Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Fertility, Patriarchy, and Politics

Now I am certain that Phillip Longman's article from the March issue of Foreign Policy - "The Return of Patriarchy" did not escape the attention of the readers and contributors of this blog. I wanted to revisit it in order to highlight the points which Edward discussed in his latest post. Longman argues:
"As governments going as far back as imperial Rome have discovered, when cultural and economic conditions discourage parenthood, not even a dictator can force people to go forth and multiply."

He goes on to argue that those who continue to have a large number of children are decidedly politically conservative, and by Darwinian inference, destined to inherit the earth. It's really quite a neat theory. Like in economics, it is tempting to make demographic generalizations because it presents us with the illusion that we either have a definitive answer and/or a solution. However, as I have learned in the last few months, the devil really is in the details.

First problem is that, today, low fertility exists in poor and rich societies alike. Secondly, the causes of low fertility are not the same across the board - in some places, it's because it is too expensive to have lots of children, in others, it's because the government tells you that you can't. Thirdly, different societies have different appetites and capacity for change - some can adjust as they get richer, others can't. And finally, there is that massive elephant in the closet: Globalization. People the world over can increasingly choose where to live and have children, and no one could definitively tell you how this 're-alignment' will play out.

I bring up the article only because when I read it in March, I bought in to its conclusions hook, line, and sinker: it appealed to my economic sensibilities. Having been (at least partially) educated about the intricacies of demographics, it would take a lot more thoughtful analysis to convince me.

15 comments:

patung said...

I would have thought the causes of low fertility rates are high female literacy combined with low levels of religious belief. Has this been something already discussed on this site?

cb said...

Those are factors, perhaps coincident, but with fertility rates dropping around the world, I'm not sure we can call those causes. Decreasing economic need of children and decreasing infant mortality seem to be more dominant causes.

Randy said...

In the case of France, where traditionally conservative regions like Brittany have had with higher rates of completed fertility than other, more non-conservative regions, shouldn't Longman's thesis have already been tested? The overall trajectory of 20th century France has been away from, not towards, the sort of cultural conservatism that he imagines. At the same time, there definitely are still conservatives in France.

What's Longman's problem? In my opinion, he doesn't address the changing definitions of conservatism (and liberalism, too). Modern French conservatives, for instance, are no longer interested in restoring the monarchy.

Colin Reid said...

The trouble with using genetic natural selection to explain the evolution of cultures is that culture doesn't propagate like genes. Children don't simply 'inherit' their parents' culture - the parents wield enormous influence, but that doesn't necessarily mean their children will agree with them in the long term, given competing sources of culture and the desire for independence from one's parents, both of which are especially prominent in the West. The best you can say for certain is that if there are genes that predispose people to certain ways of thinking (eg scepticism or the lack thereof), these will be passed on. But given how subtle and complex this kind of genetic effect would probably be, it's hard to predict what impact it might have in several generations' time. Meanwhile, aspects of culture are evolving in an unprecendented frenzy, affecting even individual humans over small fractions of a lifetime. (According to some, culture is changing so fast that it leads to a state of permanent 'culture shock'.) Relative fertility may well have an important impact on culture, especially for aspects that remain strongly 'hereditary', such as religious and racial identity, but given the rate at which culture is changing, fertility can only be a small part of the overall picture.

Edward said...

Hi,

A number of interesting issues:

Colin:

"The trouble with using genetic natural selection to explain the evolution of cultures is that culture doesn't propagate like genes."

Absolutely, and of course genes (post the analysis of the genome) also don't propagate like we used to think they did.

There has been a whole revolution in the area of genetics that just has not trickled down to the popular debate about genes. Simply put we just aren't talking about single point mutations any more, and things like 'silencing', transcription and expression are now seen as being much more important.

Hence the specific genes you - as an individual - have lying around in your genome now seem to be much less important than the complex you - as an individual, a phenotype - actually express. Since nutrition seems to be a large part of the picture here, the causal mechanism may well be the reverse of the traditionally imagined one: ie culture (in the widest possible sense) may well be impacting significantly and rapidly on genetics (think metabolic syndrome). One of these days when I find the time I will finally get round to posting about all this.



"but given the rate at which culture is changing, fertility can only be a small part of the overall picture."

Yes, obviously, huge behavioural changes are currently taking place across the planet, and this is one of the reasons that India and China are so rapidly getting themselves moving to catch the leading group of economies. Such rapid cultural change would have been unthinkable back in the 1950s (or even the 1980s).

The ICT revolution and the internet is obviously a big part of this story. Indeed fertility is dropping very rapidly all round the third world (which is one of the reasons immigrants don't bring with them the fertility they used to to go back to an earlier discussion), and a big part of the explanation for this has to be the communications revolution as women all over the planet start to have increasing personal aspirations.

Of course there have to be important questions raised about the ability of the slower changing "traditional" enclaves in modern societies to adapt to the needs of an innovation driven information economy.

Randy mentions Brittany, I could mention the Basque Country and Galicia in Spain, or Sardinia and Sicily in Italy where fertility is now very low indeed, but where the relative 'closedness' of the culture means that inward investment (and migrants) don't arrive, so the more educated young people need to out-migrate, thus driving down the number of live births even further.

OTOH Barcelona doesn't have an especially higher fertility rate, but does have a large number of younger people arriving (both educated and non-educated) and this means that the numbers of live births are on an upward spiral at the moment. But Barcelona is neither religious or conservative, in any meaningful sense of either of these two words.


Patung

"I would have thought the causes of low fertility rates are high female literacy combined with low levels of religious belief."

Well the first part of your point is certainly true, although perhaps the argument needs a bit of differentiation, since it is undoubtedly true that the first stage of the fertility transition (down to TFRs of 3 or so) is driven by rising female literacy, but after that (once near 100% literacy levels are obtained) lifestyles and ever higher education levels seem to play a part, which is where you get the move down towards 1.2/1.3 TFR as people postpone childbirth up towards what is rapidly becoming the developed society norm of around the 30 age mark. We have quite a lot of posts onsite around this topic.

One point that could be made is that this correlation may also be non-linear, since I have now come across increasing evidence that people in the more highly educated groups who postpone and then have children are quite successful at having 2+ children, and the issue seems to be more that those in the slightly lower income groups who copy and follow this example find it hard to keep up with this (for cost and time constraint reasons) and stick at one, or at most two, whereas you really need to break up the income brackets to be able to have three (and to have an average of 2.1 you need significant numbers of people with 3) and maintain quality of provision, unless, of course, for value reasons, the wife stops working and spends time with the children (and this may be were a mixture of religion and anti-consumerism come in).

The religious argument is a newer one here, but as some commentators are indicating, it is hard to distinguish between influences in this area. I mean are people in Germany more or less religious than in the UK? Certainly the UK has higher fertility levels. What exactly would we be measuring in this case?

Sweden is also often compared with Germany in this context (post to come), and there is some suggestion that since women in Germany find it less acceptable to have children out of wedlock (for religious reasons) and since spinsterhood is comparatively high there, then religion may be a fertility negative in the German context. All this is very hard to decide about.

Of course, secularisation used to be considered to be synonymous with modernisation, and it is only really the US case which has lead people to question this, but mightn't it be a better approach to examine what is specific about religion and fertility in the US (US exceptionalism), rather than trying to build a general theory from what - in fertility terms - is undoubtedly an outlier.

cb

"Decreasing economic need of children"

Do you mean decreasing need for children to work for the parents and then support them when they are old? This would certainly seem to apply to the first - initial demographic transition - stage of the decline, but again I think it would be hard to explain the second part (the arrival of very low fertility) using this argument.

In Northern and Western Europe this argument was dead after the second world war, but then we had the baby boom. Nowadays young people generally face a very uncertain pensions future (whether state or private) but there is pretty little evidence that this is sending them rushing to have children. Again I think there are a whole complex of factors at work.

Randy said...

Edward:

"Randy mentions Brittany, I could mention the Basque Country and Galicia in Spain, or Sardinia and Sicily in Italy where fertility is now very low indeed, but where the relative 'closedness' of the culture means that inward investment (and migrants) don't arrive, so the more educated young people need to out-migrate, thus driving down the number of live births even further."

Agreed. Are there examples of successful conservative "closed" areas?

At any rate, the survival of conservatism and liberalism both in France over the 20th century negates Longman's thesis. Thoughts?

Robert said...

Agreed. Are there examples of successful conservative "closed" areas?

This might be a chicken-and-egg question of sorts. If a region became economically successful, how could it possibly remain "closed"? Economic growth attracts in-migration and investment, and these will have transformative effects on the local culture, unless perhaps the local culture has a large diaspora that then engages in a homecoming.

Robert said...

...mightn't it be a better approach to examine what is specific about religion and fertility in the US (US exceptionalism), rather than trying to build a general theory from what - in fertility terms - is undoubtedly an outlier.

Although fertility is not at all a concern of this book, if you are interested into looking into this aspect of US exceptionalism, may I recommend Finke and Stark's somewhat lengthy title: The Churching of America: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, 1776-1990.

The central argument of the study is that throughout US history, growth in religious participation has been concentrated among relatively new religious movements, which usually normalize and stabilize within a generation or two, leaving an open niche for other new religious movements.

Geographically, their observation is that the growth markets for new religious movements have been among the destinations for migration, at first the western frontier, and with the closure of the frontier, the most rapidly growing cities and suburbs.

Now, what I might query at this point is, is there something about the culture of migrants, even internal migrants, that lends itself to higher fertility? It does seem that migrants tend to be more fertile than the general population of their source countries. If this is true for internally migrating families as well, perhaps it might be demonstrable that recently relocated families, having had less time to find gainful employment for two adults, are more likely to have an at-home spouse ... that women who are part of recently-relocated families are less likely to be employed than other women of similar education levels.

If all this is demonstrable, then it might be demonstrable that the longstanding correlation between growing new religious movements and the general culture of migration in the US has produced the correlation between religious practice and fertility, which can be measured at least among certain religious groups in the US, even where it is not readily demonstrable among similar confessions elsewhere.

georgesdelatour said...

Poland is a very religious society by European standards, yet it has lowest low fertility.

I suspect economic factors determine fertility more than religious/cultural conservatism/liberalism, at least for the host populations of Europe. Cultural conservatism may be more significant in determining fertility for Europe's immigrant populations.

I'm a parent in London, and it's very expensive having children. House prices are incredibly high, so you have to take on a massive mortgage to fund even quite a modest dwelling that can accomodate them.

Colin Reid said...

Here's a theory as to how in Europe, more progressive societies can end up with higher fertility than more conservative ones:

Many parts of the world have seen a drop in fertility coincide with a decline in gender roles. However, where gender roles have declined, they have not done so uniformly. One can split this process into two parts: firstly, women taking on traditionally male activities, and secondly, men taking on traditionally female activities.


The first is well known, and is well advanced in much of Europe, being especially pronounced in the areas of work and education. This happened for different reasons in different places, but it's here to stay now. The consequence is that women have more activities available to them, which means a lower priority assigned to childcare.

The complementary process, that of men in roles formerly dominated by women, started happening much later and is much more limited in scope. Men have not been 'liberated' from the old gender roles to anything like the same extent as women, mainly because their traditional role is seen as both powerful and comfortable. The result is that most European men still do not consider it their responsibility to look after children or do housework, and so will only participate when it is convenient for them to do so, leaving the bulk of these tasks to women.


The overall result, as has been well-documented, is that while men often focus on their careers without feeling too unhappy about spending little time at home, whether or not they have kids, women are bombarded with all the different demands on their time, meaning they must compromise career, fertility or their own health to fit it all in. This brings fertility crashing down.


However, for the most progressive societies, there's some light at the end of the tunnel. In a few countries, notably Scandinavia, but also elsewhere to some extent (the UK springs to mind), men are looking outside their traditional gender roles more, and in particular are starting to see childcare as partly their responsibility. These changes also filter through to national governments, which offer greater paternity rights and so on to encourage men to participate in childcare. Obviously there are burdens of procreation that are the biological preserve of women, namely pregnancy itself and breastfeeding, but if these women's partners are prepared to take on a significant amount of the childcare burden after birth, it makes motherhood that much less difficult to manage and detrimental to career. The result is that more couples who want children are able to have them.


There's also the following somewhat related phenomenon: somewhat conservative employers in Europe don't directly discriminate too much against childless women, because that part of the battle for equality has been won to a large extent (though significant problems remain with 'macho' office culture). However, the same bosses can be unreasonably inflexible about pregnant women or new mothers. This means there's a huge disincentive to having children from a career point-of-view. This is in contrast both to very conservative societies, in which women's job prospects are poor regardless of children, and to very progressive societies, where active parents can still do well thanks to more flexible working practices.



I don't know if any of what I said stands up to the data, but if it does, perhaps there's some hope yet for the most socially radical societies of northern Europe. Unfortunately, for the time being I can't think of any similar reasons to be hopeful about less progressive countries such as Germany, which remain 'caught between two stools' so to speak, unless Scandinavian attitudes to motherhood and fatherhood proliferate further.

Edward said...

Colin,

"I don't know if any of what I said stands up to the data"

Yes, I think it does in many ways. Fertility can either be discouraged by a hostile working environment/labour market, or by an unfriendly domestic one. Those countries who have the very lowest fertility often have a combination of both these.

This argument is advanced by the Australian demographer Peter Macdonald, and you might find this pdf paper interesting in this regard.

Edward said...

Randy,

Well Sterling would probably mention Utah and Idaho, but since I know next to nothing about either of these I have little to say. I am sure there are examples and counter examples of everything.

"At any rate, the survival of conservatism and liberalism both in France over the 20th century negates Longman's thesis."

Well I would have thought that lots of things contradict his thesis, as we are seeing. Especially since it is so simplistic.

I think Colin (and Macdonald's) point is quite telling, ie that under certain given social conditions patriarchy actually lowers fertility. The question I suppose is what regulates the social conditions which determine whether patriarchy is child positive or not. This is the issue that Longman can't address, and incidentally even Macdonald's more sophistocated approach doesn't really explain why there is a secular drive to having children at ever higher ages, it only tells you why in some societies this process may result in rather more or rather less children.

So I still tend to think we need technology, education, value chains, quality vs quantity in children and things like this to be able to begin to get at the underlying causes.

Really I think we should leave Longman's thesis where it belongs.

Edward said...

Here's another version of the same sort of simplistic approach, this time from the foreign policy blog. This time its another of the worn and tried runners, children out of wedlock (this was the UN demographer Bongaart's big 'discovery' in the late 1990s.

From Foreign policy:

"A closer look at the map reveals another interesting correlation. The countries in which birth rates are increasing are the same countries that have a larger percentage of children out of wedlock. It looks as though the current generation of childbearers is thoroughly rewriting their parents' family model."

Edward said...

Robert,

"If all this is demonstrable, then it might be demonstrable that the longstanding correlation between growing new religious movements and the general culture of migration in the US has produced the correlation between religious practice and fertility,"

Well what we can certainly say is that there is something about US culture which is very propitious to the development of new religious groups, and I don't say this as something trivial. Sociologically it is a very interesting phenomenon, even if it is one I don't claim to understand.

Edward said...

Robert:

"If all this is demonstrable, then it might be demonstrable that the longstanding correlation between growing new religious movements and the general culture of migration in the US has produced the correlation between religious practice and fertility, which can be measured at least among certain religious groups in the US,"

It only just dawned on me, the argument which you are advancing about how the US provides a very fertile climate for the evolution of new religious movements is just the reverse face of the argment about why Europe ISN'T. So when it comes down to it what you are saying indirectly re-inforces points Randy has been making about how the EU environment is a mighty machine for secularising new migrants. Which is just another reason why all these 'Eurarabia' arguments are so daft: not only do they reveal a complete ignorance about where EU migrants actually come from, they seem to understand nothing about what subsequently happens to those migrants after they arrive.