Social Control and the Intergenerational Transmission of Age at Marriage in Rural Holland, 1850-1940

By Van Bavel, Jan; Kok, Jan | Population, April-June 2009 | Go to article overview

Social Control and the Intergenerational Transmission of Age at Marriage in Rural Holland, 1850-1940


Van Bavel, Jan, Kok, Jan, Population


(ProQuest: ... denotes formula omitted.)

Woman's age at marriage has played a key role in the restrictive reproductive regime of Western Europe since early modern times (Hajnal, 1965; Seccombe, 1992). Jointly with the fluctuations in the proportion marrying, age at marriage represented a "nuptiality valve" that strongly influenced the birth rate. Entry into parenthood was closely related to the age at entry into marriage. In most cases, an advanced age at marriage for a woman meant an advanced age at first birth, which also implied a lower final family size, on average. This classic, Malthusian role of a high age at marriage became less salient when men and women started to marry earlier (Hajnal, 1965; Watkins, 1986) and to restrict fertility within marriage. This is what occurred in most nations and provinces of Western Europe from the late nineteenth century onwards, with France as a well-known pioneer preceding the rest of the continent (Chesnais, 1986).

Hence, historical patterns in age at marriage are highly significant for studying the evolution of fertility. To date, not many studies have addressed the role of the intergenerational transmission of age at first marriage in the shift of the nuptiality regime. This paper focuses on the intergenerational transmission of age at marriage from mothers to daughters in rural Holland before and during the early stages of the fertility transition. To what extent was age at marriage transmitted from mother to daughter? Did daughters whose mother married at a relatively advanced age tend, in turn, to marry relatively late themselves? And did daughters of relatively early-marrying mothers tend likewise to marry relatively(1) early? To what extent do daughters of the same mother share a similar age at marriage? Can this be explained in part by family characteristics like the occupational status of the family's father and the religion of both parents? And, finally, are there any differences between social groups with respect to the extent of intergenerational transmission of age at marriage?

I. Earlier research and new hypotheses

How did people in the past decide about the "proper" age to marry? To what extent were the normative ideas and the decision-making process regarding marriage "learned" (more or less subconsciously) from the parents and to what extent where they subject to group pressures? Can we expect to find a historical trend towards more individual freedom of choice, and thus a lesser impact of parental and group norms? Indeed, from the perspective of common individualization theory in sociology, one could argue that parents in more individualized societies would be less inclined to control their children's lives, or would be less successful in doing so. In individualized societies, parents are expected to encourage their children to go their own way instead of forcing them to follow their parents' lead (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 1996; Shanahan, 2000).

From this perspective, one would expect intergenerational similarities in demographic behaviour to become weaker in conditions with more open societal conditions. This was indeed the hypothesis formulated and tested by Van Poppel, Monden, and Mandemakers (2008). However, the time trend actually ran in the opposite direction: intergenerational transmission effects of age at marriage grew stronger over time in nineteenth-century Netherlands, not weaker. The authors surmise that intergenerational transmission through primary socialization appeared to become more important when social control mechanisms weakened. Their findings are in line with other recent research on transmission effects in demographic behaviour, suggesting that the extent of intergenerational transmission has actually strengthened over time since the nineteenth century (Kohler et al., 1999; Murphy and Wang, 2001; Kohler and Rodgers, 2003; Steenhof and Liefbroer, 2008). How is this possible?

The theoretical argument is that in societies and social circles that are strongly regulated by sanctioned social control mechanisms, people tend to behave as required by their social position. …

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