, Volume 49, Issue 2, pp 677–698 | Cite as

International Fertility Change: New Data and Insights From the Developmental Idealism Framework

  • Arland ThorntonEmail author
  • Georgina Binstock
  • Kathryn M. Yount
  • Mohammad Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi
  • Dirgha Ghimire
  • Yu Xie


Many scholars have offered structural and ideational explanations for the fertility changes occurring around the world. This paper focuses on the influence of developmental idealism—a schema or set of beliefs endorsing development, fertility change, and causal connections between development and fertility. Developmental idealism is argued to be an important force affecting both population policy and the fertility behavior of ordinary people. We present new survey data from ordinary people in six countries—Argentina, China, Egypt, Iran, Nepal, and the United States—about the extent to which developmental idealism is known and believed. We ask individuals if they believe that fertility and development are correlated, that development is a causal force in changing fertility levels, and that fertility declines enhance the standard of living and intergenerational relations. We also ask people about their expectations concerning future trends in fertility in their countries and whether they approve or disapprove of the trends they expect. The data show widespread linkage in the minds of ordinary people between fertility and development. Large fractions of people in these six settings believe that fertility and development are correlated, that development reduces fertility, and that declines in fertility foster development. Many also expect and endorse future declines in fertility.


Fertility Development Developmental idealism Globalization Social change 



This work was supported by grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (R37-HD-039425, R21-HD-050-259), the Michigan Center for the Demography of Aging, The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation through the Emory University Center for Myth and Ritual in American Family Life, the Population Studies Center of the University of Michigan, and the Survey Methodology Program of the University of Michigan. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the “Special Interdisciplinary Workshop on Fertility Declines in the Past, Present and Future: What We Don’t Know and What We Need to Know,” sponsored by the British Society for Population Studies and Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, Cambridge, England, July 2009. The paper was also presented at the annual meetings of the Population Association of America, Dallas, Texas, April 2010; a seminar at the Demographic Research Institute, Budapest, Hungary, August 2010; the meetings of the European Association of Population Studies, Vienna, Austria, September 2010; and the meetings of the Asian Population Association, Delhi, India, November 2010. We appreciate the comments of the discussants and participants at these presentations, as well as those from members of the Developmental Idealism Studies Group at various stages of this work. We also appreciate the input of the journal reviewers. We thank Abbas Askari Nodoushan and Bao Xiaoxia for their input into the data collection; Claudia Stilman for her work in the analysis of the data and in the preparation of the tables; and Judy Baughn, Jana Bruce, and Amanda Schuetz for administrative support and preparation of the manuscript. We also appreciate the contributions by the interviewers and respondents in the surveys that provide the data we report. Errors of omission and commission rest with the authors.

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Copyright information

© Population Association of America 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Arland Thornton
    • 1
    Email author
  • Georgina Binstock
    • 2
  • Kathryn M. Yount
    • 3
  • Mohammad Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi
    • 4
  • Dirgha Ghimire
    • 5
  • Yu Xie
    • 6
  1. 1.Population Studies Center, Survey Research Center, and Department of SociologyUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA
  2. 2.Centro de Estudios de Población, CENEP and Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas, CONICETBuenos AiresArgentina
  3. 3.Hubert Department of Global Health and Department of SociologyEmory UniversityAtlantaUSA
  4. 4.Australian Demographic and Social Research Institute, Australian National University, & Department of Demography, Faculty of Social SciencesUniversity of TehranTehranIran
  5. 5.Population Studies CenterUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA
  6. 6.Institute for Social ResearchUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA

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