Academic journal article Population

Comparison of Retrospective Fertility Data from Censuses in Belgium and Family Surveys in France

Academic journal article Population

Comparison of Retrospective Fertility Data from Censuses in Belgium and Family Surveys in France

Article excerpt

This article examines whether individual retrospective data from population censuses in Belgium and Family surveys in France can usefully be employed to study the fertility of cohorts of women born between the turn of the twentieth century and the early 1960s. This research was prompted by the lack of knowledge about fertility behaviour in the first half of the twentieth century, especially in Belgium. There are two main explanations for this knowledge gap. First, use of individual administrative data that are less than 100 years old is prohibited in Belgium(1) and in France. Second, the aggregate data available for census years offer limited opportunities for detailed studies of fertility behaviour.

The solution we propose is to use individual data from recent surveys and censuses, specifically the questions that women are usually asked about their fertility.(2) This approach, which makes it possible to reconstitute the reproductive lives of the cohorts of women covered by a survey or a census, is potentially promising for researchers. Aside from the diachronic dimension, which involves studying changes in fertility over time, the approach can be used to calculate detailed, diversified indicators - including completed fertility, birth intervals, mean age at the birth of each child, completed parity, and age-specific fertility - which for older cohorts can usually only be obtained through methods of family reconstitution on a very small scale (villages or small towns). Fertility parameters can also be examined alongside other variables extracted from censuses and surveys, such as marital status, educational level or place of birth. This approach also allows the spatial dimension of fertility to be taken into account: at the regional level in France, and at arrondissement and even municipal levels in Belgium.

However, the use of retrospective data raises problems linked to the respondents' memory or the non-response rate, and may also be hampered by selection effects, since we cannot include the behaviour of women lost to observation because of death or emigration. The survey results also depend on the sampling method and any weighting variables applied by the survey administrators. The aim here is to assess the impact of these biases and to test the validity of using these retrospective data for longitudinal studies of fertility. While a small number of studies have already performed this type of exercise (Andersson and Sobolev, 2013; Neels, 2006; Van Bavel, 2014), our research makes three additional contributions: first, we verify the consistency of the data for older cohorts born at the beginning of the twentieth century, and examine how biases may have evolved over the cohorts; second, we consider two countries, Belgium and France, and two different data sources - censuses and surveys, respectively - which may raise different problems; and third, we measure the biases when indicators are calculated on the scale of the regions in France, and the arrondissements and municipalities in Belgium.

The first section, consisting of a literature review, is followed by a second section that presents the tests used to validate the data at national level for both countries. The third section concerns the validation of these retrospective data for analyses at more detailed geographical levels.

I. State of the art

In the case of Belgium, there are no studies of twentieth-century fertility based on individual civil registration data, owing mainly to the 100-year confidentiality period that applies to personal data. Lesthaeghe (1977) and most other studies of fertility in the twentieth century are therefore based on cross-sectional data and concern inter-censal periods (Damas et al., 1988; Masuy-Stroobant, 1976, 1977). Other studies draw on fertility surveys conducted in 1966, 1971, 1976, 1983 and 1991.(3) Although these surveys allow for a detailed analysis of fertility behaviour, the results have little temporal depth and their spatial representativeness is limited to the country's three regions. …

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