Values and Demographic Behavior

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The use of values to explain demographic behavior, or change in behavior, has been controversial among demographers. Some argue that individual behavior is driven by values. This position considers values to be an essential part of the micro-level processes that connect macro forces with individual action. Thus behavior cannot adequately be explained without knowledge of the underlying values that motivate individuals to make particular decisions. Others argue that values are really part of the behavior that needs explanation, so invoking values as an explanation is not useful. For example, it is circular to say that fertility is high in a population because individuals value large families. The underlying disagreement revolves around the question of whether values arise out of economic, political, and social institutions, or whether values, at least to some extent, are autonomous from institutional contexts and thus have an independent effect on behavior.

Defining Values

What are values? A useful discussion of values must begin with a clear understanding of what this term means. There is some confusion, however, because the term is used in various ways by different authors. Sometimes the term is used simply as a synonym for preferences or attitudes. For example, preferences for sons over daughters or negative attitudes toward women working in the labor force are sometimes referred to as values that influence fertility behavior. Sometimes a norm (e.g., women should not choose to be childless) is equated to a value. A more restrictive definition of values states that they are "evaluative concepts that are internal, durable, and general" (Casterline, 1999, p. 358). This approach emphasizes that values are strongly-held general principles that are applicable to a wide range of situations, and that particular values may be linked to form value systems. When values are conceptualized as unobservable, internal principles, researchers face the challenge of how to measure them.


There is little agreement among demographers about the role that values play in fertility behavior. This is evident in the essays on the topic assembled in the edited volume, Dynamics of Values in Fertility Change (Leete 1999). In the general literature on theories of fertility change, three different positions can be identified.

One argument emphasizes the importance of changes in social and economic institutions as the catalyst for changes in fertility. For example, John Caldwell argues that the rise of compulsory education in the nineteenth century increased the cost of children. More recently, when educational and work organizations instituted policies allowing women to participate on an equal footing with men, opportunity costs of bearing children increased and existing gender roles in the family were challenged. In both the historical and recent contexts, individuals responded to the social changes by having fewer children and by shifting values related to children. In other words, the same forces that affect fertility affect values, and so it is more reasonable to view values as a rationalization of behavior than a cause of that behavior.

A second position argues that underlying values are important because they influence how fertility behavior responds to changes in social and economic institutions. Indeed, values may not need to change in order to influence fertility patterns. For example, in some situations it appears that an effort to maintain existing values in the face of social change produces declining fertility. Also, cultural differences in values could explain why similar social changes do not have the same impact on fertility behavior in all societies. In a 2000 study, Peter McDonald suggests that social changes providing women opportunities approximately equal to those of men has led to greater fertility reduction in southern Europe than in northern Europe because of regional differences in preference for traditional, male dominated family systems. Surprisingly, fertility is lower in countries preserving traditional family values because of the incompatibility this creates between families and other modern institutions.

The third position argues that value changes play a direct and critical role in changing fertility behavior. The way that this is seen to occur is through cultural diffusion. As secular individualism, liberalism, and freedom from religious authority are imported to a society that does not traditionally hold these values, individuals begin to alter their fertility behavior. High fertility cannot be maintained in a society when individuals adopt values that fail to support this behavior.


The clearest example of a value that may affect mortality patterns is the cultural value of preferring sons over daughters. In most populations, age-specific mortality rates are higher for males than females at every age. However, in South Asia death rates are higher for girls than for boys. In their 1998 article, for example, Fred Arnold, Minja Kim Choe, and T.K. Roy note that in India in the 1980s and early 1990s, child mortality (ages one to four) was 43 percent higher for girls than boys. The most plausible explanation for this exceptional mortality pattern in South Asia is the strong preference for (or value attributed to) sons over daughters. Studies suggest that under these conditions daughters experience higher death rates than sons because they receive less effort in disease and accident prevention and less medical attention when sick. In addition to mortality, a strong preference for male offspring sometimes leads to sex-selective abortion and/or female infanticide. When this occurs, the sex ratio at birth (normally about 105 males to 100 females) can be greatly distorted. (Rates well exceeding 110 males to 100 females have been reported recently in China and South Korea, and in some states in India).


As in fertility theories, values enter the migration literature primarily when the focus is on micro-level models of decision-making. The most explicit formulation of a theoretical model of migration focusing on values is the value-expectancy model, presented by Gordon F. De Jong and James T. Fawcett in 1981. The underlying assumption of this model is that individuals are motivated by personal goals and values, and that they rationally calculate how best to achieve them. Multiple values may be involved, each requiring a subjective assessment of well-being attained through migration or nonmigration. In deciding whether or not to undertake a particular move, an individual will make a "cognitive calculus" involving the expectancy that the move would produce a net gain in valued outcomes. Little empirical migration research has utilized the value-expectancy model, perhaps because of the complexity of operationalizing and measuring all of the relevant values and collecting data on subjective expectations. However, aspects of this approach are included in studies of migration that investigate place preferences of individuals.


Individuals in modern society tend to believe that they have significant freedom to choose their own life course path, and they have no difficulty in invoking values to explain their choices. Social scientists generally have been skeptical of these explanations, arguing that powerful, unrecognized social forces constrain and direct the behavior of individuals. But many social scientists also want to provide a place for human agency in their theories of behavior. Do individuals choose values that that then independently influence their demographic behavior? Or, are values byproducts of the social conditions that shape the behavior? A lively debate regarding the place of values in explaining demographic behavior persists among population researchers.

See also: Culture and Population; Diffusion in Population Theory; Fertility Transition, Socioeconomic Determinants of; Gender Preferences for Children; Quetelet, Adolphe; Second Demographic Transition.


Arnold, Fred, Minja Kim Choe, and T. K. Roy. 1998. "Son Preference, the Family-Building Process and Child Mortality in India." Population Studies 52: 301–315.

Caldwell, John C. 1980. "Mass Education as a Determinant of the Timing of Fertility Decline." Population and Development Review 6: 225–255.

Casterline, John B. 1999. "Conclusions." In Dynamics of Values in Fertility Change, ed. Richard Leete. New York: Oxford University Press.

De Jong, Gordon F., and James T. Fawcett. 1981. "Motivations for Migration: An Assessment and a Value-Expectancy Research Model." In Migration Decision Making: Multidisciplinary Approaches to Micro level Studies in Developed and Developing Countries, ed. Gordon F. De Jong and Robert W. Gardner. New York: Pergamon Press.

Leete, Richard, ed. 1999. Dynamics of Values in Fertility Change. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lesthaeghe, Ron. 1995. "The Second Demographic Transition in Western Countries: An Interpretation." In Gender and Family in Industrialized Countries, ed. Karen Oppenheim Mason and An-Magritt Jensen. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

McDonald, Peter. 2000. "Gender Equity in Theories of Fertility." Population and Development Re-view 26: 427–439.

Peter Uhlenberg