The New Role of Women: Family Formation in Modern Societies.

The New Role of Women: Family Formation in Modern Societies. – book reviews

John Modell

Social historians will generally find this contribution to comparative sociology and demography too demanding of quantitative acumen and too limited in analytic scope. Those who dare it and persist, however, will find in it both ideas and historical information that they will value. The methods are, so far as I am qualified to say, excellently attuned to the effort in the volume to treat an over-time pattern that is generally presumed to be uniform so precisely that the theoretical import of national differences may be explored.

The volume is a contribution to an excellent series (“Social Inequality Series,” of which Marta Tienda and David B. Grusky are series editors) of data-rich sociological collections and monographs that aim determinedly at quantitative tests and specifications of theories of the middle level. Like Hans-Peter Blossfeld’s other contribution to the series,(1) The New Role of Women takes on a commonly-remarked aspect of recent social history by bringing together authors from a variety of economically advanced societies (here, seven in Western and Southern Europe, the United States, and Hungary) who have access to recent, representative national data sets that are more or less common in structure, and who have committed to addressing themselves to a common set of empirical and theoretical questions.

The common social trend to which the essays here are addressed is the restructuring of nuptiality: a delay and/or eschewal of marriage, a rise in non-marital unions, and a loosening of the normative and temporal connection of marriage and childbirth. Commonplace explanations rest on “the new role of women,” as indexed by increased formal education and more general employment in the paid labor market. The essays seek to employ both time series data from the national statistics systems of the societies in question, and longitudinal data on individuals available in large multiple-use retrospective samples. Their strategy is to create precisely defined, comparable time series across societies, and examine relatively informally the interconnection of the various aspects of “the new role of women” in each society; and then to use the longitudinal data to test more rigorously in each society a small set of hypotheses drawn, roughly, from Gary Becker’s economic theory of the family.

These latter, on the whole, argue a close convergence of national family-formation trends inasmuch as the rise of women’s education has brought about women’s consequent greater inclination to work gainfully rather than exclusively within the family at childbearing and -rearing, and offer predictions about the propensity of women (of different educational levels, and hence potential earnings), over their life-courses, to cohabit, marry, and give birth. The findings of the national surveys certainly suggest less uniformity than a straightforward application of the Becker-derived hypotheses would indicate. Society-to-society differences in norms regarding control of sexuality, and in economic situation and history, provide ad hoc explanations for the deviations from Becker. Sociology is vindicated as against economics, to this extent; and social historians will probably cheer this result.

The final two chapters (apart from a single chapter treating German men) are an effort by Annemette Sorensen to rescue the Becker hypothesis as applied in these chapters, and a rather fierce rebuttal by Valerie Kinkaide Oppenheimer. Historians will probably enjoy these, and would perhaps be advised to start their reading here, moving then to Blossfeld’s introduction. Oppenheimer’s chapter on the United States is, to my Americanist eyes, an exceptionally good one, both in terms of measurement and exposition, and in terms of the rather surprising findings she reports. I found the somewhat untypical stories available in the chapters on Italy, Spain, and Hungary among the more interesting for their untypicalness, despite relative deficiencies in data in the first two of these. The Swedish chapter, placed first because Swedish cohabitation trends (but not patterns) so clearly anticipated those elsewhere, is unfortunately also among those resting upon somewhat weaker data.

Unless your undergraduate students are quite different from mine, you will not wish to assign any part of this book to them. Graduate students working in comparative history or recent family history, or with a yen for work in social indicators, might find it useful. But on the whole, even conscientious social historians will define this as a good book for their library to shelve so that they might dip into it some happy day in the indefinite future.

John Modell Carnegie Mellon University


1. Persistent Inequality: Changing Educational Attainment in Thirteen Countries, ed. by Yossi Shavit and Hans-Peter Blossfeld (Boulder, 1993). The book examines the widespread increase in formal educational attainment, asking whether and why its distribution within national populations has become more egalitarian.

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