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Sexual Customs in Rural Norway: A Nineteenth-Century Study.

Eilert Sundt (1817-1875) was a prolific analyst of Norwegian society during the third quarter of the nineteenth century. A Lutheran pastor by training, Sundt, whose work was funded directly by the Norwegian Parliament for two decades, devoted nearly all of his professional life to inquires into social problems.

First published in 1857, Sexual Customs initially seems antiquated and naive. Needless to say, Sundt disapproved of sexual activity outside of wedlock, and to convey his attitude' to the reader, he defined illegitimacy in relationship to the number of marriages. In the first instance, couples were bad; in the second, good; and the moral fault was the immediate precondition of widespread poverty in rural Norway. Sundt's method yields a more imposing number (about 30 illegitimate births per 100 marriages), one that is more than three times the conventional illegitimacy ratio. Like his contemporary, the Belgian Adolphe Quetelet, he was excited to demonstrate that statistics revealed that deviant behavior had a persistent structuring. Among the 53 administrative districts in Norway, the correlation between illegitimacy ratios in the third and fourth decades of the century was 0.96, and about half of the variation in this indicator in both decades can be accounted for by the location of a district in one of the five diocesan regions in Norway (my calculations). Finally, Sundt was optimistic that social science would eventually uncover all of the sources of the problem and that the resulting insights would assist in reducing its magnitude.

This volume shows why Sundt is rightly regarded as an outstanding exemplar of the empirically-based sociological imagination in its historical infancy. He combined levels of analysis and exposition in a multidimensional approach to his subject. After using official statistics to explore variation at the district level, he employed questionnaires on marriage and fertility returned to him by ministers in two dioceses, Christiania and Christiansand, in eastern and southern Norway, which together comprised half of the country's population. He then sorted these parishes into seven groups based on geographic proximity and similarity in levels of illegitimacy. The latter decision introduces an element of circularity into his moral map, making the spatial clustering of illegitimacy more pronounced than it would have appeared otherwise. Further, seven cases is too few for such techniques as analysis of variance (had R.A. Fisher invented that method 60 years earlier!).

Sundt then identified quantitatively the proximate determinants of illegitimacy: the customs of young people sleeping in barns without supervision and night courting (bundling). He also related the incidence of illegitimacy to the profound cleavage in Norwegian rural society between small landowners and landless cottagers. Rates of out-of-wedlock conception were much higher among cotters than owners. In intraclass unions, a man from the owner class and a female from the cotter class were much more likely to be parents of illegitimate children than were daughters of owners and sons of cotters.

Sundt displays a superb numerical sense, realizing that a multiplicity of factors covaried with illegitimacy. He also pushes the data, using information on the number of illegitimate children ever born to address the provocative question, "Which of the two sexes is more to blame?" As it turns out, the difference in the distribution of repeat parentage of illegitimate children between men and women is surprisingly modest. However, Sundt's interpretation of the result that women were slightly more likely to recidivate invokes a sophisticated notion of blame. Becoming a parent of one illegitimate child dishonored a women more than a man. Her more limited options in the marriage market increased the chances she, rather than he, would again be the parent out of wedlock. The "blame," in short, ensued from the community's evaluation of the behavior, not from the intrinsic character of men and women. Sundt was judgmental but in a highly sophisticated way.

Besides linking a reproductive underclass to a socioeconomic one, what makes Sundt seem most like our contemporary is his discontent with his own explanations. Despite his substantial results concerning the spatial and social structuring of illegitimacy and its proximate determinants, he compares two contiguous districts, Upper and Lower Romericke, that had quite disparate illegitimacy ratios but no apparent structural differences. The source of the variation remained "like a mystery" despite some 73 days of field research in these districts. Sundt takes "custom" seriously as a cause of persistent behavioral differences, but elsewhere he questions the alleged antiquity of the custom of night courting. Even though the practice was much more common among the cotter than the owner class, he argues suggestively that it developed in reaction to arranged marriages and an excessive patriarchal authority that controlled children well into adulthood. What appeared to be moral deviance was instead socially structured.

Also seemingly up to date is his reconstruction of conversations, strung together from diverse informants that he encountered in his many months of field research. No doubt the strength of the design and analysis of his quantitative materials owned much to his intimate familiarity with the lives of rural Norwegians. But there is more than a hint of contrivance in the presentation of these snippets of oral histories. Sundt employs them to advance his reformist points that members of the landowning class needed to be more involved with individuals in the cotter class and to serve as role models for their lessers. He also intimated that both groups shared a common humanity or nationality and that it was within the capacity of the poor to act more responsibly. As a Norwegian, Sundt could simultaneously be critical and empathetic toward both the landowning and cotter classes.

Finally, the "darting from one topic to another," as the English historical demographer Michael Drake calls it in his introduction (xi), which might be attributed to hasty publication, might also be viewed as an implicit recognition of the autonomy of the separate levels of the issues involved. There is much of value in this volume for different types of social analysts, historians, and commentators.

Daniel Scott Smith University of Illinois at Chicago
COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Smith, Daniel Scott
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1994
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