European Journal of Sociology

Historical roots of institutional developments

The Longue Durée of Inheritance Law*

Discourses and Institutional Development in France, Germany, and the United States since 1800

Jens Beckerta1

a1 Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Köln [Beckert@mpifg.de].

Abstract

This article investigates discourses on inheritance law and legal development in France, Germany, and the United States since the revolutions of the late eighteenth century. I argue that in each of the three countries a different set of normative and functional issues relating to the bequest of property has dominated and expressed itself in nationally specific discursive fields. The respective “repertoires of evaluation“ were formed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and show a surprisingly stable pattern that can be recognized even in today's debates on the issue. This I refer to as the longue durée of inheritance law. The distinct discursive fields exercise a dominant influence over the perception of problems associated with the transfer of property mortis causa and the strategies deemed feasible to solve them. Moreover, I argue that the different cultural frames matter for the institutional development of inheritance law. My aim is to contribute to institutional theory through investigation of a socially and economically important realm of legal regulation that has received little attention in recent sociological scholarship. The analysis is carried out within a multidimensional theoretical framework that acknowledges the influence of culture and ideas, but also considers changing socioeconomic conditions, as well as actor interests.

Résumé

L'article propose une étude comparative (France, Allemagne, États-Unis) des doctrines et des dispositifs légaux concernant l'héritage depuis la fin du XVIIIe siècle. Dans chacun des trois pays s'est alors constitué un « répertoire normatif» étonnement stable car reconnaissable dans les débats contemporains. On peut parler de «longue durée» des législations de l'héritage sur lesquelles les cadres culturels nationaux pèsent.

Le projet est de contribuer à une théorie des institutions à partir de l'étude d'un domaine important, économiquement et socialement, mais peu balisé par les sociologues. L'analyse est multidimentionelle et outre la culture et les idéologies, prend en compte le changement des conditions socio-économiques et les intérêts des acteurs.

Abstract

Diese vergleichende Studie (Frankreich, Deutschland, Vereinigte Staaten) analysiert die Lehrsätze und gesetzlichen Vorschriften zur Erbschaft seit dem Ende des 18. Jahrhunderts. In allen drei Ländern ist ein normatives Repertoire mit Langzeitwirkung entstanden, wie zeitgenössische Debatten zeigen. Diese langfristige Erbschaftsgesetzgebung stellt bis heute den nationalen, kulturellen Rahmen.

Das Projekt soll ein Beitrag zur Institutionstheorie sein, aufbauend auf der Untersuchung eines wichtigen Gebietes – wirtschaftlich und sozial », aber noch wenig von den Soziologen untersucht. Die Analyse ist multidimensional und berücksichtigt neben der Kultur und der Ideologie den Wandel der sozialwirtschaftlichen Bedingungen und Interessen der Akteure.

Footnotes

* I would like to thank Patrik Aspers, Nina Bandelj, Marion Fourcade-Gourinchas, Oliver Gerstenberg, Frank Lettke, Stephan Lessenich, Kurt Lüscher and Richard Swedberg for their detailed commentaries on earlier versions of this paper. The paper was presented at the Center for European Studies, Harvard University, the 98th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Atlanta in 2003, the 15th annual meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics in Aix-en-Provence in 2003, and sociology departments at Berlin, Bremen, Konstanz and Reading. My thanks for all the valuable comments I have received from participants.