Anthropological Demography in Europe: Methodological Lessons from a Comparative Ethnographic Study in Athens and London

Article excerpt


This paper offers a descriptive account of the methods used to conduct a comparative ethnographic study of below-replacement fertility in Athens, Greece and London, UK. It argues that in order for anthropology and demography to forge a closer relationship each discipline first needs to gain a deeper appreciation of the other's methodological perspectives. The following discussion presents the key anthropological approaches employed to realize a research project on low fertility in Europe, and provides justification for their use. While the practices described in this paper might be familiar to anthropologists and qualitative demographers, they are less well-known in the wider demographic community. Those convinced of the benefits of the ethnographic approach to the study of fertility are also invited to consider the specific obstacles encountered in the course of this enquiry. This paper reaches the following methodological conclusions: 1) Findings from two ethnographic studies of low fertility can be compared and generalised if such concepts as 'comparison' and 'generalisation' are understood in the anthropological sense. 2) Those investigating fertility in Europe must remain critical of their position relative to their study participants, even if they are undertaking research 'at home'. 3) Exploring attitudes towards reproduction and experiences of family-formation in an urban setting presents unique challenges as does 4) asking women about their childbearing beliefs and practices. 5) Analysing press perspectives on low fertility must involve treating media representations as 'discourse' and 6) qualitative studies are invaluable to the low fertility debate because of their thematic contributions.

1. Introduction

A comparative ethnographic study of low fertility embarked on in two different urban European settings leads to a distinct set of methodological challenges. This paper reveals and discusses the issues encountered on such a study conducted during twenty months of fieldwork in Athens and London. Between January 2003 and August 2004 I listened to British and Athenian middle-class white women's views about reproduction, and recorded their experiences of family-formation. I begin this paper by suggesting why and how the exploration of individual approaches to childbearing and people's personal opinions about building a family can make a valuable contribution towards understanding a phenomenon that is both pan-European and highly diverse: belowreplacement fertility. I also explain the purpose of focusing on two locations instead of one and offer a justification for entitling this effort a comparative ethnographic study. I then proceed to describe the means, or methods, used to realise this endeavour. Finally, I present the process employed to analyse my findings. Throughout the article I include, where appropriate, a selection of the research results in order to demonstrate the reasons for and effectiveness of the methods I employed to reach certain conclusions.

2. A tale of two cities

The comparative method, routinely applied to determine idiosyncrasies both between and within populations, is central to the discipline of demography. For a demographer, however, a comparative ethnographic study is likely to be viewed with suspicion given that the participants from each research site are too few to be representative, despite their similarities in age, gender, education and professional background. The demographer would wonder what lessons such a small sample can tell us about childbearing elsewhere in Greece and the UK, and how that casts list on the differences between the two countries' fertility profiles. However, an anthropologist might also have difficulties recognising the value of a comparative ethnographic study but for different reasons. Not only does research of this kind risk de-contextualising human behaviour in search of units of comparison and underlying structures or principles of conduct, but also it is dangerous to make general statements based on the findings of one or two in-depth but small-scale investigations. …


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