Volume 17 - Article 16 | Pages 465–496

Fertility as a process of social exchange

By Patrick Heady

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Date received:17 Apr 2006
Date published:07 Dec 2007
Word count:9629
Keywords:anthropological demography, cooperation, exchange marriage, fertility, homeostatic population regulation, reciprocity, second demographic transition


By marrying and raising children, parents participate in a system of gift-exchange in which the gifts in question are human lives, and the parties to the exchange are the kinship groups recognised in the society concerned. Fertility reflects the attitudes of prospective parents to their place in the existing system of reproductive exchange, and the relationships of cooperation and authority which it implies - as well as their confidence in the system’s continuing viability.
It is shown that this view is compatible with earlier ideas about self-regulating population systems - and that changing economic circumstances are an important source of discrepancy between existing exchange systems and the attitudes and expectations of prospective parents. The discussion is developed with reference to data on European societies, including a case-study from the Alps, and concludes with an assessment of the relevance of the anthropological theory of gift exchange to contemporary fertility patterns in Europe and beyond.

Author's Affiliation

Patrick Heady - Max-Planck-Institut für Ethnologische Forschung, Germany [Email]

Other articles by the same author/authors in Demographic Research

» What can anthropological methods contribute to demography - and how?
Volume 16 - Article 18

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