Population Research and Policy Review

, Volume 33, Issue 5, pp 693–716 | Cite as

Developmental Idealism and Cultural Models of the Family in Malawi

  • Arland ThorntonEmail author
  • Rachael S. Pierotti
  • Linda Young-DeMarco
  • Susan Watkins


This paper examines the extent to which developmental idealism has been disseminated in Malawi. Developmental idealism is a set of beliefs and values about development and the relationships between development and family structures and behavior. Developmental idealism states that attributes of societies and families defined as modern are better than attributes defined as traditional, that modern societies help produce modern families, that modern families facilitate the achievement of modern societies, and that the future will bring family change in the direction of modernity. Previous research has demonstrated that knowledge of developmental idealism is widespread in many places around the world, but provides little systematic data about it in sub-Saharan Africa or how knowledge of it is associated with certain demographic characteristics in that region. In this paper, we address this issue by examining whether ordinary people in two settings in Malawi, a sub-Saharan African country, have received and understood messages that are intended to associate development with certain types of family forms and family behaviors. We then examine associations between demographic characteristics and developmental idealism to investigate possible mechanisms linking global discourse about development to the grassroots. We analyze data collected in face-to-face surveys from two samples of Malawian men in 2009 and 2010, one rural, the other in a low-to-medium income neighborhood of a city. Our analysis of these survey data shows considerable evidence that many developmental idealism beliefs have been spread in that country and that education has positive effects on beliefs in the association between development and family attributes. We also find higher levels of developmental idealism awareness in the urban sample than we do in the rural sample, but once dissimilarities in education and wealth between the two samples are controlled, awareness levels no longer differed between urban and rural respondents. We explore how these beliefs intersect with longstanding local values and beliefs in Malawi.


Developmental idealism Globalization Africa Family Gender Fertility 



We are particularly grateful to Rebecca Thornton and Susan Godlonton for including our developmental idealism questions in their surveys, making the data available to us, and providing guidance on its use. We also appreciate the research support provided by the University of Michigan Population Studies Center, from an NICHD analysis grant, (R37-HD039425), and from an NICHD center grant to the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan (R24 HD041028). One of the authors was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship [Grant No. DGE 0718128]. Judy Baughn and Tina Wells contributed to this paper by their excellent work in the preparation of the manuscript.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Arland Thornton
    • 1
    Email author
  • Rachael S. Pierotti
    • 1
  • Linda Young-DeMarco
    • 1
  • Susan Watkins
    • 2
  1. 1.Institute for Social ResearchUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA
  2. 2.California Population CenterUniversity of California, Los AngelesLos AngelesUSA

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