Culture and Population

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Demographers have long suspected that understanding population processes requires an understanding of culture. The need to take account of culture is an empirical issue, growing from the recognition of otherwise unexplainable differences in such demographically relevant areas as fertility, marriage practices, and kinship systems.

Acknowledgment of a cultural dimension in population studies has an intellectual genealogy that includes those nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century British bureaucrats who administered an empire by pivoting their data collection strategies along observed markers of ethnic and other identities. It took a more sustained scholarly turn from this administrative past with the post-World War II debates over development programs and the rationality of widely differing fertility regimes across societies. Later developments–such as the inability of simple demographic transition theories to account for variations in the pattern of fertility change across Europe's cultural regions–clinched the importance of cultural factors beyond changing patterns of urbanization, literacy, infant and child mortality, and industrialization. Finally, John C. Caldwell's movement into micro-demography in the 1970s and 1980s encouraged highly localized studies of population processes involving intimate, long-term contact between researchers and the people being studied. These studies opened population research to its most recent engagement with cultural explanation.

This engagement has brought a usable theory of culture for demographic analysis within the reach of population researchers. A theory of culture for demography must necessarily enhance, rather than do away with, existing analytic approaches based on the social survey and multivariate models. Incorporating culture into demography may nevertheless demand revision of the longstanding assumptions underlying some population research. This demographically viable theory of culture emphasizes understanding concrete and highly local situations. For demography, a working theory of culture would lead to better-specified models through the definition of novel independent variables, a refined interpretation of existing standard variables, and the greater understanding of actor motivations.

A Theory of Culture

Contemporary cultural analysis allows researchers to incorporate local systems of meaning and motivation into demographic explanations while accounting for a dynamic relationship between individual actors and their institutional contexts. Earlier definitions of culture emphasized normative institutions and betrayed a legalistic concern with rules for social organization. Contemporary culture theorists have increasingly moved toward definitions that emphasize shared systems of symbolic meaning that both construct and are constructed by the active participation of their members. As scholar David Kertzer writes, from being the "cultural dopes" of earlier theories, people are recognized to actively negotiate and manipulate the cultural symbols available to them and, in so doing, create the possibilities for culture change. This trend toward emphasizing systems of meaning, along with the understanding that discrete cultural systems are themselves embedded within larger political worlds, challenges some of the assumptions in older demographic analyses. At the same time, these developments offer workable solutions that enhance the specificity and explanatory power of population research. They also offer more empirically satisfying understandings of how the shared and intersubjective nature of culture can be linked to variable individual experience and action.

Examples of cultural approaches, spawned in part by a welcoming openness among demographers themselves, abound in recent collections of demographic research by anthropologists. Although differing in emphasis, these approaches use definitions that share important characteristics for understanding meaning in cultural terms. In Clifford Geertz's classic phrasing, which captures the sense of meaning and motivation, cultural patterns may be taken as both models of and models for reality.

As models of reality, cultural patterns constitute the perceived worlds of human actors and define how behaviors receive their symbolic meaning within a field of relationships. The same behaviors may hold entirely different meanings across settings. Beginning with cultural models of reality allows demographers to discover what is significant from the point of view of the actors themselves. Both demographers like Caldwell and anthropologists like Eugene Hammel recommend attention to cultural models of reality as a starting place for analysis.

As a model for reality, culture offers a partial resolution to the problem of establishing motivation for actors operating within a common cultural context–the cultural logic of why people do what they do. Although the cultural emphasis on the localized nature of motivations requires a change from the assumptions of some approaches (specifically, that people act rationally to achieve universal goals), it does not by itself do away with the assumption of rational actors altogether.

While these two features of culture, as models of and for reality, promise enhanced demographic analyses, other characteristics make it difficult to use the culture concept in demography. Culture, whether as model of or model for reality, exists in the background understanding of its members. Cultural models are not necessarily consciously held, so that the actors themselves are unlikely to be able to provide a coherent account of their own key frames of meaning and motivation. The discovery of these models requires analysis beyond the face-value responses to questions posed by researchers in focus groups or surveys, and may require attention to domains that appear superficially remote from the proximate determinants of demographic phenomena.

Contemporary cultural theorists assert that a concern for meaning need not preclude using empirical data, although it may require quantitative analysts to broaden the criteria for what counts as a valid argument and to be more open to reformulation and reinterpretation. A truism for culture theory is that cultural systems are at some level coherently integrated. Those themes that have key cultural salience are likely to echo across markedly different domains such as oral traditions, ritual, and everyday practices. From this perspective, symbolic constructions, recurrent themes present in myths and legends, and even the layout of physical space may all be used as empirical indicators to support an interpretation of key cultural elements that have demographic significance.

Applications to Population Research

The most immediate outcome of demographic attention to culture may be the reinterpretation of existing standard variables. For cultural theorists, no behavior is devoid of cultural meaning. Kertzer argues that cultural explanations, coupled with attention to political economy, reintroduce the emotional and symbolic sides of human beings into demographic models, and thereby link apparently discrete behaviors to a whole system of meanings. Even the more proximate determinants of demographic events, such as the role of education in age at marriage, can be significantly reinterpreted through cultural understanding.

Few relationships, for example, are more consistent than the positive association between schooling and age at marriage: the higher the schooling level, the older the age at marriage. Demographic Transition Theory in its earlier, classic form took education at face value to be an indicator of modernization and argued that it correlated with secularization, increased rationality, and heightened individual autonomy. Such understandings ignore both the possibility that marriage may have implications for relationships involving family groups larger than the two individuals united by it, and the potential for symbolic, in addition to utilitarian, meanings for education.

An analysis from rural Pakistan by Tom Fricke and colleagues confirmed the positive association but included the puzzling finding that a substantial fraction of women who attended school only briefly, without completing a full year, also married at later ages than those who never attended school at all. Using local understandings and practices for reinterpreting the meaning of this variable, the authors suggested that education was part of a larger world of symbolic status indicators. The new cultural reading of education as a marker of family status placed the experience of schooling within a wider array of prestige markers that are at play in marriage negotiation in this specific context. In a setting where no woman chose her own husband, actual educational attainment and its implications for autonomy were secondary.

By attending to local systems of meaning and practice, researchers introduce novel variables beyond the immediately demographic into analysis. Thus, by noting the culture of sin, the institutional role of the Catholic Church, and changes in family and work within an existing kinship system, Kertzer integrates cultural and economic explanations in his study of the rising practice of infant abandonment in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century European societies. Susan Greenhalgh's reinterpretation of Chinese fertility transitions extends the focus on individual families to larger institutional contexts, such as the demise of pre-existing state systems of mobility. In his analyses of marriage change, Fricke introduces individual variations in culture-specific elements of the marriage process to show how symbols are redeployed by active agents who pursue their options within a common framework of meanings. All three of these studies suggest that these novel variables must be arrived at through an understanding of concrete empirical situations.

The use of cultural models also complicates the understanding of motivations. Even if general motivations such as improved social, economic, and political status may be said to characterize all people, the understanding of avenues for achieving these general goals is always conditioned by concrete local histories and circumstances. Moreover, the content and demographic implications of these general categories can vary considerably depending on the larger system of which they are a part. Examples of the value of considering the cultural aspects of motivation are found in the contrast between how patrilineal families influence fertility in Greenhalgh's studies of China and in Fricke's studies of Nepal. Where cultural models stress the autonomous responsibility of the patrilineal family for its own well being, security and mobility goals may encourage high fertility. Where cultural models stress cooperation between patrilineal units, high fertility may be a secondary consideration (since the responsibility for well being includes multiple lineages united by marriage). Similarly, Tim Dyson and Mick Moore's contrast of demographic regimes in north and south India turns on this difference and demonstrates how women's symbolic roles within two pre-transition settings can differ because of their different relationships to larger organizational features.

Implications for Population Research

In spite of increased academic interest, incorporating culture into demographic analysis remains problematic. Anthropology, the discipline of culture's greatest theoretical elaboration, has a different research orientation and style from demography. These differences are compounded by the difficulty of translating the new understandings of culture into terms that present population specialists with a demographically usable model. While population researchers have themselves recognized the need to include culture in their research, the apparent difficulties in using it, the need to rethink fundamentals, and demography's disciplinary orientation toward multivariate analyses of individual-level variations raise the constant temptation to ignore culture in favor of more easily gathered and analyzed measures.

Anthropologists point to two strains of demographic explanation that fail to make use of these revised theories. The first tends to leave out culture altogether by positing universally applicable goals to rational actors whatever the context. At the level of aggregate analysis, the inattention to cultural context replicates the failure of classic Demographic Transition Theory. At the level of individual analysis, the inattention leaves out the highly localized meanings of standard variables in favor of more universal and decontextualized interpretations. Even when these analyses incorporate subjective states through the measurement of values and attitudes, they are unlikely to achieve a fully realized cultural view of meaning because they undervalue its shared patterns in favor of individual variation.

The second strain in demographic explanation tends to focus on institutional contexts, but falls prey to the static treatment of culture widely adhered to within anthropology itself a half century ago. Individual actors are not acknowledged as thinking and emotion-laden participants and strategists in this approach. Here, culture exists in the form of ironclad rules followed by its unquestioning members. While these group measures have the advantage of easy use as independent variables in multivariate models, they have encouraged the use of such ill-considered cultural categories as "Muslim cultures" or "Confucian cultures" and the like. These categories leave out local histories and contexts, along with the possibility of demonstrating the mechanisms by which cultural variables may influence demographically relevant behaviors.

Although the precise mechanisms that connect culture and population processes may best be investigated through the kinds of long-term and intensive studies characteristic of micro-demography and anthropological fieldwork, the sensitive use of cultural understandings in demographic analysis is far less demanding. Cultural demography does not require that every researcher learn a field language and spend months in a single community. Many of the individual studies and collections cited here are, in fact, reliant on secondary data sets or involve historical materials. Culturally sensitive population studies require an assumption that people engage their worlds in terms of highly various and local systems of meaning, and a willingness to explore existing sources with an eye to relating those meanings to demographic outcomes.

See also: Anthropological Demography; Caldwell, John C.; Mass Media and Demographic Behavior; Religions, Population Doctrines of; Values and Demographic Behavior.


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Dyson, Tim, and Mick Moore. 1983. "On Kinship Structure, Female Autonomy, and Demographic Behavior in India." Population and Development Review 9: 35–60.

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——, ed. 1995. Situating Fertility: Anthropology and Demographic Inquiry. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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Tom Fricke