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Urbanization and Family Values (Gérard-François Dumont)

Urbanization and Family Values

Gérard-François Dumont

The demise of unity

For the greater part of the history of mankind, the rural family embodied affective, economic and geographical unity. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the industrial revolution was accompanied by an intensive process of urbanization that called this rule of three unities into question. It is true that the first unity, the aspiration to affective ties, persists, because it remains a universal and fundamental human aspiration. However, economic unity and geographical unity are becoming blurred.

In the cities, fewer families participate in a common economic task; in most cases, individual family members pursue distinctly different professional activities. The demise of economic unity often leads to the disappearance of unity of the workplace for the family members: parents are less present at home or close to it. As a result, children are increasingly left to their own devices. The risk of a split between the adult’s world and the child’s life may increase.

The change in geographical unity affects not only the nuclear family, but also the extended family. When the various members of an extended family lived in the same village, proximity facilitated solidarity within the family and between generations. Today, even when older relatives or those of the same age live in the same city, geographical unity is rarely achieved. Many town planning policies, often accompanied by inappropriate fiscal measures, have led to segregation between neighbourhoods, with some tending to be reserved for their oldest inhabitants, while the youngest generations are concentrated in new neighbourhoods which have little spread between generations.

The impact of urbanization

Urban society is a more complex society, in which the values of individual competition often prevail over values of solidarity. The result is that even if families remain attached to certain ideals, their realization becomes more difficult. Urban society requires greater autonomy and responsibility from each of its members: greater autonomy, because family proximity is no longer a permanent feature which helps solve problems that arise; greater responsibility, because the stability of the affective unit demands all the more resolve since it is constantly subject to frictions and the aggravations of the urban context.

Hence the family is buffeted by increasing urbanization and is faced with the “modernity” which this trend imposes. In this context, what are the irreplaceable values, which serve as a justification and a guide for the family? Its anthropological nature, the experience and exercise of the affective life, the handing on of the baton of life to future generations, to whom values must also be transmitted – fundamental values rooted in the structure of the family and focused on love and the welcoming of new life, values of personal development and personal morality, belief in spiritual values, etc.

Despite the changes in family ties, despite a plethora of official decisions, which are sometimes presented as having a “social” purpose, but are in fact inspired by ideologies that seek the decline of the family, despite many announcements of the demise of the family, the family unit has survived urbanization because it corresponds to irreplaceable values of love and brotherhood, without which life is not worth living. Moreover, many surveys and polls have shown that the family remains a fundamental aspiration. Having lost its economic unity and its geographical unity, it retains its essence – the capacity to provide a framework in which man achieves the unity of the individual, the sense of permanence, the personal freedom of commitment.

Gérard-François Dumont is Recteur and Professor at the University of Paris-Sorbonne.


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