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Seminar on Fertility and the Male Life Cycle in the Era of Fertility Decline

Zacatecas, Mexico, 13-16 November 1995
Organised by the IUSSP Committee on Anthropological Demography in collaboration with El Colegio de Mexico, SOMEDE and the university of Zacatecas


The Seminar on 'Fertility and the Male Life Cycle in the Era of Fertility Decline' was held in Zacatecas, Mexico, from 13 to 16 November, 1995. It was organised by the IUSSP Committee on Anthropological Demography, in collaboration with El Colegio de Mexico, the Sociedad Mexicana de Demografia (SOMEDE) and the universidad Autonoma de Zacatecas, and with the support of the Gobierno del Estado de Zacatecas and the Presidencia Municipal de Zacatecas.

In the opening ceremony, participants were welcomed by Susana Lerner (El Colegio de Mexico/Committee on Anthropological Demography), Bruno Remiche (IUSSP Executive Secretary), Virgilio Rivera Delgadillo (universidad Autonoma de Zacatecas), Hugo Villicana (Gobierno de Zacatecas), and by Alaka Basu (Cornell university/Chair of the Committee) and Caroline Bledsoe (Northwestern university), members of the Committee on Anthropological Demography .

The rationale for the conference was based on the fact that the scope of male participation in sexual, reproductive and parenting roles varies enormously across time and place. Diversities in the timing and sequencing of a man's life course events - initiation, training, the onset of sexuality, marriage, the creation of links to multiple partners, the ebb and flow of his fortunes, divorce and the sheer force of societal change itself over his lifetime - all may affect how many children he produces, when he produces them, and the kind of support and recognition he bestows on them. Conversely, perception of likely male support influence a woman's willingness to get pregnant, carry a child to term and attend to its welfare.

While everyone agrees that men play key roles in reproduction and parenting, male fertility as an area of research is little explored by either anthropologists or demographers. Classical studies in social anthropology focused on formal rules governing men's rights and responsibilities with respect to women and children, giving little attention to either child numbers or other dimensions of fatherhood. In demography, surveys that compared male and female results often show great disparity between men's and women's desire for children, use of contraception, and fertility rates. Still, most surveys have been tentative; instead of querying men directly, they often ask women about their husbands. Male fertility looms particularly large as a vital research domain in the wake of global economic and demographic transformations. We have very poor frameworks for comprehending men's shifting options and dilemmas as women gain access to contraceptives or as economic change threatens ties between men and children.

All these factors point towards a pressing need to venture on truths that were relatively new for both anthropology and demography. At issue here, are new ways of understanding men's changing options not only surrounding the act of impregnation but also the extent to which men claim and support children and incorporate them into established family structures. Participants had been encouraged to combine survey data with in-depth ethnographic or historical documentation in order to devise new approaches to such issues, and to draw on contemporary social theory in order to explain patterns and changes in paternity.

The scientific programme of the Seminar included the following sessions:

1. Overviews

Two overview papers that were presented in the first session raised a series of basic questions. Jane Guyer (Anthropological Traditions of Studying Paternity) argued that undertaking a new subject such as male fertility demands that we ask what men want with respect to fertility, paternity and sexuality. She suggested that collective expectations with respect to these goals are changing alongside economic changes; indeed the male reproductive life course may be more deeply shaped by this set of institutions than it is by kinship. David Coleman (Male Fertility Trends in Industrial Countries: Theories in Search of Some Evidence) reviewed a number of data sources from industrialised societies. The paper explored potential links between biology and demographic patterns in examining male/female fertility differences: (1) total fertility rates, (2) number of partners, (3) time of starting reproduction and (4) sources of errors in counting men's children. One of the themes that emerged from the discussion of these two papers was the necessity of incorporating the concept of the life course in the study of male fertility. Another issue that was discussed in this session was the need for research combining ethnographic and demographic techniques in order to obtain explanations that are credible both in terms of qualitative subtlety as well as quantitative representation.

2. Changing Reproduction : the recent European experience

The two papers presented in this session dealt with male fertility in Europe. Laurent Toulemon and Evelyne Lapierre-Adamcyk (Demographic Patterns of Motherhood and Fatherhood in France) analysed differences between male and female fertility in contemporary France. Noting some key male/female contrasts in the onset of marriage and parenthood, the establishment of a new household and remarriage, they examined the effects of educational level, migration rates, professional activity, marriage history and residence of children from former unions. For example, the fact that men have fewer children than women may reflect the proportionately higher number of immigrant men than women. As such, the male/female fertility gap may decrease if immigration becomes more gender-balanced. Katarina Pohl's study, 'Attitudes of East vs. West Germany Men on Having Children,' showed that East Germans used to start their family formation process earlier than West Germans; they also had more children. However, within a short time after the 1989 German unification, the total number of children desired became nearly the same in both regions; as a result, at present there are few East-West differences in the youngest age group, either for practising family planning or for living alone.

These papers generated a number of questions: do the observed changes reflect a heavier burden for men than women in the domains of union and reproduction? And, to what extent do these changes reflect individual country differences, as opposed to the larger process of regional convergence around low fertility norms ? Clearly, there is a need to contextualize the results of demographic surveys even in industrialised societies. For example, while fertility rates can be analysed in relation to educational level, the fact that a national government might be implementing a family planning programme might confound the results.

3. Reproduction and the male life cycle

The papers presented in this session focused on the relationship between fertility and sexuality. The work by Philip Setel 'Someone to Take my Place: Fertility and the Male Life Cycle Among Coastal Boiken, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea' analysed representations of sexuality and masculinity from an ethnographic perspective. It had two themes bearing on the social construction of parenthood: men's fears of pollution from sexual contact with women versus their desires to procreate; and the role of reproduction in providing social replacements in an ever-expanding series of debt relations. Pau Miret Gamundi's paper (Fatherhood and Motherhood in Spain: Church, State and Family) analysed the situation of men within the particular historical and demographic processes that have accompanied Spain's sharp drop in fertility.

Nosa Orobaton (The Perspectives and Dimensions of Sexuality among Nigerian Males: implications for fertility and reproductive health outcome) and Nicholas Townsend (Male Fertility as a Life Time of Relationships: Contextualizing Men's Biological Reproduction in Botswana) examined the changing relationships that men in Africa have over their life course. Orobaton's study contrasted fertility and sexuality in early adulthood and middle age, ending with problems of infertility and impotence in old age. Townsend, describing wider demographic patterns through a case study, challenged simplistic discussions of 'male irresponsibility' by examining the depth and diversity of ties that men may have with children who are not their own biologically.

4. Men in multiple unions

The relationship between polygyny and fertility was examined in this session. Ann Blanc and Anastasia Gage (Men, Polygyny, and Fertility over the Life Course in Sub-Saharan Africa) analysed DHS data collected from men in sub-Saharan African countries. Their findings indicate that the desire to have many children continues to have a strong influence on men's desires to have multiple wives. But while current declines in fertility desired in some African countries may weaken men's incentives to be polygynous, increased use of contraception could allow men to avoid having many children while preserving the benefits of diverse sexual partners of polygyny. Focusing entirely on a different time and place, James Lee and Wang Feng (Male Nuptiality and Male Fertility among The Qing Nobility) used a historical source of data of unusual completeness and accuracy, i.e. the genealogical archives of the Qing (1644-1911) imperial lineage, to examine the patterns of nuptiality and fertility among men in the Chinese nobility. While in most cases in Africa polygynous men had more children than monogamous ones, the results from historical China departed from those in contemporary Africa. Lee and Feng indicated that high fertility may not have been the chief motive for polygyny. Men in both kinds of unions stopped reproducing at ages that were strikingly young; indeed, second wives appear to have had fertility rates substantially lower than those of first wives. At the close of this session, participants noted a strong need to study the relationship between polygyny and male sexual desire and that between polygyny and the perspectives of women involved in polygynous unions.

5. Male dilemma surrounding fatherhood and reproductive health

Juan Guillermo Figueroa Perea's paper (Some Reflections on the Social Interpretation of Male Participation in Reproductive Health Processes) urged demographers to reevaluate the conceptual meanings of sexuality and reproductive health, notions that have quite different popular connotations for men than women. Particularly deficient, according to the paper, are the legal implications of the concept of reproductive health in terms of 'fertility rights.' Figueroa Perea suggested that although many assumptions surrounding gender are poorly thought out, demographers may not need new demographic indicators, but simply to rework existing ones.

John Anarfi and Clara Korkor Fayorsey (The Male Protagonists in the 'Commoditization' of Aspects of Female Life Cycle in Ghana) explored the organization of informal social activities and relationships that accompany trading and marketing in Ghana. Drawing on the concept of 'commoditization', in the sense of the exchange of commercial goods, they suggested that some Ghanaian women have achieved a certain amount of autonomy by seeking profit from the 'outdooring' rituals surrounding a child's birth. This implies that autonomy does not necessarily produce low fertility. Indeed, for poor women, autonomy often depends on high fertility. To the extent that they are able to manipulate these traditional rituals, women effectively push men out of the parental picture.

Frances K. Goldscheider, Pamela Webster, and Gayle Kaufman (Men, Parenthood, and Divorce in the Era of the Second Demographic Transition) examined the relationship between attitudes toward parenthood and approval of divorce in the uS. Drawing on data from the 1987/88 National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH), they suggested that both men and women who rate parenthood as a more important adult role are less approving of divorce. However, the relation is stronger for men than for women. On approval of divorce, as younger men reflect the greatest effect of parental centrality, they may be more responsive to the new demands for participation in housework and childcare made by their wives, hence avoiding divorce.

The presentation by Benno de Keijzer (Masculinity as a Risk Factor) evaluated the consequences of socialization which predispose certain types of deaths in Mexico, with special reference to Veracruz. Keijzer contended that Mexico's emphasis on socializing young men to act independently and aggressively has some clear advantages for men. Such behaviours are frequently incorporated into sexuality and gender relations. Yet such actions, when pushed to the point of violence, can jeopardize men's health and that of others. Benjamin Campbell (Risky Business: Disinhibition and Other Adolescent Sexuality) examined the sexual behaviour of adolescents in Zimbabwe from a biosocial perspective. Contending that it is not testosterone levels but rather the development of secondary sexual characteristics that produces most adolescent behaviours in young men, Campbell suggested, that those individuals who are least inhibited and least tolerant of frustration were more likely to be sexually active.

The studies presented in this session generated a rich discussion. Following Figueroa Perea's call to reevaluate the classic demographic indicators or to find new indicators, participants voiced ideas for how anthropological ideas and techniques might be put to these uses. In particular, anthropology's effort to recover the 'voices' of individual actors could be utilized by demographers seeking more appropriate indicators for surveys. There was also general consent that frameworks such as cost-benefit theory are seldom adequate to explain the reality of child bearing situations in Latin America or Africa, not to mention the united States. Finally, the importance of research on sexual behaviour was emphasized. Nevertheless, it was pointed out that this type of research faces methodological difficulties since it is very difficult to isolate biological from cultural factors.

6. The culture of masculinity and reproduction

The significance of masculinity and reproduction in four different populations was analysed in this session. In his ethnographic paper 'The Seeds of Men: Indian Attitudes and Conceptions toward Male Fertility,' Mario Humberto Ruz examined the wide range of concepts surrounding conception, seduction, sexuality and infertility among the Maya, Nahua and Otomi peoples of contemporary Mexico. The paper stressed that these beliefs are not always internally consistent. For example, while one common practice is to avoid intercourse during menstruation, the best time to 'cook' a new being is considered to be when the woman is in her 'fresh' state, the three days immediately following menstruation; the combination of these beliefs often results in the failure of couple's attempts to procreate. Ruz cautioned that family planning programmes that do not take these beliefs into account are very likely to fail.

Ondina Fachel Leal and Jandyra M.G. Fachel (Male Reproductive Culture and Sexuality in South Brazil: Combining Ethnographic Data and Statistical Analysis) examined the factors associated with risky behaviour in the domains of fertility, contraception and sexuality. using data from a slum area in Porto Alegre, the study argued for a gender perspective that studies relationships between women and men, rather than men or women in isolation. The study employed a non-conventional methodology, combining ethnographic data with multiple correspondence analysis and other statistical techniques to refine and systematize their descriptive material. Among the most interesting results were those related to the sexual preferences of the population studied: the majority of adult women asserted they did not practice anal sex, while men implied that it was used to punish women or to avoid pregnancy at times considered most fertile.

In his paper (What about Men? A Perspective on Fertility Control in Egypt), Kamran Asdar Ali described cultural views of male sexuality and reproduction, and the processes by which national population agendas shape them. Presenting ethnographic data on the construction of the male body and sexuality with respect to current debates over fertility control, the paper suggested that it is the abilit y to control women, in both PUBLIC and private domains, that defines the essence of manhood. However, dominant notions of masculinity are also challenged as economic and social circumstances change. The realities of economic survival forces most men from lower classes to accept the precepts of family planning programmes and to adopt contraceptive behaviours that the men consider 'unmanly'. Eduardo Liendro (Reproductive Behaviour and Masculinity in Mexico) attempted to apply the notion of gender to questions of decision-making about sexual relations. In the process, Liendro also discussed his efforts to interpret quantitative data from an anthropological perspective.

During the discussion that followed the presentation of the papers, the need for women to participate in research projects on reproduction and male sexuality was noted. In this way, the effects of the researcher's own gender perspective could be taken into account when examining the results of the investigation.

7. Closing session: directions for the future

The main topics of the seminar were reviewed by two of the participants. Jane Guyer emphasized the need to study reproduction and sexuality from an interdisciplinary point of view. The macro-level scale at which demographers work could be used by qualitatively-oriented anthropologists to help them define the most relevant problems to address. As for demographers, one of the most important contributions anthropologists can make is to clarify the relevant terms of debate. She reiterated, also, the need to find new bridges between demography and anthropology. One of these bridges might well consist of new ways of examining the 'life course', particularly as one individual's life course may affect that of another. As the conference papers demonstrated, however, we cannot talk about a single life pattern even among men in the same society; studies should aim instead to identify a range of life course trajectories. Frances K. Goldscheider underscored a pressing need to study not only gender relations, but intra-gender relations between generations. She observed that while most of the papers had dealt with men in the earlier part of life, rapidly declining mortality rates have meant that relationships between father and son can dominate men's lives throughout adulthood. Changing configurations of hierarchical relations among men could be one of the most fascinating areas of study in future years.

In closing, Caroline Bledsoe emphasized that although there were no reliable roadmaps to illuminate how best to open up the topic of male fertility to serious, sustained research, many of the papers had broken fascinating new ground. She also pointed out that fertility researchers who ultimately aimed to return to concentrate on women would benefit from the new perspectives that can be gained by studying men.

Graciela Infesta Dominguez