From Latent Surplus to Changing Norms: Fertility Behavior of the Israeli Bedouin along the Nomadism-Sedentarism Continuum

By Meir, Avinoam; Ben-David, Yosef | Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Autumn 1995 | Go to article overview

From Latent Surplus to Changing Norms: Fertility Behavior of the Israeli Bedouin along the Nomadism-Sedentarism Continuum


Meir, Avinoam, Ben-David, Yosef, Journal of Comparative Family Studies


1960's when already deeply involved in the regional economy and labor market. Their standard of living and level of education are considerably higher than the other groups. Both group E and F live in brick houses in towns. Several indicators of actual and desired fertility behavior patterns were analyzed for each of the six groups. Space limitations make it impossible to present numerically each indicator.' Instead, Table I presents, in verbal terms, the summary trends of household fertility indicators at the group level from early to late phases along the continuum.

The trends are not uniform nor are they entirely consistent. One would expect that improved nutrition and exposure to public health services would result in growing fertility at the early stages of development, as environmentally-suppressed fertility disappears. This process is indeed taking place among the real Bedouin, where the number of live-births actually increases before beginning, for other reasons, to decline along the continuum.

The only difference between the social groups is that the desired family size of the fellaheen Bedouin under the economic constraint declines from a much higher level. Eventually, however, both reach a fairly similar level of desired family size at the edge of the continuum. One can thus see a similar transformation of fertility norms along the continuum in both social groups and under similar circumstances: from a uniformly large family desired under no constraint (16-17 children) to a uniformly far smaller family (about eight children) desired under the economic constraint of reduced economic value of children.

An interesting insight is gained when the relationship between actual and economically-constrained desired family size is analyzed. First, the desired family size is lower than the actual family size. Second, and at least partially, there seems to be an inverse relationship between both indicators: an increase in actual family size is paralleled by a decline in desired family size; also among the real Bedouin, a decline in actual family size is paralleled by stabilization in desired family size. This pattern, although only partial, may possibly suggest the emergence of a surplus of children. This may be particularly relevant for the fellaheen Bedouin: through better education and more intensive exposure to Western culture they have now begun to realize the consequences of the conflict between high fertility and the presently declining economic value of children. The declining economic value of children thus runs counter to the desire to simultaneously maintain a large family and to sustain an improved personal standard of living.

This explanation contains two assumptions: (1) that Bedouin society has indeed improved its standard of living; and (2) such improvement, together with exposure to "Westernization", has begun to facilitate the adoption of modern values. These values may affect the quality of life more significantly than traditional ones. In order to substantiate these assumptions, household heads were asked first to rank their perceived standard of living relative to Bedouin society (on a 1-5 scale), and then to indicate in order of importance five factors that would, in their opinion, grant them a reasonable quality of life. The findings from replies to the second question were then qualitatively analyzed and classified into two categories: (1) traditional pastoral needs (food, water, a traditional pastoral tent, freedom of location and access to grazing territory, governmental restraint from intervention in their pastoral affairs, social acceptance and honor within Bedouin circles, and peaceful intra- and inter-tribal or extended family relationships); and (2) modem needs (qualities related to a modern materialistic standard of living, such as modern professions and education, high income, home and car ownership, and ownership of electric appliances).

developed to the less developed phases along the continuum of each group, it is possible to infer that the influence of rising standards of living upon the desired number of children tends to become negative. …

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