A methodological premise Household patterns in historic Europe and the present demographic choices

2. Demographic practices are spatially embedded 'lore'

We feel it essential to formulate a more comprehensive theoretical framework of recent fertility changes in Europe; but why on earth is it necessary to expand our analysis beyond the circle of household relationships to include the larger circles of both kinship and non-kinship strong ties? We can justify this argumentation by reflecting that in recent decades the scenario of uniform evolution of demographic patterns, gradually spreading from North to South throughout Europe, seems more and more to conflict with the evidence of a bipolar Europe.

No doubt both in Northern Europe and the Mediterranean countries present demographic transformations are the result of the same general process of modernisation. Lesthaeghe [Lesthaeghe 1991] defined a second demographic transition as "a further, much more public, manifestation of individual autonomy (...), more pervasive as it is directed against all expressions of external institutional authority". The family is a major agency of social reproduction, and it is being affected and undermined by this wave of modernisation. All the same, the charge against the institutional authority of the family has acquired different forms in different situations.

If we examine [Micheli 1996] the total fertility rates in continental Europe for the years 1983 and 1993 at the regional level [Note 5], we realise that Europe is roughly split up in three different areas by two boundary lines running along the 42nd and 47th parallels of latitude North. While Northern Europe shows a renewal of fertility rates and the Mediterranean countries (Spain, Greece, Southern Italy) a sharp fall, a critical belt between the two parallels (with TFR steadily below 1.5) includes Northern Spain and Italy, some Pyrenean and Mediterranean French regions, some German Länder, and looks as if it infringes on Slovenia (however not measured by Eurostat data) through the Austrian and Friuli corridor. Cleavages in European demographic behaviour do not respect national boundaries, but rather pass through and into the countries.

Analysis of the total fertility rate on the regional level splits the map of Europe into three rather than two developmental patterns. Even though the plot thickens, the theoretical issue remains unchanged, and it would be easier to begin by facing it in its dichotomous version: if a single macro-process of modernisation is profoundly transforming Western societies, whatever their development path, why do the changing mechanisms of intergenerational relations cause a pattern of family break-up in the North and a drying-up of the family in the South? How can the same agency produce quite different demographic patterns?

In order to contextualize these historical variants, it might be useful to rediscover a neglected sociological rule of Durkheim's [1895]: if several equally determining (equi-final) processes produce the same result, really the results are similar but not identical, as they have behind them different epigeneses [Note 6]. Consider the example given by Durkheim himself: "In the common sense view, fever designates a single pathological entity; however science classifies more specifically different fevers, with respect to different effects". On the basis of these arguments Durkheim confutes Mill's and Weber's equi-finalistic rule (which leads to "vaguely assigning a badly defined consequence to a hazy and undefined group of antecedents") and formulates the following statement: "A single cause always corresponds to the same effect. If, for instance, a suicide is determined by a number of causes, that happens because we find ourselves faced with different kinds of suicide" [ibidem].

Let us cross-tabulate the country-level proportion of extramarital births (as a proxy for the spread of the marriage bond) with the total fertility rate (as a proxy for the spread of a full motherhood experience). It is a well known fact that, behind a common process of convergence to a standard pattern of demographic rates, European countries follow two distinct demographic 'development paths', hinging upon two distinct mainstays (table 1): the marriage contract without children and numerous offspring without marriage.


Paraphrasing Durkheim we can say therefore that, if the path called a "second demographic transition" is affected by more than one intervening process, that means there are a number of different "second demographic transitions". Actually, with a few broad strokes we can trace a main boundary line in Europe. In Northern Europe, demographic transformations took the form of 'charge against institutionalised marriage', i.e. against the horizontal one of the two bonds which the family hinges upon. By contrast Southern Europe seems to be characterised by the crisis and break-up of the intergenerational kinship agreements and of the vertical parenthood bond. Motherhood loses its appeal not as the experience of only one child (easily compatible with a full working career) but as an irreversible life choice. Two different and in many ways opposite processes (saving the marital bond at the expense of the ancestral and vice versa) have produced the same result for decades: a decline in Europe's fertility. This has led the researchers to a uniform reading of the processes, throwing them off guard when the trends started to bifurcate [Note 8].

At this point we must ask another question: what justifies the development in Europe of different epigenetic processes leading to fertility decline? Both current theoretical frameworks (focusing the former social and economic conditions, the latter cultural models) are one-sided and incomplete. Only by connecting one with the other can we find a less partial explanation: the linking thread might be the set of relationships translating social action into social practice and norm. My aim is to reconstruct - both by analytical arguments and by reference to various sources of empirical data - the framework of practices stratified in time which make up the anthropological embeddedness [Note 9] of current fertility dynamics.

Practices (and norms too) refer to one or more reference actors or groups, and generally (even in the era of globalisation) groups tend to be rooted in a territorial niche and in a subculture or 'folk-lore'. Groups - Carl Schmitt [1963] would say - are 'telluric' actors. Of course, many processes may concur in this geographical rooting, stratified along the latitude, but I am interested in studying a particular sort of social feedback we observe today: while historically different social practices gradually crystallised in the shape of different inertial anthropological structures (norms and values), these in turn embed the current social transformations (whatever economic, political or technical factors cause them) into different new patterns of social practices.

How can we identify these "folkways and customs" [Sumner 1906] that act as incubators for divergent paths of development? In my opinion, we will never understand the dynamics of the family if we confine ourselves to monitoring only the restricted household circle without exploring the fundamental interplay between the household and two other circles round it: kinship and the network of friends, neighbours and all other strong ties. My hypothesis is that the overall regional patterns of these three circles could influence local differences in social and demographic reproduction strategies.


A methodological premise Household patterns in historic Europe and the present demographic choices

Kinship, Family and Social Network: The anthropological embedment of fertility change in Southern Europe
Giuseppe A. Micheli
© 2000 Max-Planck-Gesellschaft ISSN 1435-9871