Emmanuel Todd (1): Anthropology explains ideology

What causes the different peoples of the world to think and feel so differently about such things as religion and politics? Despite inventions like the telephone, high speed modern transport by rail and air, and now the latest such miracle in the form of the internet, people in different parts of the world still seem defiantly different from one another. And their differences, instead of being ironed out by modern communications technology, are instead made all the more visible and scandalous to all who concern themselves about such things. Why?

Why, historically, do political and religious ideologies often start by spreading with the speed and completeness of a medieval plague? But why do they then, with equal suddenness, mysteriously cease their expansions?

Why do the world’s different peoples, in addition to quarrelling with one another, seem so very varied in their responses to the opportunities and agonies of economic development? What is economic development?

I now believe that the best clutch of answers to these questions (and to many other related questions both historical and contemporary) has been supplied by the French historian and anthropologist Emmanuel Todd, who was born in 1951.

I have not read all of Todd’s books, because my French is not good enough. But I have read, and I own in treasured English translations, the two that appear to be the most important. These are: La Troisième Planète: Structures Familiales et Systèmes Idéologiques, published in 1983, published in English, in 1985, as The Explanation of Ideology: Family Structures and Social Systems; and L’Enfance du Monde: Structure Familiale et Développement, published in 1984, published in English in 1987, as The Causes of Progress: Culture, Authority and Change.

The first of these books is probably the most striking one, and in this posting, I will concentrate on – in the amazingly confident title which Todd or someone chose for the English edition of La Troisième Planète – the explanation of ideology. The explanation.

I will now attempt an approximate summary of Todd’s explanation of ideology.

The peoples of the world are different in their ideological orientations because they have different “family structures”. The world’s different ideologies and ideological tendencies (communism, Islam, social democracy, Anglo-Saxon liberalism, the Indian caste system, and so on) are projections onto the public stage of ideas first learned within the family.

In the family one acquires beliefs about such things as the nature of and proper scope of parental authority, the appropriate degree of equality or lack of it in the relations between men and women, and between older brothers and younger brothers, the proper way to get married and have children in one’s turn, the appropriate relationship between one’s family and other families, and so on.

These ideas are handed down from generation to generation, and do not change from one century to the next, or even from one millennium to the next. Family structure, for Emmanuel Todd, is the independent variable. It causes other things. It is not itself caused. It simply is.

“Family structure” does not mean the particular circumstances of particular families. Family structure is the belief set that all those raised in a particular anthropological setting hold in common about the proper nature of family life. Some particular parents divorce or die young while others do not. Some have many children while others have few or none. Some children marry, earlier or later, and have children of their own, others not, and so on. Todd does not trace any connections from the particular family history of an individual or of a group of individuals to their subsequent behaviour and attitudes. It is what members of the same anthropological group all agree to be the proper nature of the family, and of the various privileges and obligations associated with it, that matters. He is concerned with the ideal family, so to speak.

In different family systems, the same events will be experienced differently, with a different degree of shame or triumph, or even absolutely differently. Divorce happens, but is usually (not always) experienced as a problem. A married sister may, or may not, retain links with her original family. Cousins or nieces may be encouraged to marry cousins or uncles, or fiercely forbidden to. Incest may be taboo (or not). Brothers may be equal, or unequal. Fathers may control their grown-up sons until death do them part, or not. Mothers may be powerful matriarchs, or little more than girls. And so on. All of this varies from place to place in the world, and it is these local agreements and global disagreements that Todd is concerned with.

What triggers history’s great eruptions of ideological and religious enthusiasm is mass literacy. When a majority of the young men can read and write for the first time, that is to say at a time when a majority of their fathers could not, then there is always an ideological upsurge. Hence the German Reformation, the English Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, Islamic fundamentalism, the Tamil Tigers, and so on and so on and so on. Each of these eruptions into ideological modernity takes its particular and quite distinct form from the family structure that dominates in the place where it happens.

Rising literacy is easy to see coming. Anthropology is easily studied. Therefore both the timing and the nature of such ideological eruptions can be easily predicted. Todd has an impressive record of such successful predictions. (I recall Todd’s very confident announcement that Nicaragua would not turn communist, at a time when it was widely predicted that it was about to.)

So much, for now, for the explanation of ideology.

In The Causes of Progress Todd turns to other less explosive and destructive but equally important effects of mass literacy. Mass literacy, in a very basic sense, is economic development. When a population becomes literate, it gets rich. Not immediately, because it takes time to get rich, and it especially takes time to get rich if the ideological eruptions triggered earlier by mass literacy are particularly destructive.

Mass literacy among women also has profound effects upon fertility, which tends to oscillate wildly during the modernisation process. Fertility first surges, then plummets.

Further Emmanuel Todd postings here will, I hope and intend, go into more detail. In my next posting, for instance, I intend to itemise all the world’s various family structures, and which ideologies they correspond to.

I also hope to speculate about and in due course (this is a blog after all) to find out about why Todd’s theories have had so little impact in the English speaking world, despite appearing to have extreme relevance to many contemporary debates and concerns, about such things as Islamic terrorism. Is it because they are simply wrong? I don’t now think so, but I do think that Todd is often wrong (at the very least extremely contentious) about many matters incidental to his most important ideas, which has surely not helped.

Worse, from the point of view of anyone else who is interested in ideological matters being willing to spread his ideas, Todd appears to reduce all ideologists to mere sock puppets for their inner anthropologically programmed urges.

But that is all to come. For now, that will have to suffice.

My Emmanuel Todd blogging journey has now begun.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

One thought on “Emmanuel Todd (1): Anthropology explains ideology”

  1. Big comment thread on this:


    I’m a bit puzzled. Islam spread from the desert and had nothing to do with literacy, had it? Most historians of the subject believe that even Mohammed was illiterate. The literacy of his followers couldn’t have been relevant until the Koran was written down, perhaps a century-and-a-half later. In these islands, the first literate population was the Scots, whose literacy is usually said to have followed their reformation, not caused it.
    Anyway, what predictions follow from his ideas? Will the modern divorce rate cause….what?

    Posted by dearieme on 25 January 2007


    You’re right about original Islam of course. Todd has things to tell us in particular about modern Islam, but also illuminates the original spread, and why it stopped where it stopped.

    I’ll bear in mind what you say about Scotland, and see what I can find. I’m pretty sure that he would disagree about the literacy being caused by the reformation movement. I’ll see what I can dig out.

    Todd says so much about so many things that I do not know what he says, or would say, about the modern divorce rate.

    My main objectives with these postings are (1) simply to say what Todd says as best I can (which has only just started to do), and (2) to find out what Anglosphere academics think of him, if anything. Then, if I become convinced that he is being unjustly neglected (at present I simply am not sure), I will try to do whatever I can to correct that.

    Especially to start with, it will be harder to discuss the wisdom of Todd’s particular ideas with people who have only my second-hand reports to go on. I want to continue with the explication of the Grand Theories before getting drawn into detailed discussions, which would be very easy to do, because whenever I read the guy the head buzzes with further developments of what he has said, and questions about it.

    There will be more Todd postings Real Soon Now, including, in due course, excerpts from his writings.

    Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 25 January 2007



    I am delighted that you are having a go at this because I have heard you talk about Todd on a number of occasions and it would be nice to see the ideas discussed a bit more widely.

    On the reformation/literacy issue. Surely, literacy albeit limited has to come first? Isn’t the whole point that printing made the Bible became more available (to literate people) thus setting off the reformation. The literacy doesn’t have to be that widespread just significantly wider than the church.

    Posted by Patrick Crozier on 26 January 2007


    Perhaps Todd’s points are for “normal” times and things like Islam’s conquests need an extraordinary explanation. Like Carlyle’s?

    Posted by dearieme on 27 January 2007



    Todd stands or falls on his account of the intersection of literacy and anthropology, and of how the story unfolds over time. He is a theorist of abnormality, you might say, although not of all abnormalities, and especially not of their timing.

    His story is of how spreading literacy meets unchanging anthropology, and set its alight, so to speak.

    Yes he does illuminate things like the sudden spread and equally sudden halting of original Islam, which happened as you say long before mass literacy. That is, he illuminates the nature of the event but not its timing. But the heart of his grand theory is a theory of political and economic modernisation, both resulting from rising literacy.

    The story is complicated by the fact that different anthropologies have very different effects on literacy.

    I hardly know Carlyle at all, but he was in particular interested in the French Revolution. Yes? Well, Todd is adamant that this is a perfect example of his literacy meets anthropology thesis.

    I didn’t mention it, but Todd has written an entire book devoted exclusively to France and its history. What makes France so unusual is that it has three different sorts of anthropology in it. Perhaps the complicated nature of how the anthropologies of France are located make the general principle of how anthropology influences politics particularly evident to an alert Frenchman.

    I am now working on my next posting, which will simply list the details of the various family systems, and the various places where they prevail.

    Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 27 January 2007


    The other amazing thing about Todd, and the one that impresses me most, is that he wrote La Chute Final in 1976. It was translated into English as The Final Fall. It predicted that the Soviet bloc was in its final crisis and was about to collapse … soon, ‘any decade now’ as you once put it, Brian!

    Posted by Ken Macleod on 29 January 2007


    Frankly speaking, ideas of Emmanuel Todd about dominating role of a family in arrangement of social organizations of people has been borrowed or prompted by Frederick Engels work “Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”. In this work, the only thing I remember, it is claimed that a family is a cell of society. Examples were derived from descriptions of families of German tribes compared with those of Roman state. So, the idea turned out to be rich and promising for development. I am wondering if Emmanuel Todd mentioned the work anyhow.

    Posted by Alexander on 21 October 2010



    Thanks for that.

    Yes I am almost certain that Todd does refer back to Hegel, and I’ll try to look it up to see if he specifically mentions the idea you refer to.

    When you said “borrowed” I started to fear you were going to say there was nothing original about Todd’s work.

    Quite a few people before Todd noted affinities between this and that family system, and this and that political system. Todd generalised this point.

    And others, notably McFarlane, already noticed that certain particular family systems had been around for a very long time. Again, Todd generalised the point.

    Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 21 October 2010


    In general, things are beginning to move(albeit very slowly) on the Todd front, in the English writing world. In particular James C. Bennett has started to mention Todd. More from me about that Real Soon Now.

    Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 21 October 2010

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