Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Comment of Coding Marital Status in Latin America

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Comment of Coding Marital Status in Latin America

Article excerpt


Marital-specific information is often valuable in cross-societal investigation. In demography for instance, a common value often considered superior to the age-specific fertility rate is the age-marital-specific fertility rate based on the presumption that fertility is limited to people in a union who are at risk of having a child. The United Nations, in discussing social and demographic characteristics tabulated by censuses (1992:6), devotes its second chapter (after discussing age and sex data) to marital status noting,

"Marital status is another fundamental classification of the population that, like sex and age, has been obtained in the censuses of all countries. The uses of data on this subject are too diverse to permit a full description here, . .

Likewise, cross-societal comparisons of family or household structure have often found it useful to consider the age-specific headship rate also according to the head's marital status (see e.g. Burch, Halli, Madan, Thomas and Wai, 1987). In effect, there are many ways in which maritally specific measures enhance comparison, including factors like labor force participation and school attendance in the late adolescent and young adult age groups (Shyrock and Siegel, 1973).

This work comments on trying to make sense of marital status in Latin America in the hope that we might be in a better position to understand marital-specific measures. Understanding marital status there is very confusing because a European-like notion of monogamy is the norm and Catholic marriage is common, tempting one to apply other traditional European notions of marriage also. But this is incorrect. A distinctive quality of most Latin American countries is that their censuses and surveys often recognize marital unions commonly referred to as consensual unions, in addition to more formalized "marriages". While distinction is a step in the right direction, it is still difficult for a comparative researcher to consider marital-specific factors (like age at first marriage). And even one extra category for consensual union may at once be too encompassing and too narrow to provide sociologically-relevant information. Some "consensual" unions may be no less than customary (by custom but not civil) or common-law (stable but not civil) marriages while others may only be trial marriages. (There is no provision in the law for relationships to become legalized, as in England or the United States, "common-law marriage" being an English concept.) There are informal "visiting" unions (stable liaisons) that produce children but tend not to be recognized because the parents do not live together. Finally, there is `cohabitation ' in which a couple lives together but does not produce any children.


Usual census categories for marital status are single, married, widowed, separated or divorced (U.N., 1992). Probably noncoincidentally, this was applicable to the West historically. But the scheme is not applicable to Latin American countries. Many have tried, but consider the situation of the Dominican Republic. The 1970 census recorded 62 percent of people 15 and above as "single." A further probe disclosed many of these "single" people, about a third of them, to be in a consensual union (from in-house investigation). Regarding Brazil, Greene (1991:36) writes

Consensual unions were partially identified in the 1940 census, were not recognized in the 1950 census, and were acknowledged after 1960. Women in consensual unions were treated as single in 1940 and 1950, and as married in 1960 and 1970, appearing in the "other" married category. The definition of "single" in the 1970 census specified that they not be in a 'stable consensual union', making the "single" category much more meaningful than it had been before.

The United Nations too has come to embrace the advisability of adding a "consensual" union category (1992:7)

In some countries it will be necessary to take into account customary unions, which are legal and binding under customary law, and extralegal unions, often known as de facto or consensual unions. …

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