Cross-National Variations in Divorce: Effects of Women's Power, Prestige and Dependence*

Article excerpt

Despite the widespread interest in the causes and consequences of divorce, relatively few studies have examined marital disruption across societies. This lack of research is especially surprising given the fact that many of the factors studied intensively at the individual level--women's labor force participation, religious affiliation, age at marriage--could also be profitably studied when the unit of analysis is a society or nation. While on the one hand we have to be concerned when examining macro-level phenomena that we do not become guilty of the ecological fallacy, we must take advantage of all opportunities to examine the variation in social events cross-culturally. The extent to which there is similarity and difference in the rate of divorce based upon other social factors (such as the demographic composition and the cartography of the economy) has not been examined since large-scale changes occurred in the former Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe. We cannot assume that previously noted relationships at the societal level (Clark 1990; Fu 1992; Trent and South 1989) are the same after such significant change has occurred globally.

The primary purpose of this research is to analyze divorce rate data provided by a recent (1995-1998) sample of 71 nations worldwide and to focus on the effects of women's power and prestige and women's economic dependence on national divorce rates. We also hope to inform the literature by examining several other questions, including the effects of religion, development, and laws regarding divorce on national divorce rates.

Specifically, we are building upon previous cross-national analyses of the determinants of a country's divorce rate (Clark 1990; Fu 1992; Trent and South 1989) by first replicating the previous studies with more recent data. We also expand upon previous findings by adding a measure of the relative ease of obtaining a divorce within a country and control for other demographic and nation-state characteristics.


Several writers (Hendrix and Pearson 1995; Pearson and Hendrix 1979; Seccombe and Lee 1987) have examined the effects of women's power, status and economic dependence using qualitative cross-cultural data. While these studies have examined these issues in the context of nonindustrialized societies, the conceptual issues raised in them have direct relevance to research on contemporary societies.

Examining a sample of 48 societies drawn from the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample (SCCS; Murdock and White 1969), Pearson and Hendrix (1979) concluded that "female status is an important cause of divorce in tribal societies" (p. 383) although their operationalization of "female status" combines elements both of women's status or prestige with some aspects of autonomy or dependence.

Seccombe and Lee (1987) argue that it is wives' independence or autonomy from husbands--not women's status per se--that is the key factor affecting divorce. Indeed, they find that a number of indicators of wives' independence from husbands are associated with increased levels of divorce.

Hendrix and Pearson (1995) return to the autonomy issue, finding that two indicators are related to frequency of divorce in their analysis of 85 nonindustrialized societies. The transfer of wealth or property at the time of marriage is negatively related to divorce frequency (that is, divorce is more likely in cultures that do not institutionalize a "bride price"), and cultures that have relatively high levels of father-infant interaction tend to have lower frequencies of divorce. Interestingly, neither their measure of female power nor the proportion of the food supply produced by women (which can be thought of as a crude indicator of female labor force participation) were associated with divorce frequency at the bivariate level. More relevant to the current research on industrialized societies, female power (as indicated by a six-item scale of women's achieved economic and political power and authority) was found to be associated with divorce frequency in the more technologically-advanced societies in the SCCS (but not in the less-technologically-advanced societies). …


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