New Ideas and Fertility Limitation: The Role of Mass Media

Article excerpt

This article investigates the mass media as a social change that shapes individual behavior primarily via ideational mechanisms. We construct a theoretical framework drawing on social demography and social psychology to explain how mass media may affect behavior via attitudinal change. Empirical analyses of 1,091 couples in the Chitwan Valley Family Study, using detailed measures of social change from rural Nepal, show that exposure to the mass media is related to childbearing behavior, and to preferences for smaller families, weaker son preferences, and tolerance of contraceptive use. This result should motivate greater research attention to the influence of changing ideas on behavioral changes, particularly in the study of families.

Key Words: attitudes, childbearing, contraception, mass media, Nepal, social change.

A controversy between structural and ideational explanations of behavior characterizes much of social science research, including numerous studies of families and social change. Although there are strong theoretical reasons for expecting both structural and ideational forces to shape behavior (Alexander, 1988; Coleman, 1990; Giddens, 1984), clear empirical evidence of these simultaneous effects is rare because social scientists often have no direct measurement of ideational mechanisms of social change. They may demonstrate evidence for ideational mechanisms by documenting a lack of evidence for structural influences on behavior or by using models of spatial diffusion, but neither approach provides direct evidence of specific ideational mechanisms. In addition, because many specific social changes have both structural and ideational consequences, social scientists rarely have the opportunity to document a purely ideational mechanism. For example, although mass education is explicitly designed to propagate new ideas and information, education also restructures the costs and benefits of specific behaviors (Axinn & Barber, 2001). Depending on the setting, other mechanisms of social change are also likely to share both structural and ideational consequences. This general lack of measurement to distinguish between ideational and structural mechanisms of social change prevents clear documentation of the simultaneous influence of both forces.

This article presents an empirical analysis of mass media as a mainly ideational mechanism of social change. We focus on exposure to mass media in a setting without previous exposure. The main risk in this approach is that the spread of mass media will be closely tied to other social changes that dramatically restructure the costs and benefits of behavior. Therefore, measurement of all concurrent social changes is needed to demonstrate the independent influence of the introduction of mass media.

Rural Nepal provides an ideal setting for our study because the recency of dramatic social change there affords the rare opportunity to document the beginning of the spread of mass media. Our measures document individuals' first contact with various forms of media, as well as both the exposure to and experience of many other important mechanisms of social change. The recency of these social changes also makes it possible to measure the concomitant variation in ideas as these changes are occurring. We use this comprehensive measurement of social change and ideational variation to demonstrate that mass media influence behavior independent of numerous other mechanisms of change, and that they are associated with ideas that were extraordinarily rare in this setting 50 years earlier.

The behavioral transition we examine in rural Nepal is the shift from families with many children and no use of birth control to families with few children and the widespread use of birth control. This change in fertility behavior provides a fruitful subject for our research because theory from multiple perspectives identifies potentially important ideational influences on fertility decisions. …