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Demography. Author manuscript; available in PMC May 1, 2013.
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PMCID: PMC3328099

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


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 fertility declines foster development. Many also expect and endorse future declines in fertility.


This paper is motivated by the substantial changes in fertility occurring throughout the world. A range of explanations--including material, institutional, and ideational--have been offered for these changes. This paper focuses on one ideational explanation that is understudied but especially important for understanding fertility change in much of the world. This explanation focuses on developmental idealism, which Thornton (2001, 2005) has identified as emerging from the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. Thornton has argued that developmental idealism, with its emphasis on development and the interrelationships of development with family behavior, has strongly influenced public policy, as well as the beliefs and behaviors of ordinary people concerning fertility and fertility control.

Our purpose is to present new data about the extent to which the ideas of developmental idealism as they relate to fertility are known and accepted around the world. We ask whether these ideas are widespread in parts of Argentina, China, Egypt, Iran, Nepal, and the United States, six widely diverse countries. We ask individuals in these settings if they believe that there is a correlation between fertility and development, that development is a causal force in changing fertility, and that fertility declines enhance the standard of living and quality of intergenerational relations. We also ask about people’s expectations concerning future trends in fertility and whether they approve of the trends they expect. Finally, we ask the extent to which individuals in these countries prefer having one child or three children. We address these questions using new survey data.

Our description of the ideas that individuals have concerning development and childbearing is important because the presence or absence and endorsement or rejection of such ideas have important consequences for fertility-related behavior. However, investigation of the actual influence of these ideas on behavior is beyond the scope of this paper. Instead, we provide evidence of the extent to which individuals in diverse places know these ideas, indicating the availability of such ideas for influencing fertility behavior. We also discuss how knowing and endorsing these ideas may have influenced prior trends in fertility and may influence fertility into the future.


Ideational factors, including worldviews, belief systems, cultural models, scripts, and schemas, which we treat as similar and overlapping concepts, are important influences on human behavior. Geertz (1973) has explained that cultural models provide people with at least two basic tools (also see Fricke 1997; D’Andrade 1984). The first is frameworks to understand and interpret the world. These frameworks tell individuals how the world works and what causes what. The second is guidance on how to deal with the world. This element tells people what is good and to be sought after. It also specifies legitimate means to achieve those goals.

Johnson-Hanks and her colleagues (forthcoming) have synthesized much of the literature on belief systems and cultural models in terms of schema, an umbrella term for social scripts and mental maps. These researchers have applied the schema concept to family variation and change. In this framework, schemas provide categories to conceptualize the world, procedures for how to behave and reach goals, and evaluations of what is desirable. Such schemas exist both in the heads of individuals and in the shared representations of the public. Different schemas can be mutually reinforcing or conflicting, with all of these schemas available and utilized within the same group, society, and individual. Schemas also vary in the extent to which they are believed, invoked, and influential in guiding decisions. Schemas also can change across the life courses of individuals and across historical time. Together with social and economic structures and material conditions, schemas constrain and guide decisions.

Developmental idealism is a cultural model or schema that provides an ideational model for understanding and dealing with the world. It provides a categorization of the world and its elements, a subjective evaluation of those elements, and procedures for attaining what is defined as good. Most importantly, developmental idealism provides individuals and societies with schema about fertility, including the number, spacing, and control over childbearing.

Developmental idealism grows out of the developmental paradigm, a schema or model of social change, which has been influential in Western thinking since the Enlightenment. The developmental paradigm suggests that all societies progress through the same natural, universal, and necessary stages of development (Harris 1968; Mandelbaum 1971; Nisbet 1975/1969; Sanderson 1990). The speed of advancement was believed to vary so that, at any time, societies at different developmental levels could be observed. Western scholars classified the societies of northwest Europe and its diasporas as the most developed or modern, and they classified other societies at lower positions on this continuum. These scholars believed that they could use this cross-sectional information to describe the developmental trajectories of individual societies, proceeding from their least to most developed state (Gordon 1994; Harris 1968; Sanderson 1990; Thornton 2001, 2005). Although the ideas of developmental hierarchies and a universal history have come under serious criticism among scholars in recent decades (Mandelbaum 1971; Nisbet 1975/1969/1980; Szreter 1993; Tilly 1978, 1984), these ideas remain persuasive among many elements of the scholarly and public policy communities, as well as in the general public.

Scholars observed that social, economic, and family characteristics were differentially distributed between Western and non-Western countries. The attributes in the West became associated with development or modernity while the attributes elsewhere became associated with traditionality or the lack of development (Thornton 2005). Family solidarity, young and arranged marriage, extended households, and uncontrolled and high fertility were defined as traditional, and individualism, older self-choice marriage, nuclear households, and controlled and low fertility were defined as modern. Industrial and urban societies with high levels of education, wealth, and health were defined as modern, while agricultural and rural societies with low levels of these characteristics were defined as traditional. This model interpreted as causal the correlation between socioeconomic and family-demographic factors, concluding that modern socioeconomic systems helped to produce modern family-demographic systems and that modern family-demographic systems helped to produce modern socioeconomic systems.

The developmental paradigm, empirical observations, and causal interpretations of the relationships between family and socioeconomic structures provided the foundation for a cultural model or schema—labeled developmental idealism—that guides and motivates behavior. This schema identifies goals, a standard for evaluating human organizations, an explanatory framework identifying the causal influences between family and social and economic life, and statements about human rights. Developmental idealism indicates that modern societies and families, as described above, are good. It also indicates that modern family behavior, including controlled and low fertility, facilitates socioeconomic development and that development produces a modern family. Finally, developmental idealism indicates that people have the right to be free and equal and to decide their own fates without arbitrary constraints.

This schema of development also suggests a dynamic rather than a static world. Accordingly, change is described as being away from traditionality and toward modernity, such as from higher to lower fertility and increasingly more control over childbearing. This dynamic view of the world is important because people live their daily lives based, at least partially, on their expectations for the future.

The schema of developmental idealism meshes with the existence of a world culture documented in a large literature (for example, Barrett and Frank 1999; Meyer et al 1997; Thomas et al 1987). This literature shows that this world culture, with the attributes of modernity and the West, is being disseminated internationally and is helping to increase many things, including human rights, individualism, mass education, justice, and gender equality. As we discuss below, the schema of low and planned fertility has become part of this world culture of modernity1.

An essential element of the developmental idealism framework is that the people of the world have for centuries, even millennia, had their own indigenous schemas that defined the good life and how to achieve it. Although the specifics of these schemas often varied across societies, they generally identified uncontrolled and high fertility as good and as helpful for achieving the good life. Thus, developmental idealism and indigenous belief systems have been competing schemas within societies and individuals (e.g., Watkins 2000; Yount et al. 2010).

The merits of indigenous schemas and the schema of developmental idealism are not our focus in this paper. Specifically, we are not concerned with whether change is necessary or uniform, whether so-called developed societies and families actually are good, or whether controlled and low fertility actually facilitates the well-being of individuals, families, and societies. Instead, our concern is whether individuals are aware of the schema of developmental idealism, have it available to them for making decisions, and accept, reject, or modify it.


For hundreds of years, many elites and ordinary people considered population growth to be a good thing that brought well-being and national power. This perspective began to change during the Enlightenment, as writers such as Hume (1825/1742) and Malthus (1986/1803) wrote that population growth brought misery and catastrophe. This negative view of population growth gained additional adherents in subsequent decades (Carr-Saunders 1936; Ross 1927; Swindlehurst 1916; Thompson 1930). This perspective, however, remained a marginal position—and many even harshly opposed it--until the mid-20th century, when improvements in health outside the West lowered mortality and spurred rapid population growth. Many became concerned that these countries could not absorb the additional people without reductions in living standards and health and that population growth would restrict economic development.

This perspective led to the initiation of an international family planning movement that was powered by many motivations, but probably foremost by the belief that reduced fertility would lead to socioeconomic development and improvements in the quality of life (Barrett and Frank 1999; Donaldson 1990; Harkavy 1995; Hodgson 1983, 1988; Hodgson and Watkins 1997) This movement began small and often was met initially with resistance, but in a relatively short period of time became a powerful element of world culture (Barrett and Frank 1999; Meyer et al 1997). Numerous people in foundations, universities, and governments endorsed family planning programs. The United Nations and its agencies also adopted the policy that programs to control fertility would help to achieve socioeconomic development. The need to control fertility became a high priority in (often Western influenced) international policy circles (Critchlow 1999; Donaldson 1990; Keely 1994). Family planning programs were launched with zeal, spurring the creation of new contraceptives, the provision and distribution of supplies, and the training of personnel. By 1984, 93 % of the people in the so-called developing world lived in countries with policies to curb population growth (Johnson 1994; Nortman 1985).

One common approach of family planning programs has been to provide couples interested in limiting fertility the means to do so. Many programs also initiated efforts to increase desires for later ages at marriage, smaller families, and the use of contraceptives. Among the messages distributed were that lower fertility and development were interconnected, that reduced childbearing would facilitate development, and that the use of so-called modern contraception was desirable. Such programs included mass media campaigns and the grass-roots dissemination of messages encouraging low fertility (Mita and Simmons 1995; Phillips et al. 1993). Thus, family planning programs not only emerged from the developmental idea that small families were helpful for development, but also widely disseminated this principle.


As indicated earlier, the purpose of our study is to investigate the extent to which ordinary people know and believe in the fertility-related tenets of developmental idealism. Although we are interested in such views worldwide, budget and logistical restrictions limited us to the study of people in settings within six countries: Argentina, China, Egypt, Iran, Nepal, and the U.S. Table 1 provides basic information at the national level about these countries, indicating their locations, population sizes, economic levels, mortality, and fertility.

Table 1
Basic Characteristics of Six Countries Surveyed

Although these countries are not a representative global sample, they are located in a wide diversity of regions and contain a large range of population sizes. Egypt and Iran have majority Muslim populations. Buddhism, Taoism, and reverence towards ancestors have long been important in China, and the majority religion in Nepal is Hindu. Catholic Christianity has been the majority religion in Argentina, and the US has been primarily Protestant Christian.

The six countries also represent substantial diversity in education and income. Each country has experienced long-term increases in school enrollment and literacy. Particularly noteworthy is the rapid economic expansion in China following its economic reforms in 1978 (Chow 2007). Mortality levels in all six countries are quite low in historical terms.

The institutions that could propagate developmental idealism have expanded greatly in recent decades in all six countries. In addition to education becoming widespread, access to systems of communication and the media has increased markedly, as evidenced by increasing numbers of media outlets, telephone lines, and mobile phone subscribers (e.g., International Telecommunication Union 2010).

Fertility levels in each of the six countries are moderately low, especially when put in historical context. United Nations estimates indicate that China and Iran have total fertility rates below replacement. The exact level of fertility in China, however, is uncertain, and it may be 1.5 or lower (Guo and Chen 2007). The total fertility rate is at near replacement level in Argentina and the United States, and is 2.9 in Egypt and Nepal.

Such low fertility levels indicate that each country has experienced substantial declines in fertility, but the timing of these declines has varied. Of these countries, the U.S. experienced the first long-term fertility decline, with that fall extending from the middle 1800s through the 1930s. Following the rise and fall of fertility after World War II, fertility in the U.S. has hovered near replacement level (Population Reference Bureau 2007). The fertility decline in Argentina began at the turn of the 20th century, dropping from a TFR of 7.0 in 1895 to 3.2 in 1947 (Pantelides 2006). The big declines in fertility occurred much later in China, Egypt, Iran, and Nepal, beginning only in the 1970s or 1980s (Guo and Chen 2007; Lavely and Freedman 1990; El-Zanaty and Way 2006; Abbasi-Shavazi and McDonald 2006; Abbasi-Shavazi et al 2009; Ministry of Health and Population, New ERA, and Macro International Inc. 2007). In the cases of China and Iran, the declines to below replacement level were especially rapid.

The circumstances of the fertility declines also varied across the six countries. The declines in Argentina and the U.S. occurred in the absence of a government-sponsored program to lower fertility and without most of the contraceptive devices currently available (Pantelides 2006). In fact, from the middle of the 18th through the beginning of the 19th centuries, birth control devices were outlawed in the U.S. Abortion also was illegal in Argentina and the U.S. for decades and became legal nationally in the U.S. only in 1973 with a Supreme Court decision.

Each of the other four countries has experienced vigorous government programs to lower fertility. Family planning efforts were started in these countries as early as the 1950s, but vigorous implementation came later. In each country, a major motivation of the government program was to assist in the development of the country.

China’s family planning efforts became especially vigorous in the 1970s, and its one-child program was introduced in 1979, being especially powerful and motivated by the desire to develop the country (Guo and Chen 2007; Greenhalgh 2008). The Egyptian government has provided support for the provision of contraceptives at least since 1953, and the program has become more vigorous in subsequent decades, with mixed reactions to it from the population (Ali 1997; Bier 2008). In Iran, family planning services were initiated as early as the 1950s, but the official family planning program was discontinued following the 1979 revolution. In the late 1980s the family planning program was reinstated with support by Iran’s religious leaders, and was vigorously implemented throughout the country (Abbasi-Shavazi and McDonald 2006; Abbasi-Shavazi et al 2009). Since the 1960s family planning has been a high priority in Nepal’s national development agenda, and both the government and the nongovernmental sector have operated large family planning programs.


The data for this paper were collected in surveys conducted between 2006 and 2009 in settings in Argentina, China, Egypt, Iran, Nepal, and the United States. Because of budget constraints and different methodological limitations in the different settings, we have used different sampling and interviewing strategies in the six countries. Thus, strict comparability of results across settings is not possible; however, our goals are not to compare settings, but to see the general extent to which individuals from several settings endorse developmental idealism as it relates to childbearing.

Table 2 summarizes the basic attributes of the surveys. The universe for Argentina is urban agglomerates of 500,000 people or more. Approximately 60 % of the population resides in agglomerates of that size. The China data were collected in Gansu Province, an area in West-central China with relatively low income and a large Muslim minority population. The Egyptian sample was drawn from one district in Qaliubia Governorate to the North of Cairo and one district in Fayoum Governorate to the South of Cairo. These districts were selected because they broadly represent areas in Upper (Southern) and Lower (Northern) Egypt, rural and urban areas, and various ethnic and religious groups. The survey in Iran was conducted in Yazd, a religious and conservative city of more than 400 thousand people in central Iran. Yazd has a high level of industry and socioeconomic standing, but retains much of its historical religious and family culture (Askari-Nodoushan and Abbasi-Shavazi 2009). The Nepal survey was conducted in the Chitwan Valley in South-central Nepal. In addition to the main sample of respondents, the study included nonresident spouses of people 15–34 and non-resident parents of unmarried people 15–34. In addition, for one analysis, we used data from a pilot study of approximately 500 people conducted in 2003 in neighborhoods adjacent to those in the main study. The data collection for the United States was conducted via three separate 15 minute supplements appended to the Survey of Consumer Attitudes, a nationally representative monthly telephone survey of adults.

Table 2
Characteristics of Sample Surveys

The survey samples were drawn using multi-stage sampling procedures, with probability sampling at each stage. In Argentina, however, at the last stage, households were chosen through a random walk to find an individual who fit a quota of gender and age previously locally established. The results presented in this paper are based on unweighted data for Egypt, Iran, and Nepal and on weighted data for Argentina, China, and the US. For these three countries, the weighted and unweighted results are extremely similar.

Basic socioeconomic and demographic information for the individuals participating in the surveys is provided in Table 3. These data document a wide diversity of attributes both within and across the study settings.

Table 3
Respondents’ socioeconomic and demographic characteristics.

Our initial empirical work included informal discussions, semi-structured interviews, focus group discussions and a pilot survey in Nepal, less structured individual interviews, focus group discussions and a pilot survey in Egypt, focus group discussions and a pilot survey in Argentina, and cognitive interviews in the United States. Drawing from this experience, we constructed the questionnaires to be used in Argentina, China, Egypt, Iran, and the U.S. The Nepal questionnaire was designed for somewhat different purposes and included slight variations, which we note below. The sections of the questionnaires we used can be found at: http://developmentalidealism.org/projects/familylife/docs/descriptionCrossNationalDI_SurveyMeasures.pdf.

Our analysis focuses on five questions. The first question concerns the perceived association between fertility and development, which was addressed as follows: “Now, please think about what life is like today in countries that are not developed and compare it to what life is like today in countries that are developed. Please tell us whether each of the following things, in general, is more common in countries that are not developed or more common in countries that are developed.”2 The item of interest in this paper was “couples having many children.”

The second question shifted the focus from correlation to causality and asked whether people perceived fertility to be a consequence of development: “Now, please think about what life is like in a country where the standard of living is low, most people live in rural areas, and access to healthcare is poor. Suppose that country introduces a program to help make the country more developed. I will read a list of things this development program might change. For each one, please tell me whether it will increase in that country or decrease in that country once the development program has been successfully implemented.”3 The item of interest was “couples having many children.”

Our third question focused on the perceived effects of a fertility reduction program on development. We asked respondents to address the following issue: “Now, please think about what life is like today in a country where income is low, most people live in rural areas, access to healthcare is poor, and most couples give birth to at least six children. Suppose that country introduces a smaller-family-size program to encourage couples to give birth to no more than three children. I will read a list of things this smaller-family-size program might change. For each one, please tell me whether it will increase in that country or decrease in that country once the smaller-family-size program has been successfully implemented.” The first five are things often associated with development: “overall standard of living”; “families having television in their homes”; “the fraction of children dying before their first birthday”; “being educated”; and “sick people visiting a local healer rather than visiting a medical doctor.” To obtain a broader picture of people’s views of the effects of fertility reduction programs, we asked about the consequences of a fertility reduction program for “love and understanding between parents and children” and for “respect for elders.”4

In the fourth question, we asked about fertility preferences with the following question: “I would like you to think about the different kinds of social and family arrangements around the world today. I am going to ask you to compare a variety of social and family arrangements. Please tell me overall which one you think is better for most people around the world today.” Our question was about “having one child or having three children.”

Finally, in order to see how much people see the world as dynamic and moving in the modern direction, we asked respondents to think about the future in their own countries: “Now please think about the next twenty years in (COUNTRY). Do you think (ITEM) will increase or decrease in (COUNTRY) during the next twenty years?” This question was immediately followed by the following question: “If (ITEM) does (increase/decrease) overall, will that be a good thing, a bad thing, or won’t it matter?” If the respondent said that (ITEM) was going to increase in her/his country, she/he was asked to evaluate that increase. If the respondent thought (ITEM) was going to decrease, she/he was asked to evaluate that decrease. The item we analyze here was “on average, the number of children a woman gives birth to.”


In Table 4, we have listed the percentage of respondents who answered that high fertility is more common in not developed countries (Panel A), that development would decrease fertility (Panel B), that family planning programs improve society (Panel C), that one child is better than three (Panel D), and that fertility will decrease during the next two decades (Panel E). This dichotomization of responses is appropriate in most cases because most respondents who did not give the highlighted response gave the opposite response. However, in a few cases, especially in Argentina, substantial numbers of respondents gave “in-between” responses of “no difference”, “no change”, or “no preference”. When such in-between responses exceed 10 %, we note that in the tables. Table 5 provides the percentage distributions of respondents’ evaluations (good, bad, or indifferent) of the expected trends in fertility that they had reported for their country.

Table 4
Percentage of Respondents Endorsing Various Views of Developmental Idealism as Related to Fertility
Table 5
Percentage Distribution of Respondents’ Evaluations of Fertility Trends

Perceived Association Between Fertility and Development: Comparing Developed and Not Developed Countries

The first row of Table 4 shows people’s perceptions of the association between fertility and development. Consistent with the developmental idealism hypothesis that people see development and low fertility to be correlated, the vast majority of respondents in all settings believe that having many children is more common in not developed places than in developed places. The percentage of respondents with this view is 75 % or higher in each setting and is 88 % or more in all countries except Nepal and the United States.

Perceived Effects of Development on Fertility

We now shift our focus from association to causality and the question asking whether respondents believe that changes in development affect fertility. Again, consistent with developmental idealism, the vast majority of all respondents, between 73 % and 95 % in each setting, say that they believe development reduces fertility (Panel B, Table 4).

Perceived Effects of Fertility Reduction on Development and Intergenerational Relations

We next reverse the causal arrow between development and fertility by focusing on perceptions of the effects of a fertility reduction program on things commonly associated with development (Panel C1). Consistent with the expectations of the developmental idealism model, the vast majority of respondents in all settings indicate that the standard of living, availability of television, and education will increase with the introduction of a fertility reduction program (Panel C1, Table 4). These views are particularly predominant for standard of living and education, two of the central elements commonly associated with development. Between 83 % and 99 % believe that a fertility reduction program would increase these two outcomes. Except for China and Nepal, the fraction believing that a fertility reduction program would increase the availability of television is lower than the fraction believing that such a program would increase education and the standard of living.

Table 4 also indicates widespread belief in a fertility reduction program producing a decline in infant mortality and a shift from local healers to medical doctors (Panel C1). From 86 % to 98 % believe that a fertility decline would lead to a decline in infant mortality, and between 76 % and 93 % believe that a fertility decline would shift the practice of healing from local healers to medical doctors.

Although differences in the surveys prevent us from making definitive comparisons across settings, we note that endorsement of the positive causal influence of fertility reduction programs is especially high in our setting in China. For each item in the Chinese survey, a minimum of 96 % expected that fertility reduction would move society toward development.

Although the percentage of Argentinian respondents who believe that family planning programs bring most aspects of development is similar to that in the other countries, they are less likely than others to say that family planning programs would increase the availability of television (57 %). However, only 4 % of Argentinian respondents said that they believed that family planning programs would decrease the availability of television (not shown in tables).

As noted earlier, we also asked about the consequences of a fertility reduction program for “love and understanding between parents and children” and for “respect for elders” in order to ascertain a broader view of perceptions of the consequences of fertility declines (Table 4, Panel C2). The perceived consequences of a fertility reduction program on intergenerational relations are less positive than the perceived effect on the items commonly associated with development. However, between 57 % and 86 % believe that a reduction in fertility will increase love and understanding and between 51 % and 86 % expect it to increase respect for elders.

Endorsement of the positive effects of a fertility reduction program on intergenerational relations appears to be weakest in Argentina, with only slight majorities believing that the quality of intergenerational relations will increase with fertility reduction in low income countries. However, only 4 % to 6 % of Argentinian respondents said that a family planning program would decrease love and understanding or respect (not shown in tables).

Fertility Preferences: Choosing Between One and Three Children

Panel D of Table 4 reports the answers to the question about the choice between having one and three children. In interpreting these responses, it is important to recognize that for most of world history, the number of children born was considerably higher than three. Thus, we did not ask people to choose between low and high fertility, but between very low and low fertility.

Having one child over having three children is endorsed by the majority in only two settings, and those are the study sites in China and Nepal. Nearly four fifths of Chinese respondents and three fifths of respondents in Nepal endorsed having one child rather than three. The next highest endorsement for one child over three is in the US, but less than one half say that one is better than three. In Argentina and Iran, about one third endorses one child over three, and in Egypt only about one sixth endorses one child over three.

Expectations about Future Fertility and Evaluation of Expected Fertility Trends

Panel E of Table 4 reports data from questions asking about the future. With the exception of Argentina, a substantial majority (72 % or greater) believe that fertility will decline in their countries. These data are consistent with expectations that the developmental model portrays a picture of a world moving in the direction of development and lower fertility. For respondents in China and Iran, the percentage expecting a fertility decline is 91 % or greater, a substantial expectation for fertility decline, especially since these countries currently have below-replacement fertility. China and Iran also contrast with Argentina and Egypt, where fertility levels are higher than in China and Iran, but expectations for future declines are smaller.

In Argentina only 50 % of the respondents said that they expect fertility to decline in the next twenty years. In addition, 29 % said that they expect fertility to increase during the next two decades, and 21 % said that they expect fertility to stay about the same.

Table 5 shows evaluations of the desirability of expected changes in fertility. The top panel indicates for those respondents who expected a decline in fertility, the distribution of answers evaluating such a decline. Similarly, the bottom panel indicates for those respondents who expected an increase in fertility, the evaluations of such an increase. Because of the small number of Chinese and Iranians expecting a fertility increase, we do not show their evaluations of an increase, and Nepalis were not asked to evaluate a fertility increase.

Table 5 shows substantial variance in the evaluations of fertility change across the settings. The US is the most split in its opinions about future trends in fertility. Less than one-half of the US respondents who thought that fertility would decrease evaluated this positively. Among those who expected an increase in fertility, the percentage saying that this increase would be a bad thing (32 %) was nearly counter-balanced by the percentage saying this increase would be a good thing (24 %), and another 45 % said that it would not matter.

Argentinian respondents indicate somewhat more positive attitudes towards future fertility declines and somewhat less positive attitudes towards fertility increases. Of those expecting future fertility declines, nearly 60 % evaluated this trend as positive. Somewhat more than 60 % of those who expected a fertility increase evaluated this trend negatively.

In the other settings, positive endorsements of fertility declines are even greater than in Argentina. Over two thirds of Iranians who expected a fertility decline evaluated this positively, and only one fifth evaluated it negatively. In China, Egypt, and Nepal, 79 % or more of those who expected a fertility decline said that this would be a good thing, and the percentage reached 88 % or more in China and Egypt. Only 10 % or fewer of those expecting a fertility decline thought that this would be a bad thing. The high endorsement of a fertility decline is particularly noteworthy in China, where fertility already is very low. In Egypt, more than four fifths of the minority who thought fertility would increase thought this would be a bad thing.


This paper was motivated by the idea that fertility declines in many places have been motivated, at least in part, by developmental idealism, a schema suggesting the ubiquity of social change, that modern societies and modern fertility are good, that modern societies are causes and effects of modern fertility, and that freedom and equality are fundamental human rights. We believe these ideas have been spread widely and have been important in many fertility declines.

This schema of developmental idealism is certainly applicable to international family planning programs, as it both motivated these programs and was spread by them. The main contribution of this paper, however, goes beyond family planning programs and asks the extent to which the elements of developmental idealism have spread to and are accepted by ordinary people. Although we are motivated by worldwide interests, we have studied only six countries, meaning that we cannot directly generalize beyond these six countries. In addition, in five of the countries we included only certain regions, provinces, or cities, thereby, restricting our ability to generalize to national populations. Nevertheless, we have data from six scattered and diverse settings that provide evidence about our motivating theoretical propositions.

The data provide strong support that the ideas of developmental idealism have been widely disseminated to ordinary people in our six settings. The vast majority believe that low fertility is a feature of developed societies, that development is a causal force reducing fertility, and that lower fertility fosters development. Majorities also believe that fertility reduction improves intergenerational relations. With the exception of Argentina, substantial majorities expect future declines in fertility, and, with the exception of the United States, substantial majorities evaluate future declines in fertility positively and future increases in fertility negatively. Furthermore, the vast majority of Chinese and Nepali respondents indicate that one child is preferable to three. In the US, nearly one-half express similar sentiments, and in Argentina, Egypt, and Iran, between one sixth and one third endorse one child over three.

The existence of vigorous family planning campaigns in several of our study populations raises the possibility of “social desirability” bias in respondent answers. The presence of such programs may lead people who understand but do not believe the messages to repeat them to interviewers with the intentions of looking good or avoiding criticism. If this mechanism is widespread, the expressions of support for the ideas of developmental idealism may represent, in part, efforts to please the interviewer rather than endorsement of the ideas.

We do not know whether answers to our questions represent only knowledge of ideas and a desire to look good in the context of the interview, or some combination of these with actual belief. However, the findings are important even if the expressed support for developmental idealism comes entirely from respondents knowing the ideas and wanting to look good to interviewers. At a minimum, the answers suggest that people know about the messages of developmental idealism and perceive them to be socially desirable. This interpretation would indicate that the messages have been widely disseminated with a very positive valence and are available for guiding decisions.

Although the possibility of social desirability effects on responses cannot be eliminated, we believe that the ideas are not only widely known, but are believed at some level by many people. This interpretation is supported by the qualitative interviews, focus groups, and informal discussions that we have had in many of our research settings. Of course, social desirability can also influence discussions in those data gathering formats.

Although our research was motivated by the idea that the spread of developmental idealism has been an important influence on trends in childbearing, our data cannot demonstrate causal influence. Our data are very recent and cannot be used to establish a causal influence of the schema on past declines in fertility. However, the data do indicate that the ideas of developmental idealism have been disseminated widely among people living in several diverse settings and, at a minimum, are available to influence behavior.

It is also worth mentioning the obvious point that our data do not indicate when developmental idealism became widespread. These ideas may have arrived immediately before the surveys, but that possibility is unlikely. It has been argued elsewhere that the ideas of developmental idealism have been widespread among the elites of the Western world for centuries and among other elites for decades, if not a century or more (Thornton 2005). We also know that these ideas have been disseminated, sometimes vigorously, to the grassroots levels through many mechanisms. This awareness leads us to believe that developmental idealism has been increasing in both knowledge and acceptance for at least several decades and may have been an important factor in the fertility declines of these countries.

The ways in which developmental idealism has influenced fertility declines probably has varied across settings because the timing and circumstances of the declines vary. In China, Egypt, Iran, and Nepal, the fertility declines have occurred during the last several decades and in the presence of vigorous family planning programs that actively spread the messages of developmental idealism. These considerations give credence to the belief that these messages of developmental idealism were factors in the fertility declines of recent decades.

Although the fertility declines in Argentina and the US began without governmental family planning programs, from the Enlightenment onward some writers had written that low fertility and low rates of population growth were factors producing human well-being and development (Thornton 2005). It is also likely that the developmental idealism proposition of freedom being a human right was relevant to the marital fertility declines in Northwest Europe, the United States, Argentina, and other places with early marital fertility declines. We know that the idea of freedom was a fundamental element of the Enlightenment as well as the French and American revolutions and was spread widely in the Western world. Ron Lesthaeghe and colleagues have argued that secularization and the decline of the influence of the Church played an important role in declines in marital fertility in Belgium and elsewhere (Lesthaeghe 1977; Lesthaeghe and Wilson 1986). Secularization was important because it helped weaken the restrictions of the Church against married couples interfering with conception.

Of course, coercion and the lack of freedom can work in multiple directions. Coercion can keep fertility high when it restricts the use of birth control devices. Coercion can also lower fertility when couples are forced to control births against their wills. The coercive dissemination of ideas about development also may lead to latent or overt ideological resistance and adherence to indigenous cultural models (Yount and Rashad 2008; Yount et al. 2010). Thus, the effects of coercion and freedom depend upon the context and direction of coercion and its relaxation.

It could be argued that individuals make fertility decisions based only on their views about how having another child will influence the well-being of themselves and their families and not on their views of the development-fertility relationship at the national level. Although this perspective has merit, messages about the relationship between fertility and well-being apply at both the macro and micro levels; moreover, some multilevel schemas have framed controlled fertility as an individual citizen’s duty to the nation (e.g., Pollard 2003). Thus, the views that people have of fertility-development relationships at multiple levels can easily be applied to the micro-level decisions they make.

We know that the presence of the ideas of developmental idealism with the declines of fertility does not prove that the ideas caused the behavior. One possibility is that the ideas are causally impotent consequences of other causal factors, and it was the provision of family planning services, changing socioeconomic structures, and/or other ideational forces that caused the fertility declines.

Another possibility is that the ideas of ordinary people about the relationships between development and fertility are not learned from the messages they receive, but are produced by people drawing their own conclusions about such relationships from observed trends. More specifically, people might see in their own or another country that fertility fell while economic output increased and infer a causal relationship between the two. This observation could have occurred in all of our study settings, but especially in China, which recently experienced both rapid economic growth and rapid fertility decline.

Another possibility is that people make their conclusions about fertility and development based entirely on their personal and familial experiences. That is, people observe their own lives and the lives of their family members and neighbors and conclude how fertility and well-being are interrelated without any reference to the larger community or to external messages.

The multiple possible causal mechanisms are not necessarily mutually exclusive or contradictory. In some cases, these mechanisms may indeed coalesce in intricate, mutually reinforcing ways. For example, it is likely that the strong correlation of economic growth with fertility decline in China in recent decades reinforced the strong messages of the Chinese government about the connection between the two. It is also likely that the ability of ordinary Chinese people to see the temporal correlation between lower fertility and economic growth is greatly enhanced by the government messages proclaiming such a causal direction.

Although personal experience and observation may have played some role in the adoption of developmental idealism, it is undeniable that very large sums of money have been spent on family planning programs in the last several decades, with the explicit intent to promote the idea that lower fertility is a desirable way to achieve development. Although the money spent on these campaigns is no indicator of exposure to and endorsement by ordinary people, such campaigns are unlikely to have had no effect.

The implications of our findings are not limited to understanding past fertility trends, but to contemplating future trends. The apparently strong commitment of ordinary people to developmental idealism suggests that this ideational force will be supportive of continuing fertility declines, even among populations that currently have below replacement fertility.

Although we argue that developmental idealism has likely influenced fertility trends in the past and will affect trends into the future, we make no claim that it is the only force influencing fertility trends. In fact, developmental idealism interacts with changing social and economic structures and material conditions to influence decisions about childbearing and related factors.

We close by noting that research about developmental idealism is very new and much more research concerning it is needed. We have conducted research in a limited number of countries and recognize the need to collect similar national data in other settings. Particularly needed is the addition of countries with very low fertility and countries where fertility is still rather high. It is also important to understand the factors producing developmental idealism differences across settings, considering a range of factors including histories of family planning programs, institutional structures, competing schemas, material conditions, and susceptibilities to social desirability bias.

We also recognize the need for more evaluation and methodological work concerning the measurement of developmental idealism and how to interpret resulting data. The interpretation of answers to complex questions about knowledge and beliefs is difficult, and it would be useful to know the extent to which answers to our survey questions result from knowing the right answers and trying to look good or the result of both personal knowledge and belief. It also is important to learn why some elements of developmental idealism are more endorsed than others and to measure the strength of beliefs, separated, as much as possible, from social desirability bias.

Also important are data and analyses examining the factors and processes producing acceptance, rejection, or modification of the ideas of developmental idealism. Important here are the roles of education, the mass media, governmental programs, family and individual experience, and other forces in bringing knowledge and acceptance or rejection of developmental idealism. We also need research examining how and under what social, economic, and environmental circumstances such ideas influence actual levels and trends of fertility. The findings of this paper suggest that further research on these issues will be valuable.


This project has benefited from the support of many individuals and organizations. This work was supported by grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development [R01-HD-054847; R37-HD-039425, R21-HD-050259], 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 for his input into the data collection and analysis, 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.


1Many scholars have argued that elements of developmental idealism, which here are proposed to have their roots in Western philosophy, have their roots in non-Western thought (see Yount and Rashad 2008). Identifying the origins of these ideas in non-Western thought is argued to have fostered their popular acceptance in some settings.

2In Nepal the question asked to compare traditional versus developed places.

3In Nepal, we asked about the expected consequences of Nepal itself becoming richer rather than referring to a hypothetical low income rural country.

4In Nepal we asked about the “future of wealth” rather than “standard of living” and about “respect for parents or in-laws” rather than “respect for elders”.

Contributor Information

Arland Thornton, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.

Georgina Binstock, Centro de Estudios de Población and CONICET, Argentina.

Kathryn M. Yount, Emory University, Druid Hills, GA.

Mohammad Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi, Emory University, Druid Hills, GA.

Dirgha Ghimire, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.

Yu Xie, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.


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