The Trajectory of Family Change in Nigeria

By Heaton, Tim; Hirschl, Tom A. | Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview
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The Trajectory of Family Change in Nigeria

Heaton, Tim, Hirschl, Tom A., Journal of Comparative Family Studies


Ethnic cleavage constitutes a continuing problem in sub-Saharan Africa where national boundaries reflect the commercial and military interests of colonial powers to the neglect of pre-existing tribal and regional experiences of the African people. Once the national boundaries were drawn, there was little incentive for the colonial powers to promote national integration since 'divide and conquer' represents a cost-effective means of colonial rule. This appears to have been the case in Nigeria which encompasses three major regional ethnic cultures, and under colonial rule was governed by a British controlled system that promoted regional and ethnic autonomy (Asiwaja, 1976; Carland, 1985). These pre-colonial and colonial experiences may partially explain the high level of inter-ethnic conflict during Nigeria's post-colonial era (Atanda, 1989). Since becoming a sovereign nation in 1960, Nigeria has experienced continuous ethnic cleavage, including a civil war that took the lives of between one and three million persons (Lovejoy, 1992:60).

In this paper we investigate the question of ethnic differences from the vantage point of the family. Are Nigerian families on a similar trajectory, or are ethnic differences in family organization failing to diminish? To the extent that structural and socioeconomic forces are operating throughout the country that promote particular forms of family organization, then we surmise that a process of national convergence is underway, even if substantial ethnic differentials remain. If family ethnic differences fail to move toward convergence in the face of common structural and socioeconomic forces, then we would surmise there is a lack of cohesion in this important dimension of social organization.

The family represents a potentially important source of inter-ethnic differentiation because it is a primary locus for biological reproduction, child socialization and education, socialization of gender roles, economic consumption, economic distribution, and in the case of a largely agrarian society such as Nigeria, economic production. It may be possible for ethnic groups to gain a greater sense of national identity in the absence of converging family organization, perhaps through common experiences in other major institutions such as the state and the broader economy. However, we believe that convergence (or lack thereof) in family organization provides independent evidence of expansion of a national culture across ethnic lines.

The persistence of ethnic differences in family organization within nation states has significant policy ramifications because nations are the primary administrative locus for international family planning policy efforts. International agencies typically provide funds, research knowledge, and administrative support to national policy functionaries who allocate and apply these resources within the nation state. In the context of sub-Saharan Africa, these efforts are nominally intended to hasten fertility decline and enhance the status of women. At least in theory family planning policy takes into account ethnic and regional differences, but in practice there may be reasons to question the efficacy of such policy. This is especially the case in sub-Saharan Africa where ethnic cleavage continues to be a salient, if sometimes violent, social process.

Concern over persistent high fertility in Africa has led researchers to examine a variety of family behaviors that underlie attainment of large families (Lesthaeghe, 1989; Caldwell et al., 1992). The intermediate variables framework coupled with the theory of multiphasic response developed by Davis and Blake sensitizes us to the complexity of fertility change. Work by Bongaarts (1985) and others indicates that certain intermediate variables exhibit greater variation, and are thus more critical in accounting for fertility change (Adeokun, 1985; Chimere-Dan, 1990b).

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