Reproduction and Social Context in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Collection of Micro-Demographic Studies

By Richards, Sarah C. | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Reproduction and Social Context in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Collection of Micro-Demographic Studies


Richards, Sarah C., The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Reproduction and Social Context in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Collection of Micro-Demographic Studies. Edited by Samuel AgyeiMensah and John B. Casterline. Contributions in Afro-American and African Studies, Number 206. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003. Pp. vii, 206. $64.95.

As its title implies, this collection is wide-ranging in scope, its chapters so diverse in geographic location, topic, and study design that at first glance the fact that they are grouped in the (wide) category of microdemographic research seems to be their only commonality. This multidisciplinary approach has the potential advantage of attracting a wide readership from academic and policy realms. Demographers, sociologists, anthropologists, geographers, economists, family planning planners, and reproductive health workers interested in fertility change in Africa will all find theoretical, methodological, and programmatic aspects of interest. Perhaps inevitably, this diversity makes some of the chapters less accessible to those outside the specific field of their authors. Without the final, summarizing chapter this book would be more useful for its parts than taken whole, but framing the preceding chapters in terms of the fertility transition, John and Pat Caldwell succeed in bringing together the disparate studies.

The diversity is intentional, and serves the editors' two main objectives. First, the methodological and disciplinary mix serves to re-orient microdemographic research away from solely qualitative approaches, "blending both numerical and non-numerical data" (p. 2). second, by soliciting these original works, the editors demonstrate the use of microdemographic studies across subregions of the continent (except Central Africa) and across populations at different stages in fertility transition. In a sense, the editors have issued a challenge to their readers-to devise locally relevant and robust research designs at the community level more widely throughout sub-Saharan Africa, increasing understanding and dialogue across disciplines.

As an anthropo'ogist with a decidedly qualitative orientation, I am perhaps not the ideal reviewer from the editors' perspectives, given their first objective. However, I was engaged throughout the chapters to see the diversity of topics approached through original, locally relevant methods, which yielded practical recommendations. The studies may take national DHS or census data as a starting point or comparison, but prove how national-level data can obscure important local differences that are consequently overlooked in creating policy and constructing family planning and development programs. These local variables include individuals' geographic mobility and social network, gender roles, nature and history of community economic activity, rural/urban location, availability and accessibility of contraception, decision-making control of partners, level of education, and self-esteem. As any scientist might expect, those researchers who used multiple methods, both qualitative and quantitative, had the most valid results and convincing arguments.

One of the best examples of this triangulation of methods is Chapter 5, "Social Setting, Birth Timing, and Subsequent Fertility in the Ghanaian South." This study compares data on 1200 women from three different communities (rural, urban, and urban elite) in three different age cohorts (born in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s). Both structured and open-ended interview data were complemented with background community information gleaned from a variety of sources. Along with the comparative power that comes with a large sample size, actual quotes confirm the survey findings and give the reader the feeling of the study population as actual people making decisions shaped by a particular context. …

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