Making Sense of Social Reproduction

Demographic fact: educated women have fewer children and have them later than uneducated women. And there have been a lot of demographic studies about the causal relationship between education and fertility. Most of these studies ask: how does education encourage fertility decline?  But there’s an interesting book that I just read that asks the why, and shows that education and fertility cannot be adequately described as causal, because there are broader social processes that motivate the (changes) in fertility rates.

This book is titled “Uncertain Honor: Modern Motherhood in an African Crisis”, written by Jennifer Johnson-Hanks (2006).

cover page of Uncertain honor - taken from

It shows how most demographers have focused on the mechanisms of the correlation between education and fertility, emphasizing that education affects the number if children that women wish to bear. The two generic explanatory models used in demographic studies are (1) cognitive change – that schooling alters people’s values, changing women’s perspectives, ideas, and models of thought, and (2) instrumental change – that schooling changes the objectives conditions under which decisions are made i.e. decision made based on the opportunity costs (educated women chose to bear fewer children as children become more costly to rear – p.16).

Johnson-Hanks draws on Bledsoe (1998) to criticize the model of this causal link used in demography studies. In Bledsoe’s model, women’s childbearing is ordered not by the consideration of cost and benefit, instead by a series of situated practices, that is, decisions made on the basis of bodily well-being and the socially constructed view of timing of births (p. 17). Bledsoe’s model shows how reproductive practices derived from a social logic with a long temporal horizon rather than from the maximization of short-term utility. Bledsoe asserts that social actors are agents in the making of social facts, they are not passive receivers of economic or demographic forces.

This critique forms the basis of one of Johnson-Hanks’ main argument; that the “demographic outcomes are the result of culturally mediated aspirations and attempts to make the most of the perceived opportunities” (p.2).   She demonstrates this by studying on the so-called ‘vital conjuncture’ of the lives of educated Beti women in southern Cameroon.

Vital conjuncture is the condition when social actor(s) face the critical life-history transitions. In such situation, they will draw on assembled understandings of what is reasonable or desirable, and they put themselves into social positions to facilitate certain anticipated outcomes (p.2). And Johnson-Hanks argues that it is in the potential turning points of a lived trajectory, that the differential fertility of educated women is made.

For educated Beti women, motherhood is only appropriate when they have finished education, get a job, and married. Therefore, they try to control their fertility before the pregnancy (through periodic abstinence), during pregnancy (through abortion), and after pregnancy (by giving the child to fosterage). Therefore when facing a mistimed pregnancy, they are in the vital conjuncture where they have to navigate the kinds of possibilities from their own context. The evaluations of those horizons explained why and how educated women wait so long to bear a first child, as well as why they eventually bear so few. It shows that they are managing lives, not just births (p. 25).

In conclusion, that the relationship between education and fertility of Beti women is mediated by concepts of discipline and honor. Jonson-Hanks noted that elsewhere, the mediating concept will be different but what will not differ is the fact that fertility is not an end in itself, not outside the structures of family and household, not apart from cultural values and identities (p. 26).

This book shows that by managing vital conjunctures, Beti women make demographic facts – not otherwise. Therefore as Johnson-Hanks asserts, number of children is the wrong unit of analysis, as it comes at the end of the stream of social practice. It is oriented to structured social relationship in a context much broader than births (p. 26).


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