This book is an attempt to see the development of domestic institutions, the family, marriage, conjugal roles, in relation to changes in the mode of productive activity, and specifically with the change from hoe to plough agriculture. These differences are related to societies in Africa on the one hand, and in Asia and Europe on the other. The author tries to do this in two ways. He compares information derived from a range of human societies, historical as well as contemporary, employing the impressionistic techniques of the social scientist and comparative historian. But in addition, he has tried to make systematic use of material on a range of world societies, coded in the Ethnographic Atlas. In the main chapters of the book, the author examines general features of the network of traditional social roles found in these two continental areas of the Old World. He discusses the reasons why Europe and Asia should stress marriage within the social group, monogamous unions as well as the roles of concubine, step-parent, spinster and adopted child, whereas in Africa, the emphasis is on marriage outside the group, polygyny and co-wives.
Similar differences emerge in a range of other features, including the division of labour by sex. Behind all these lie differences in the systems of agriculture and the nature of the social hierarchies which they support. Professor Goody is firmly committed to the idea that the social sciences have no alternative but to be comparative and explicitly historical if they are to contribute to the serious causal analysis of fundamental features of social organisation and development. His broad and ambitious book will appeal to anyone with a professional interest in social sciences - historians, anthropologists, sociologists, geographers and economists.