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Working paper

The Shadow of the Family: Historical Roots of Social Capital in Europe

This study provides new evidence on the impact of historic household formation patterns on present day levels of social capital (SC). We distinguish effects on bonding and bridging social capital, of which only the latter is beneficial for a society as a whole. Our results challenge the view that large household size in the past per se was responsible for institutional drawbacks of contemporary societies restricting social capital. We unveil the true processes lying behind the idea that prevalence of nuclear households fostered institutional development, testing three mechanisms through which household size may influence social capital: (a) family size in terms of the number of household members; (b) the strength of loyalty bonds within the family, and (c) generational and gendered power hierarchies within the family. Our hypotheses are explored on the basis of 26 European countries covered by the Life in Transition Survey (LiTs) in 2010. The contrast between Western and Eastern European countries in the LiTs provides a controlled environment that is free from the potentially confounding influence of European colonialism. We generate a new historical database using historical census data for 429 sub-national regions in 5 West European and 21 East European countries. Individual responses from the LiTs are attributed to the sub-national region in which the respondent lives. We find that power relations within the family have more essential consequences for contemporary values and attitudes than nuclearity/extendedness dimension. Within-family hierarchies revealed to be the strongest predictor of social capital today, indicating lower levels of bridging SC and higher level of corruption in form of monetary transfers or exchange of favors. We suggest that within-family hierarchies in the past might have affected the contemporary level of SC provoking a longstanding commitment to authority within the society. This evidence is illustrated by the significant positive correlation between the historical index of within-family hierarchy and autocracy preference as measured on LiTs data. Societal commitment to authority rooted in historical family pattern might have prevented generalized trust formation and fostered vertical patron-client relations, favoritism and corruption. Our results may drive further research from concentrating on family extendedness (nuclearity) as a predictor of the current state of modernization towards using more meaningful indicators of within-family hierarchies.