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The tension between women's workplace opportunity and family obligation is not exclusively a phenomenon of the 1980s, as George Alter makes abundantly clear in this study. His close investigation of women's lives in a nineteenth-century European industrial city advances our knowledge in several areas of social history, historical demography, and life course studies. It is the first monograph to apply event history analysis to the study of family history. In doing so, it moves beyond the static categories of traditional household studies to a dynamic view of the influence of the family on the life course decisions of individuals.
In contrast to most previous historical studies of the family, this work focuses on the dynamic aspects of life course transitions (employment, marriage, household formation, childbearing) rather than the structure of households. In doing so, attention is shifted from the household as a decision-making unit to the role of family obligations and resources in the decisions of individuals. Thus, the family is viewed “from the inside out” through its effects on individual actors.
Alter's work adds new insights to our understanding of the impact of industrialization on family structure and functioning, about women's work and labor force attachment, and about the ways in which a life course perspective can help to resolve controversies in the approach to family and household dynamics. His rich interpretations not only help to reconstruct the past, but place some current social issues into historical perspective—illegitimacy, nuclear family patterns, and women's dual family/work roles, among others.