How Social Norms and Customs Influence the Family Size?



In every society, there are some norms and customs relating to the intermediate variables as well as family size. Several sexual practices and marriage customs in India may be cited as examples in this connection.

Many of these practices and customs are so thoroughly rooted in social values and norms that they are generally not even perceived rationally, but are followed blindly. Till recently, the custom in India was that the Hindu girl should be married off before she entered her puberty.

In order to ensure a strict observance of this custom, it was invested with a religious sanction. It was believed that if a Hindu girl attained puberty before marriage, her father would be deemed to have been responsible for foetal murder every month, when the girl went into her menstrual period.

Similarly, marriage had to be universal for Hindu women, because though men went through several sacraments throughout their lives, marriage was the only sacrament which women were allowed.

Again, because Hindu marriage was considered to be a religious sacrament, the bond was looked upon as an unbreakable one for women, so much so that even widows were expected to be faithful to their dead husbands. Widow re-marriages were, therefore, not favoured, and divorces were unheard of.

Social norms in India have always favoured high fertility, which was necessary for the continuation of the family line in the face of high mortality. High fertility was also essential because strength lay in numbers, and the security of the family was assured when it was a large one.

High fertility values have become a part of religious injunctions, for religion is a great binding force. When a Hindu girl is married, the blessing given to her is: "May you have eight sons."

It is interesting to note that all the religious of the world, except Buddhism, contain injunctions to their followers to breed and multiply. It is, therefore, not surprising that belief in, and attitudes towards, high fertility have been strongly supported by religious and social institutions, leading to appropriate norms about family size.

Norms about family size have been studied in a great number of KAP Surveys (surveys of Knowledge, Attitude and Practice concerning Family Planning) in different types of cultural settings with differing economic conditions.

In the course of many Indian studies on the topic, questions have been asked on the number of children considered ideal by the respondent himself/herself, or thought to be ideal by him/her for society, or his/her perception of what he/she thought was the ideal in the eyes of the community to which he/she belonged.

In India, the ideal number of children has been, on an average, four with two sons to ensure the continuance of the family line and the performance of the last rites of the parents with a view to bringing about liberation of their souls. (The meaning of the Sanskrit word putra (son) is one who saves his ancestors from hell.)

The sons are also required to take care of their parents in their old age. They are, therefore, a sort of social security measure. Not all respondents, however, visualise ideal number of children; and, therefore, responses such as "Children are God's gifts", "No ideal number can be stated," "As many as possible" are also obtained in such surveys.

It is interesting to note that these norms about intermediate variables are determined by social and economic conditions.

For example, in a particular society, if there is widespread literacy among women and their educational attainment is also very high the norms about these intermediate variables are quite different from those which obtain when a high proportion of the women are illiterate and their educational attainment is low.

In a society in which women are educated, child marriages are rare. Women develop a rational and secular attitude towards child-bearing and have planned families.

Some would choose a career as an alternative to marriage and child-bearing; some effectively combine both.

On the other hand, in a society in which women are illiterate, child marriages are common, women have no other roles to play than those of wives and mothers; only these two biological functions are open to them as avenues of self-expression and self-development. No wonder that, in such a society, the intermediate variables are favourable to high fertility.

At this juncture, it may be mentioned that, even in societies which generally favour high fertility, social norms, customs and practices do not necessarily or always support high fertility. Some of them actually have a restrictive effect on fertility.

For example, in India, if a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law are pregnant at the same time, the mother-in-law is looked down upon, and even becomes a laughing stock. Such a social constraint certainly affects the number of children born.

Within the limits established by physiological factors, a multiplicity of social, psychological, economic and cultural factors operate, and all these affect fertility.

Any one of these factors, however, affects fertility through, and only through, intermediate variables, about which there are societal norms relating to family size, which are in turn affected by the socio-economic conditions of the population.

A sociological analysis of fertility levels is presented in Fig. 8.2, in which the Family Planning Programme is included in the box representing the economic and social structure.

The provision of family planning services, through State-sponsored or supported programmes, is a fairly recent phenomenon.

In developed countries, a widespread acceptance of birth control methods as a means of achieving small families on a personal and familial level followed in the wake of economic and social forces generating higher aspirations and expectations.

On the other hand, in developing countries, family planning programmes are being launched by the State, with the purely demographic objective of achieving socio­economic development.

According to a survey conducted by the Population Council, New York, 45 by the end of 1979, 35 developing countries had adopted anti-nationalist policies. Each of them has now an official policy to reduce the population growth rate or the birth rate.

Seventy-seven per cent of the population in the developing world lives in these 35 developing countries, which include such "population giants" as China and India. An additional 31 countries support family planning programmes on non-demographic grounds, such as reasons of health and as a human right.

The anti-nationalist effects of such programmes are, therefore, a by-product rather than an objective of such programmes. These 31 countries are inhabited by 14 percent of the population of the developing world.

For one country, that is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the Government position on this issue was not known at the time of the survey and the population of this country constituted one per cent of the population of the developing world.

Thus, only 8 per cent of the population of the developing world was found not to be covered by either a direct antinatalist policy or by family planning programmes with other than demographic objectives.

Only in a few countries in the developing world, like Malawi in North Africa, Saudi Arabia in West Asia and Burma in East Asia, governments were found to actively enforce laws designed to restrict, in some way or the other, the production or import or distribution of contraceptives.

The extent to which national governments are getting involved in family planning programmes is indicative of the role which, apart from the part played by other intermediate variables, such programmes are playing and are likely to play in the future in influencing fertility.