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Diffusion Processes and Fertility Transition: Selected Perspectives
values about fertility regulation has been the primary stimulant of contemporary fertility transitions. Cleland repeats, and updates, this crucial point in his contribution to this volume. After reviewing the accumulated empirical evidence up to the present, he maintains tine position articulated in his widely cited piece with Wilson, namely that “the case that the idea of marital fertility regulation was a true innovation both in Europe and elsewhere remains robust despite widespread skepticism” [our italics].
There are many disturbing aspects of the baldest statements of the ideational change argument. Several of these have already been identified by Mason (1992) and Burch (1996). For one thing, the favoring in ideational explanations of ideas about contraception is arbitrary and unnecessary. There is every reason to give equal or greater weight to ideas that influence the demand for children, namely, ideas about the costs and benefits of children, the roles of women and children, and so forth. The more fundamental problem with this literature, however, is its implicit behavioral model. It is common in this literature to perceive ideas and material conditions as alternative, even competing, causes of fertility change, a definition of the terms of the debate that demands that ideas can be separated from material conditions. Most social science theory does not accommodate such a relationship between ideas and material conditions: Palloni (this volume) makes this point by drawing on mainstream sociological theory, and Carter (this volume) recounts the rejection by anthropology early in the twentieth century of the notion of autonomous cultural diffusion, supplanted by functionalist theory that emphasized the capacity of societies to invent their own idiosyncratic solutions to common human problems. Most social scientists recognize that ideas are grounded in social and economic institutions (see review in Hechter, 1993). This insight is valid at any level of aggregation, from the individual to the society. From this perspective, the disjuncture between material conditions and ideas found in some of the pieces in this body of work is a fiction. This key point is underscored by empirical work carried out in developing countries during the past two decades, some of it inspired by the ideational argument, that plainly reveals that the ideas that bear on fertility and family planning decisions more often than not are ideas about material conditions—changing labor and commodity markets, new economic opportunities, and so forth (Casterline, 1999b). An opposition between material conditions and ideas simply does not fit such empirical evidence, and this should come as no surprise: cultural systems cannot be detached from social and economic systems to the degree that some of this literature presumes.
A rejection of the causal contribution of changes in material conditions does not necessarily follow from an emphasis on ideational change.