today’s world, while a number of economic historians have argued that certain systems of marriage and household structure in the European past might have been more conducive than others to economic growth. Despite recent criticism of these ideas by Dennison and Ogilvie, who argued that the family has no exogenous effects on growth, the debate over this potential relationship continues. However, we believe that this discussion has been suffering from a lack of historical data that would give a fuller picture of the rich diversity of family settings, and from methodological shortcomings that have so far hindered the proper operationalisation of historical family systems and their potential effects on developmental outcomes. In this paper, we apply a recently developed multidimensional measure of historic familial organisation, the Patriarchy Index; and use spatially sensitive multivariate analyses to investigate its relationship with human capital levels, as approximated by numeracy across 115 populations of historic Europe. We find a strong negative association between the Patriarchy Index and regional numeracy patterns that remains significant even after controlling for a broad range of other important factors. Our observation that family-driven age- and gender-related inequalities, as captured by the index, are relevant for understanding variation in basic numeracy patterns in the past suggests that there are indeed important links between family organisation and human capital accumulation that merit further investigation.