Laura Duberstein Lindberg, The Urban Institute

Constance Nathanson, Johns Hopkins University

Joseph Pleck, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Kenneth Wolpin, University of Pennsylvania

Prepared for NICHD Workshop "Improving Data on Male Fertility and Family Formation" at the Urban Institute, Washington, D.C., January 16-17, 1997.


The social sciences offer no unified and accepted theory of union formation and fertility. This paper delineates salient theoretical approaches area in three traditions---economics, social demography, and social psychology. Our particular focus is on what existing theories of union formation and fertility say about gender and the relative roles of men and women, whether explicitly or implicitly. Specifically, these reviews share common concerns with two factors---how gender-specific characteristics are theorized to influence behavior, and the relative roles of men and women in decision-making. Our purpose is not to be perform an exhaustive review of existing theories, but to reflect on key perspectives in light of their approach to gender.

Economic Perspectives on Marriage, Fertility and Gender

It is a commonly held, but not universal, view among economists working in the demographic area that fertility can be analyzed within the choice-theoretic framework of neoclassical economics. The assumptions of that framework are (I) that the actors have a well-defined set of preferences, (ii) that they face limited resources or, more generally, face a well-defined opportunity set, and (iii) that they make optimal decisions in the sense that there are no other decisions given their current state of knowledge that would make them better off (from their own perspective). My very brief review of the economics literature of theories of fertility is restricted to this framework (for a comprehensive review see Hotz, Klerman, and Willis, 1996). I will be simplifying to make the essential points relevant to our task.

At the most fundamental level, economic models of fertility can be viewed as a standard application of the theory of the consumer. However, the treatment of fertility behavior as a consumer choice problem has been mindful of the unique features of that behavior (children are not potatoes), which has led to important synergies with theories of time allocation, household production and human capital investment. The economic modeling of fertility has been an active area of research, incorporating advances in economic theory more generally. Thus, static lifetime formulations have given way to life cycle dynamic models. More recently, there has been increasing concern about applying individualistic models of behavior to the household as if the household was the elementary decision-making unit. This concern has given rise to new approaches to modeling household decision-making that recognize the saliency of the individual decision-makers who comprise the household (Chiappori, 1992). These new developments are just now being incorporated into the modeling of fertility. It is best to view economic modeling of fertility behavior as work in progress.

The Standard Static Lifetime Model:

Treating children as if they were no different than potatoes leads to few useful insights and has the unappealing requirement that to be consistent with observation, children must be inferior goods, i.e., like potatoes, one consumes less of them as income rises. In addition, unlike potatoes, for which there is an unambiguous market-determined price, the "price" of a child is less clearly interpreted (it is literally only the birth and maintenance cost). For these reasons, the first serious attempts at modeling fertility behavior incorporated two important extensions: (I) allowing for parental choice about the "quality" (which can be purchased at some fixed cost per unit) as well as the quantity of children (Becker and Lewis, 1973) and (ii) modeling child quality as a commodity that is "produced" by purchased market goods (e.g., schools) and parental time (Willis, 1973). With some additional assumptions, both of these extensions to the model provide an explanation for the observed negative income-fertility correlation that does not rely on children being inferior goods.

Life Cycle Dynamic Models:

The static lifetime model provided the foundation for studying features of the fertility process that go beyond the choice of the lifetime quantity (and quality) of children. In itself, the static formulation is silent about the timing and spacing of children and the relationship of childbearing to other life cycle household decisions. Life cycle dynamic models pose the decision problem in a sequential framework in which the household responds to the evolution of events that are unknown ex ante, allowing for sequential decisions to be made about: (I) contraception; (ii) time allocation (to work and childrearing); and (iii) consumption (see e.g., Hotz and Miller, 1988).

Almost all extant economic models of fertility, static or dynamic, treat the household as having a single set of preferences. To the extent that an alternative interpretation has been provided, it has been to consider the woman as the unit of analysis and ignore or treat only superficially marriage and divorce. However, the fact that non-marital fertility now accounts for about 30 percent of all births in the U.S. implies that the standard models are inapplicable to the study of the childbearing decisions of a sizeable part of the population as well as to the study of public policies, such as welfare reform, that attempt to influence those decisions. On the other hand, economic models of marriage, while identifying children as an important aspect of the gains from marriage, have not rigorously incorporated fertility decisions.

Recent work in consumer theory models household members as having distinct preferences and the allocation of resources within the household as the outcome of their interactions. In this setting a household with a single member is simply a special case of a household with many members. To date, there has been only one attempt to apply this type of model to the specific case of non-marital childbearing (Willis, 1995). I will first outline the basic formulation and its implications, and then discuss possible extensions.

The Willis Model:

Willis assumes a static model in which men and women each have preferences over the number and quality of their children. For generality, their preferences may differ, but there is no need that they do nor that one sex systematically cares more about the quality of their children. What distinguishes men and women is that women can bear only a limited number of children while men can bear an indefinitely large number and that men do not always know the identity of their children. Child quality is a collective good, i.e., one parent's enjoyment does not diminish that of the other parent.

First, consider a woman who is deciding on whether or not to bear and rear a child as a single mother (for exactness Willis considers the case of a woman having artificial insemination from a sperm bank). As in the static lifetime model, there is a fixed cost of a unit of child quality. Given some simplifying assumptions, the woman will have a child if and only if her income exceeds some minimum value. If she decides to have a child the quality of the child will depend positively on her income and negatively on the price of purchasing child quality.

Next, imagine that paternity is established and ask whether the father is better off if he is not forced to provide support. The answer obviously depends on his preferences. Clearly, he is more likely to be better off the higher is the quality of the child, i.e., the more the mother spent on the child from her own resources. Suppose that the father is better off. Then, the man and woman can both be made better off by pooling their resources, i.e., by getting married. The result is due to the assumption that child quality is a collective good; loosely speaking each of them gets to "consume" the entire child quality but doesn't have to pay the full amount. Moreover, the level of child quality is higher if resources are pooled.

But, there is nothing in the model that requires that the gain from the collective good be obtained within a marriage or even a cohabitation. Willis appeals to an extra-model assumption that marriage facilitates the coordination necessary to ensure the efficient allocation of child expenditures. He also develops a non-cooperative solution in which the father makes an optimal voluntary transfer, where the father takes into account that some of the transfer will not be spent on the child. Because of this, expenditures on the child will be less than in the cooperative marriage solution.

But, note that in Willis's model, the father (and mother) are better off as well if they are married. So why would a man choose out-of-wedlock fatherhood? Willis's argument, rigorously demonstrated, is that what the father loses in child quality can be made up in quantity, i.e., the father may be better off having many "low quality" children by different women, where he contributes little if any resources.

Willis then combines this analysis with a model of the marriage market in which there is income variation within the sexes. He derives the following interesting case. If females have high incomes relative to males and there are more females than males, then (1) males and females from the upper portion of the income distribution marry and bear children and (2) those males from the lower portion of the income distribution will remain single and father children from multiple women who also come from the lower portion of the income distribution. This is referred to as the "underclass" equilibrium.

Scope for further theoretical research:

The Willis model is a creative first step at modeling fertility that takes into account the separate, but intertwined, roles of men and women. There are clearly numerous potentially insightful extensions of the framework. For example, the model ignores such aspects of interactions as sexual pleasure and love, gains from co-habitation other than raising children, and the importance of proximity to children to the value of having children. Further, the model ignores other behaviors that are related to childbearing such as work, schooling, and welfare participation and the environment within which decisions are made is static and there is no uncertainty (e.g., from imperfect contraception). The framework admits to these extensions.

Data requirements:

We should not construct data sets that are specific to any single theoretical framework or that are designed to "test" specific hypotheses. As a corollary, the first dollars should be spent on obtaining good data of an objective kind on both sexes: longitudinal data on early sexual contacts, contraceptive use, characteristics of partners, pregnancies, birth outcomes, time and money resource transfers between unmarried parents, etc. Descriptive data of this kind will importantly influence future theorizing. We are a long way from thinking about rejecting theories that are anything but naive.

Social-Demographic Perspectives on Marriage and Gender

Most explanations of the current decline in the centrality of marriage depend on the benefits of marriage deriving from role specialization. This specialization into different areas is theorized to be the major benefit of marriage. Strong differences in sex-roles between men and women supported this division of labor, with men responsible for roles outside the home (employment, social status), and women responsible for roles within the home. As individuals' experience reductions in either the ability or desire to achieve this role specialization, their participation in marriage is theorized to decline. Sociology and demography often focus on two central factors theorized to reduce individuals' ability or desire for role specialization within marriage. Simply viewed, one of these explanations is female-oriented, while the other is male-oriented (Oppenheimer, Kalmijn, and Lim, 1997). This "orientation" refers to which gender's characteristics are believed to be driving the declines in the centrality of marriage. While the explanations differ in whether it is men's or women's characteristics that influence marriage patterns, they also vary in which gender is the decision-maker--that is, which gender responds to the characteristic of interest. Table 1 summarizes these theorized relationships, and they are discussed more thoroughly below.

The female-oriented approach posits women's rising economic independence as an explanation for the declines in marriage (Cherlin, 1992; Farley, 1988). Although this economic independence is theorized to influence marriage through a variety of pathways, in most explanations women are the primary actors and their personal characteristics influence their own decision-making. Women's economic independence reduces their economic need for marriage, diminishing the benefits they would gain from a marriage with traditional division of labor. Moreover, role theory points out that increasing normative acceptance and opportunities for employment also reduces the social incentives for marriage, by providing women an alternate social role to wife and mother (Scanzoni, 1975). Thus, employment opportunities are theorized to reduce women's desire for marriage by giving them other means of obtaining economic and social status.

Table 1. Hypothesized Factors Influencing Marriage

Change in Economic Opportunity Hypothesized Effect on Marriage Actor / Decision-Maker Mechanism for Influencing Marriage




W reduce economic need
W provide alternate social roles
W smaller pool of acceptable partners
+ W expanded pool of acceptable partners
+ M more attractive to potential partners
M inadequate income for marriage
W reduced supply of acceptable partners

The male-oriented approach emphasizes declines in men's economic position as the central cause of the decline in marriage (Oppenheimer, 1994). There is a long theoretical tradition in research on marriage in Western society that focuses on men's ability to establish an independent household as a key factor determining marriage timing (Hajnal, 1965). This theoretical perspective continues today, with the belief that men's labor market position has a strong effect on marital timing.(1) Specifically, researchers have looked to declines in the young men's labor market position during the 1970's and 1980's as an explanation for the contemporaneous retreat from marriage. Since men have the role of economic provider in a marriage with specialization, reductions in their ability to enact this role also reduce the attractiveness of marriage.

Although this explanation relies on men's characteristics, its proponents disagree on whether these characteristics influence the actions of men or women. Thus, this explanation ends up taking on two distinct forms. In the first, men self-evaluate themselves as having inadequate economic resources for marriage, and thus delay or do not marry. This theoretical orientation allows for variation over time or between individuals in men's perceptions of what constitutes an "adequate" income for marriage.(2) Regardless, in this model, men are the primary actors, who evaluate their own economic resources and then make decisions about the attractiveness of marriage. In the second form of this explanation, although the interest is in male characteristics, women are the primary actors. Wilson's (1987) widely discussed explanation of delayed marriage and non-marital childbearing among African-American women is a prime example of this perspective. He argues that the deteriorating labor market status of African-American males impede their ability to provide stable economic support---and thus assume their traditional role in marriage. In turn, this reduces black women's motivation to marry because of a local shortage in the supply of economically attractive men. Thus, men's characteristics are theorized to influence marriage by altering women's decision-making.

Wilson's work is one example of theories about the functioning of the "marriage market." Traditionally, the marriage market has been theorized to function to maximize role specialization. In traditional models of the marriage market, men and women choose partners based on different criteria. Since women's gain from marriage as theorized to be economic and status -oriented, a woman is expected to want a partner with the best opportunities for income and social status. Men, on the other hand, get benefits from marriage in home production and choose partners accordingly, placing greater emphasis on physical attractiveness. Changes in women's and men's economic opportunities influence their role in the marriage market. For example, if the marriage market functions to maximize role specialization (through comparative advantage), than women need to find men with greater economic opportunities than their own. Therefore, women's increased income or education would result in a smaller pool of potentially eligible partners, thus creating a barrier to their marrying, or necessitating an increase in their search time and thus delaying age at marriage (Mare, 1991; Lichter, 1990).

What if the marriage market is not operating to achieve the best matches for role-specialized marriages? Two sets of research findings suggest that the marriage market is undergoing changes. First, recent research finds that men increasingly prefer to marry economically attractive women (Goldsheider and Waite, 1986). Thus, women's expanding economic opportunities may serve to increase their opportunities in the marriage market by making them attractive to a larger pool of men (Lichter et al., 1992). Second, an iconoclastic view suggests that women's increased economic independence may expand, not limit, their pool of potential mates by allowing them to "afford" to marry less compensated males---presumably with personal characteristics other than economic achievement that they value.(3)

To summarize, much attention has been given to two alternate factors that may be driving the declines in marriage ---women's economic opportunities, and men's economic opportunities. Both of these factors are theorized to influence marriage by altering the benefits of role specialization. There are strong advocates on both sides, and the question of which factor has been the dominant force is still unanswered. In part this debate reflects the problem that although marriage involves two actors, research often explains only one actor's decision to marry. This is both an empirical and a theoretical difficulty. Marriage requires consent and participation from both sexes. Non-marriage can result from either, or both, sexes reluctance to marry. Yet many of the factors considered in analyses of the marriage market can be interpreted as indicating a preference for marriage, as well as the individual's "marriageability." For example, do men's declining economic resources indicate their reduced attractiveness as potential mates, or a decline in their preference for marriage? As Goldscheider and Waite (1986) point out, these interpretations are mutually reinforcing and thus difficult to sort out. Our empirical observations of marriage incidence may not be very helpful in sorting out which gender is more responsible for changes in marriage (or differences between groups).

There is a need for new theoretical and analytical models of the marriage market that incorporate issues of both men and women more directly. To date, most analyses that model the marriage market do so from the perspective of women, i.e. they examine the demographic and/or qualitative aspects of the pool of eligible men that are associated with differences in the timing of marriage for women. It would be worthwhile to add to this perspective by modeling the characteristics of women that may be associated with men's behaviors in the marriage market (Lichter et al., 1992). Analytically, this becomes easier to do if men are increasingly valuing the same types of characteristics, such as employability and income, as women, instead of physical attractiveness or other "traditional" criteria. The former are far easier to measure in survey, or even aggregate level data, and lend themselves more to the types of analyses that social scientists are most familiar with. Empirical model that include the motivations and behaviors of both sexes are needed to be able to fully test the competing hypotheses discuses here. Focussing on marriage and union formation will assist in connecting the growing study of "fatherhood" to underlying demographic processes (Goldscheider and Kauffman, 1996).

As a concluding note, there is a need to reconsider our traditional adherence to a specialization-trading model of marriage which emphasizes gains from an underlying sexual division of labor between spouses (for arguments against this model, see Oppenheimer, 1994). The central challenge to our understanding of current and future trends in marriage and family formation may be the declining significance of sex-role specialization for marriage (Goldsheider and Waite, 1991). This decline not only alters the potential benefits of marriage, but it also alters the functioning of the marriage market. Cohabitation may be providing different types of unions in which choices of partners may not be well-explained by sex-role specialization. Changes in gender-role attitudes may alter individuals' behaviors within market, and their search for a marital partner. Our adherence, whether explicit or in our underlying assumptions, that marriage can be understood from a specialization model, may limit our ability to explain and understand contemporary patterns in family formation. The specialization model may continue to provide important insights, but it can not be allowed to constrain our understanding of the dramatic changes occurring in American family life.

Social-Demographic Perspectives on Fertility and Gender

The following very preliminary thoughts on this topic build on two earlier papers: first, a paper by Nathanson and Schoen, "A bargaining theory of sexual behavior in women's adolescence," published in the proceedings of the 1993 IUSSP International Population Conference in Montreal and, second, a recently completed manuscript by Schoen et al., titled "Why do Americans want children?" Underlying these papers is the notion that sexuality (Nathanson and Schoen, 1993) and children (Schoen et al., ?) constitute resources which individuals use purposefully in pursuit of goals (economic and/or social security, status, and the like) subject to structural and cultural constraints.

The more recent paper questions why Americans (or members of industrialized societies generally) continue to have children given their direct and indirect (opportunity) costs. To account for this phenomenon, the resource value of children is conceptualized (following Coleman, 1988, 1990) as a form of social capital: "Individuals and couples have powerful non-instrumental interests in social integration with family and friends and in the social and emotional help and support that social integration brings." Gender differences in the resource value of children as social capital were not addressed theoretically in this paper. The earlier paper is focused primarily on the sexual behavior of adolescent women, but does suggest a number of variables relevant to gender differences in the value of fertility-relevant resources: men's and women's economic opportunities; sexual and family ideologies affecting the relative value ascribed to women's sexual and domestic resources (by both women and men); social class and race.

Among the only detailed pieces of empirical research (of which I am aware) that lends itself to analysis of gender differences in the forgoing terms is the chapter in Elijah Anderson's book, Streetwise, titled "Sex codes and family life among Northton's youth" (1990:112-137). Streetwise is an ethnographic study of two adjacent inner-city communities, one ethnically and racially mixed and the other--Northton--black and poor. I propose, first, to examine whether the conceptual frameworks our research group has proposed make sense in light of Anderson's data and, second, to suggest, more speculatively, the changes in gender differentials our frameworks would predict, given systematic changes in the empirical circumstances described by Anderson.

The premise that sexuality and children are resources purposefully employed in pursuit of individuals' particular goals receives strong support in Anderson's account. The goals themselves are structurally highly constrained and differ profoundly between young men and women. The fundamental constraint, according to Anderson, is absence of economic opportunities for men: "The lack of family-sustaining jobs denies many young men the possibility of forming an economically self-reliant family" (112). Without viable alternatives in the job market, young men seek status in the recognition and support of their male peer group. "To many inner-city black youths, the most important people in life are members of their peer groups. They set the standards for conduct, and it is important to live up to those standards" (114). Peer group standards emphasize "sexual prowess as proof of manhood, with babies as evidence" (112). While sexual conquests are a status symbol, emotional commitment to the young woman may, on the other hand, be taken by peers as a sign of weakness. Anderson argues that young women's goals are quite different: they "dream of being the comfortable middle-class housewife portrayed on television," and offer sex as a gift in the hope--often fostered by the young man--of parlaying the gift into some semblance of the dream.

While sexuality is employed as a resource by both sexes, pregnancy and the resulting child are more clearly positive resources for the young women than the young men Anderson describes. From the young woman's perspective, pregnancy may, at the very least, increase her partner's ties of obligation. A child brings adult status, the admiration of peers, and (in the old days) a welfare check. From the young man's perspective, pregnancy and a child are potential traps, increasing his economic burdens, decreasing his freedom to come and go as he pleases, and incurring the disesteem of his peers for being "fooled."(4) As a consequence, the fact of fatherhood is frequently contested. It is an important point that pregnancy and motherhood are self-evident, fatherhood is not. Under circumstances where rights of inheritance are important and children bring major social and economic rewards, men go to considerable lengths to insure their paternity. Indeed, it has been argued that demand for this insurance was a major factor in the development of patriarchal institutions. Anderson describes circumstances at the opposite extreme: when paternity brings no rewards, men will be moved to deny it.

Indeed, perhaps Anderson has portrayed one end of a spectrum, in which sexuality is men's only social resource deployed to gain status in the eyes of peers rather than partners or kin, and children are "social capital" only for women. An obvious prediction from Anderson's data--he makes this prediction himself--is that as men acquire "a job, the work ethic, and perhaps most of all, a persistent sense of hope for an economic future...the most wretched elements of the portrait presented here begin to lose their force, slowly becoming neutralized" (137). In other words, a conventional family life depends on the availability of economic resources to men. It is not clear where this leaves women. Anderson states that the young women he studied may see themselves as "having little to lose and something to gain by becoming pregnant" (127). This suggests that insofar as women perceive themselves as having "something to lose" by becoming pregnant, they are more likely to take precautions against it, hardly a new idea.

Goldscheider and Kaufman in their recent paper, "Fertility and commitment: bringing men back in" (1996) make two interesting and relevant points. They suggest, first, that declining commitment to parenthood is characteristic of men in general, not just black men in the ghetto: "most of the retreat from children has been on the part of men. There is evidence that men increasingly view children and fatherhood primarily as responsibility and obligation rather than as a source of meaning, happiness, or stability" (90).(5) Second, they observe that "trends that increase male involvement (in children's lives) may decrease female autonomy in decisions about whether to bear children and how to raise them" (96). In other words, women's empowerment and male involvement in childbearing and childrearing represent a trade-off.

Both Anderson's and Goldscheider and Kaufman's analyses are striking in their implications of conflict between the interests and goals of men and women. Increases in men's and women's economic opportunities may have opposite consequences for their commitment to children; increases in women's empowerment may be at the cost of male absence. Despite this emphasis on conflict and on costs, both men and women continue to intend and to have children. We have advanced the notion of children as social capital to account for this phenomenon. Perhaps one of the things that happens at higher levels of economic opportunity is that the social ties generated by children become a more important resource for men without losing their value on this dimension for women.

Social-Psychological Perspectives on Fertility and Gender

The major theoretical perspective on fertility in social psychology conceptualizes fertility motivation as a function of the costs and benefits that individuals perceive in having a child (Seccombe, 1991). In various theoretical frameworks, these perceived costs and benefits are alternatively formulated as the value of children (Arnold et al., 1975; Hoffman and Manis, 1979), or as childbearing values and disvalues (Beckman, 1987), utilities (Townes et al., 1980), or attitudes (Davison and Jaccard, 1976). These models, of course, also posit a role for other constructs influencing the extent to which the childbearing cost-benefits will be reflected in intentions and/or behavior, such as alternative sources of benefits, barriers, and facilitators (Hoffman and Hoffman, 1973).

This cost-benefit model of fertility motivation provided the underlying conceptual framework for Arnold et al.'s (1975) milestone cross-national study of fertility and fertility intentions. Responses to the question "what would you say are some of the advantages or good things about having children compared with not having children at all?" were coded in 65 categories, organized around nine broader values derived from Rokeach (1960). In Hoffman and Manis's (1979) report on the U.S. data in the cross-national study, there was support for the cost-benefit model in that the specific satisfactions most strongly associated with fertility intentions were reported less frequently in the U.S. than in developing countries, but within the U.S. these satisfactions were cited more frequently in the demographic subgroups with higher fertility desires. In other cross-sectional analyses, a relatively small number of specific responses were associated with variations in desired family size. Higher desired family size was related to perceiving children as providing "something useful to do," making you feel like "a better person," and having economic utility.

At the same time, many other specific satisfactions were unrelated to number of children desired, e.g., affection, stimulation and fun, giving purpose to life, and immortality. And other work has found no relationship between the perceived values of children and actual fertility (Heltsley, Warren, and Lu, 1981). Hoffman and Manis (1979) noted many potential complexities in conceptualizing the association between childbearing's perceived cost-benefits and fertility. For example, some perceived benefits may be obtained by having only one child, with little marginal benefit accruing for additional children, while other benefits do vary with the number of children. The value of a later child (for example, as a companion to the first) may be different than the value of a first child. Some values might relate to desire for a child at a particular point in the adult's life rather than to simply the total number of children. Overall, these authors note that "it was not expected that the relationship between any particular value and fertility would necessarily be monotonic." (p. 592)

Use of the cost-benefit perspective on fertility motivation to understand heterosexual couple behavior presents several issues and challenges. An initial issue concerns gender differences in the perceived value of children. Research generally finds that females report greater perceived benefits and lower perceived costs to having children than do males (Hoffman and Manis, 1979; Miller, ?). This finding is assumed to make sense, since bearing and rearing children are so emphasized in female gender socialization. There is indeed evidence that in both genders, perceiving greater benefits to having children is associated with traditional gender attitudes (Heltsley, Warren, and Lu, 1981). However, an alternate reading of gender socialization might lead us to expect that men, not women, would perceive lower costs to childbearing. And, Hoffman and Manis's (1979) finding that among African-Americans, men rather than women more often perceived stimulation and fun, and expansion of the self, to be advantages of having children, is also noteworthy--and unexplained--in the conventional gender interpretation.

A second issue concerns the relative influence of males and females in fertility decision-making. Small group research indicates that in mixed-sex dyads, men tend to be more influential than females (Aries, 1996). Some studies indicate that this holds true specifically for attitudes about contraception. For example, when members of college dating couples are asked individually to express their opinion about contraception, and then asked to write a joint opinion, the latter is more similar to the male's than the female's individual view (Gerrard, Breda, and Gibbons, 1990). However, the same study also showed that the couple's contraceptive behavior was actually more similar to the female's individual opinion. Beckman (1984) and earlier studies have also found that when members of married couples disagree about whether to have an additional child, the wife's preference is far more often the one actualized in later behavior, although the inclusion of husbands' preference and other husband variables does increase the predictive power of explanatory models for fertility. It should be emphasized that these findings may not be generalizable to other populations. While females may have greater control of contraception in college dating couples, this may not be the case in noncollege couples. The greater female control of fertility apparent in married couples may not be evident in nonmarried couples.

There appears to have been little recent investigation of why women generally have more decision-making influence over fertility, and factors associated with variation in each gender's relative influence. In older work, Rainwater (1965) found that wives' preference for smaller number of children is associated with "joint" as opposed to "segregated" conjugal relationships. There has been little consistency in research findings about the relationship between couples' patterns of decision-making influence and fertility preferences or behavior (Back and Haas, 1973). For example, in a Puerto Rican study, Hill, Stycos, and Back (1959) found no linear association between an attitudinal complex in males they labeled "machismo" (favoring early sex, high fertility, not using male contraception, domination of women) and couple's use of birth control. The highest scoring men on the overall attitude measure tended to be very young or very old, leading the investigators to conclude that their actual influence on fertility was minimal.

We can suggest several guidelines for future theory and research on social-psychological factors in fertility. First, motivation for childbearing and motivation for contraception have tended to be studied in separate literatures and in different populations (married adults vs. unmarried adolescents). It is easy to uncritically assume that one is the obverse of the other, i.e., that low motivation for childbearing corresponds to high motivation for contraception, and vice versa. A more comprehensive theoretical approach is needed in which both constructs play a role, and in which it is recognized that individuals' motivations are not necessarily consistent. Such models need to take into account that the perceived costs and benefits of contraception are relatively immediate or short-term, while the perceived costs and benefits of childbearing are more distal and long-term. Conceptualizing how these costs and benefits vary as a function of individuals' contexts is also essential. The utility of social-psychological models will be increased, for example, if individuals report on the costs and benefits they perceive to childbearing for persons of different ages, for persons who are married vs unmarried, for persons who have completed vs not completed education, and the like.

Second, the conceptualization of fertility decision-making itself, and the role of gender in it, needs much further development. In the field of family studies, in recent years there has been a general retreat from the concept of marital (or relationship) decision-making influence (or power) because of the inability to find congruence between behavioral and self-report measures of this concept, and the inability to find congruence even between behavioral measures in different domains (Cromwell and Olson, 1975). Although these issues are problematic for the assessment and conceptualization of power as a general construct in close relationships, they do not need to be resolved in order to study decision-making influence over actual fertility behavior in its own right.


Although these essays represent the uncoordinated efforts of a multi-disciplinary group of social scientists, there is a strong commonality and complementarity in their central themes. At the more general level, there is consensus that marriage and fertility outcomes should be viewed in decision-theoretic terms at an individualistic level. Social science theories of union formation and fertility have not been sufficiently cognizant of the fact that there are multiple decision-makers. Within a theoretical perspective in which individual decision-makers are at the foundation, it is important to understand the distinct motivations and constraints faced by men and women (both within and outside of unions). However, because voluntary union formation and childbearing usually involve cooperation in an essential way, behavioral theories must also model the process by which men and women interact. In formulating such theories, these essays noted the importance of incorporating the following ingredients: (i) gender differences in the value of children and marriage that may be motivated by conflicting interests and goals of men and women in childbearing, (ii) differential and changing economic and marriage market opportunities of men and women, (iii) gender roles within marriage, (iv) investments in child "quality". It is encouraging to observe that recent theoretical work has begun to be produced in all of the social sciences represented by these essays to address these issues.


Theory both guides and is guided by data. It is therefore necessary that both theoretical and empirical research find support. As these essays suggest, disciplines do operate within different paradigms and data requirements while overlapping are not identical. There is common agreement, however, that high quality objective data should be collected on both men and women in parallel.

Theory and Research Needs

1. Any theoretical advances need to incorporate declines in gender-role specialization and increases in the direct and indirect costs of children---all of which traditional theories argue would diminish the benefits of marriage and childbearing.

2. Theoretical models of the union formation and fertility need to more explicitly address the separate, but intertwined, roles of men and women.

3. We need to expand the scope of our theories to assist in explaining less traditional family formation behaviors, such as non-marital childbearing and cohabitation.

4. More research is needed on gender differences in the value of children and marriage. This includes improved understanding of different, and potentially conflicting, motivations and constraints faced by men and women.

5. More work is needed to tease out the relative importance of differential and changing economic and marriage market opportunities for men and women.

6. Greater attention should be paid to changes in gender roles within and outside of unions. This needs to include greater attention to subgroup variations in gender role attitudes and norms.

7. More explicit attention needs to be given to each gender's motivation to invest in child quality, and their personal assessment of this concept.

8. We need to give greater research attention to the relative influence of men and women in fertility decision-making, and factors associated with variation in each gender's relative influence.

Data Needs

1. At this point, data sets should be collected to test the broadest range of hypotheses, without adherence to any single theoretical framework. Descriptive data will importantly influence future theorizing.

2. Data must be collected from men and women about key demographic behaviors, such as union formation and fertility. Samples need to be developed that include both dyads and individual respondents.

3. Self-reported attitudinal measures are important for developing an understanding of motivations and values.

4. Greater information about gender-role attitudes need to be collected. In particular, greater information about men and women's attitudes toward male gender roles need to be added to the more traditional measures of attitudes towards women's gender roles.

5. We cannot assume that survey measures developed for women have equal validity or reliability for men. Qualitative and exploratory studies will be important for identifying and testing appropriate measures of men's fertility and union formation attitudes and behaviors.


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1. Easterlin (1978, 1987), with his theory of the effects of relative cohort size, has been an influential proponent of the thesis that young men's labor market position has a strong influence on marital timing, as well as fertility. Although Easterlin's specific views have fallen out of vogue, there remains strong theoretical interest in the influence of men's economic well-being on marriage formation.

2. One perspective is that men have increased the amount of income they think is necessary for a family to compensate for their increased taste for personal consumption and self-fulfillment.

3. This view is supported by the findings that the proportion of married couples in which woman earns more than man has increased from 10 percent in 1980 to 15 percent in 1990 (Biddlecom and Kramerow, 1995).

4. Clearly, not all young men correspond to the grim picture painted here--Anderson does not give percentages. His point is that the worse young men's economic prospects, the more likely is this picture to correspond to reality.

5. Given this analysis, it is striking that data from the NSFH presented in the Schoen et al. paper show very little gender variation in fertility intentions.