Personal Relationships and Reproductive Choices: Evidence from a Low Fertility Context

Bernardi, L.
Rome, Universita’ di Roma La Sapienza (2002)


This dissertation is a contribution to the understanding of the emerging lowest-low fertility in contemporary Italy. It focuses on how the embeddedness of individual fertility decisions within the context of social networks and family ties affects couple reproductive choices. This social interaction perspective overcomes the traditional separation of individualistic rational-choice theories of behavior and structural or psychosocial approaches to fertility. Chapter 1 discusses the theoretical concepts of behavior and choice in the social sciences and demography. The "mainstream" of demographic theories, that is the individual-focused rational-choice theories, are integrated and enriched with the consideration of believes and intentions, affective-normative theories of action and, finally, of theories of social interaction. The latter part of the chapter reveals the implications of social interaction on the dynamics of fertility transitions in low fertility contexts by introducing the link between behavioral theories and social mechanisms, like social learning, social influence and social multiplier effects. Chapter 2 shows how the effect of social interaction can be measured, quantified and interpreted with sophisticated methods on the basis of micro-data. The lack of data on fertility and social networks in low fertility contexts is the rational to use an ongoing and prominent survey on social interaction, family planning and AIDS to show how theories of social interaction can be successfully implemented and investigated with survey data. The analysis shows to which extent these applications open a potentially promising avenue to investigate new aspects of fertility-determinants in low fertility contexts. The chapter begins with a discussion on the relevance of investigating social interactions within the context of AIDS in Africa and develops testable hypotheses of how social networks influence the risk perception about AIDS and HIV infection. The most relevant substantive finding is that there are independent effects of social networks on risk perceptions about AIDS, once we control for individual characteristics and behavior. Chapter 3 addresses the general motivation for using a qualitative approach to investigate social interaction and provides a general description of the demographic and socioeconomic context of contemporary fertility behavior in Northern Italy. It further describes the data collection, the interview procedures, and an estimation of the data quality. The analysis shows that there is substantive empirical evidence of social influences in the decision-processes leading to the progression to the first or the second child, or to desired childlessness and "stopping" behavior. First, social interaction facilitates social learning about the costs and benefits of having children, or the costs and benefits of delaying childbirth. Second, social networks are an important aspect exerting normative pressures on the timing of childbearing, the acceptability of desired childlessness, or the combination of female labor-force participation and fertility. At the same time, social interaction also shapes individual preferences and expectations about having children. Finally, social network influences are a relevant source initiating the decision-making about childbearing. This finding is particularly noteworthy since in low and lowest-low fertility contexts with late patterns of childbearing an effective contraceptive regime is increasingly perceived as the "normal state" in early adulthood. The transition to the first child requires therefore the discontinuation of this "normal state".
The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock is one of the leading demographic research centers in the world. It's part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research society.