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Taking Matters Into Your Own Hands: What the Fertility Transition and Arab Spring have in common?

May 14, 2012

By Fiorenzo Conte

The onset of the uprising in the Arab world smashed a series of assumptions about the essence of the homo Arabic: his passivity, his inaction, in other words his inability of taking matters in his own hands and decisions about his life.  According to the demographer Youssef Courbage, research director at INED (Institute National d’étude demographique) another phenomenon before the Arab spring signaled that people in the Arab world were not willing to leave to other the decision about their own lives: the fertility transition.

This term refers to a shift from very high level of fertility rates (number of births per woman) to low level of fertility rate. This transition follows with a time lag the mortality transition whereby high mortality rates are followed by low mortality rates. The combination of these trends is called demographic transition. To put it simply, every society at some point in time faces an equilibrium of high fertility rates and high mortality rates followed by another equilibrium of low fertility rates and low mortality rates; the demographic transition is the period of disequilibrium between these two points. These transitions are universal and happen in every society. The timing of the onset varies however from one society to another. If the mortality transition is fundamentally ignited by major technological breakthrough such as vaccines which allow prevention of death from infectious diseases, the fertility transition is on the other hand more complex and has do with what each society sees as the optimal family size.

Courbage’s thesis is that before the demographic transition this choice was derogated to religious or cultural norms and leaders. The onset of the demographic transition coincided with people, and in particular women, taking matters into their own hands and deciding that the choice of the number of children was not matter of anybody but themselves. This capacity to assert and impose their choices is associated with a shift in social values towards individualism and self-fulfillment. This shift is in turn was coupled with expanded access to education which equipped and empowered young girls to carve out a decisional space out of the societal norms and to decide if and when to have children. Women able to read and write acquired the ability and autonomy to assert and impose their choice on the society and to loosen the grip of the religion on private matters such fertility. This autonomy spilled into the political realm thus giving the way to the Arab uprisings, so Courbage argues.

This argument resonates the thesis that both the onset and timing of the fertility decline at the societal level are strongly associated with indicators of social development such as literacy rather than economic development. Within the societies the same is true.[1] This thesis postulates a time in each society in which the individual does not defy the predominant norms and subsume the individual choice to the societal choice. In other words it accepts passively the status quo be this in the form of family size or fertility control methods. From this perspective the fertility decline is both the effect and the symptom of the individuals taking matters in their own hands and subsuming societal norms to their choice and priorities.

According to other demographers however the assumption that the regulation of fertility before the demographic transition is regulated by culture rather than individual rationality is fallacious. Demographer Karen Mason for example argues that people in pre-transitional settings not only think about their offspring configurations (they strategize about the composition of offspring or spacing between children) but also act upon that[2]. Two fundamental facts corroborate this thesis:

Mortality and demographic equilibrium: before the onset of the demographic transition fertility rates equaled mortality rates so that an equilibrium was maintained. Societal norms had been constructed around this equilibrium between births and deaths and the individual stuck to these norms because it was optimal for them to do so. In other words it was not that young people had an ideal, smaller family size in mind but could not put this in practice because of societal constraints; the family size before the demographic transition was optimal from an individual point of view as well. This changed when mortality went down and offspring begun to swell. Individuals did not resort to reducing the number of births because methods to do so were not readily available. The societal norms were built around a demographic equilibrium and were not ready to accommodate attitudes and practices (e.g. spacing the number of births, using contraceptives) necessary to cope with the new demographic disequilibrium.

Post natal control: Individuals however did not just accept these norms but they controled their offspring size after and not before births: many parents for example sent their offspring in other countries (migration) or decided to marry later to postpone their marriages. Only later they shifted from postnatal methods to prenatal methods such use contraceptive, sterilization or abortion[3]. As this shift occurs the fertility decline takes place. The key point here is that individuals were never the hostage of strict traditional values but did take matters in their own hands well before fertility declined.

To sum up and to follow Mason’s thesis, it would be both fallacious and dangerous to assert that before the onset of the fertility transition individuals were passive subject of the society: before the demographic transition the equilibrium between high mortality rates and birth rates resulted in fact in a family size which was optimal for the individuals. Individuals did not contest societal norms because they did not see a reason to do so. Societal norms embedded behaviors (such as early marriages or frequent births) which ensured the preservation of such equilibrium. As mortality went down and the offspring swell, people started to control the size of the offspring by using tools acceptable and available within their society (e.g. outmigration). Societal norms were however unable to rapidly accommodate changes resulted from the demographic disequilibrium (i.e. the increase in families’ offspring) and they became anachronistic. As a result, individuals begun to contest such norms and made new choices. Each individual’s choice shift the definition of the socially acceptable so that methods such contraceptive and abortion which were once taboo become gradually embedded in the society. This ability to contest was expanded and reinforced by societal changes such increased literacy. However it was always there.


[1] This thesis was formulated by Cleland and Wilson in their article “Demand Theories of Fertility Transition: An Iconoclastic View”

[2] “Explaining Fertility Transition”, Karen Mason

[3] In demographic jargon this is known as the theory of multiphasic response elaborated by Davies

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