Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Chinese Lunar Birth Timing in Singapore: New Concerns for Child Quality Amidst Multicultural Modernity

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Chinese Lunar Birth Timing in Singapore: New Concerns for Child Quality Amidst Multicultural Modernity

Article excerpt

In line with traditional folk beliefs, many Chinese societies throughout the world (with the exception of China itself) began in the 1970s and 1980s to exhibit birth fluctuations during significant lunar zodiac years-baby booms during the auspicious Year of the Dragon and baby busts during the inauspicious (for daughters) Year of the Tiger. This article explores these two inverse natural experiments in multiethnic Singapore. Lunar birth timing has been manifested more strongly as family sizes have declined, a reversal of modernization theory, yet consistent with enhanced concerns for child quality. The social, assimilative, and gender-related dynamics of these preferences are illustrated through an analysis of the seasonality and birth order distribution of lunar birth fluctuations as well as birth patterns among intermarried Chinese mothers and fathers. The article details how lunar birth fluctuations have been influenced by and have influenced official policies instituted by Singapore's shrinking Chinese majority. None of the assimilative social forces discussed here can be expected to weaken lunar birth timing in the future, although government intervention may inhibit its reoccurrence.

The notion that parents trade quantity for quality of children over the course of industrial development has been addressed in a variety of research on the family (e.g., Caldwell, 1982; Giddens, 1992; Goode, 1963, Hirschman, 1994; Thornton & Lin, 1994). However, the dynamics of this tradeoff have inspired controversy among disciplinary specialists over the years. Becker's (1960) initial economic formulation held that parent's childbearing decisions in more developed societies are akin to purchases of cars, refrigerators, and other consumer durables. From this perspective, rising incomes should lead to increasing desires for both number and quality of children. Blake's (1968) celebrated critique of that model focused on the issue of norms of child quality. Children are unlike other consumer durables because sociocultural norms require more affluent parents to maintain higher standards of upbringing and schooling, which results in their reducing the size of the family, not increasing it. Becker's reformulation (1981) then offered the more nuanced idea that the value of parent's time (and attendant concerns for child quantity and quality) is the key commodity addressable within the framework of consumer choice.

Such debates continue today, not only between proponents of self-professedly economic or cultural approaches to childbearing decisions, but also among adherents within each separate approach, and even among integrationists, for whom this polarization neglects commonalities between both approaches (Pollak & Watkins, 1993). For instance, few would disagree about the centrality of two issues in this research: child quality and the value of parent's time. Nevertheless, although economic approaches to these components of childbearing decisions seem fairly straightforward (if potentially limited), just what a cultural approach represents is not entirely clear. Critics of the validity of cultural approaches have at least three reasons for skepticism, which are outlined below.

First, there is the question of reductionism. Rational choice approaches imply that culture and ethnicity are residual influences that are relevant only after other socioeconomic characteristics are considered. For example, if ethnic group A has higher fertility than ethnic group B, we should not assume that the discrepancy between them stems from a greater prevalence of pronatal values among the members of group A. Rather, they may simply be responding rationally to their socioeconomic circumstances (e.g., Lee & Lee, 1959). Of course, the standard rebuttal to reductionist approaches is that culture and ethnicity may be related to socioeconomic circumstances in subtle and inextricable ways (e.g., Handwerker, 1986). Indeed, to those for whom the notion of culture is all-encompassing, multivariate attempts to distill a residual impact of culture seem conceptually flawed. …

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