Population Research and Policy Review 22: 527–555, 2003.
© 2004 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
Channels of social inﬂuence on reproduction
Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research
Abstract. The article investigates the different types of social mechanisms responsible for
the interdependence of couples’ reproductive preferences predicted by diffusion models of
fertility and family behavior. First we analyze the transcripts of in-depth interviews carried
out with 54 women in the northern part of Italy. The rich information on observations and
conversations about fertility and family choices with relatives and peers enables us to dis-
tinguish four different ways in which social interaction inﬂuences reproductive preferences,
namely social learning, social pressure, subjective obligation and contagion. Second, we show
how the efﬁcacy of each mechanism affecting fertility behavior depends on the kind and the
structure of personal relationships involved in the interaction. Finally, we discuss the ways in
which individual attitudes and values associated with the transition to parenthood are produced
and negotiated in face-to-face interactions, and the importance of focusing on the process of
preference-formation and modiﬁcation for understanding fertility behavior.
Keywords: Low fertility, Transition to parenthood, Qualitative research, Social interaction,
This paper addresses some questions that are best presented through the story
of a woman who happened to fall in the sample of 54 women I interviewed
during my ﬁeldwork in Lombardy, Northern Italy:
Anna and Alberto are 31 and 37 years old, respectively. They are highly
educated and both work full time. They have been married for seven years
and live in the small town where Alberto was born, and where they own a
house. They currently do not have children. Though they married with the
intention to have two children, they agreed on waiting until they “felt mature
as a couple”.
On the one hand, their choice to marry, but waiting for years before having
children, is uncommon for many people in their environment. Anna’s parents
often remind the couple about their expectations. Anna tries to avoid the topic
with them. Alberto’s clients often ask him about when he will have children.
He downplays the topic with them, because of their “traditional mentality”.
The previous year, nine women were pregnant at Anna’s workplace. Anna
ﬁguratively expressed her feelings about it as a “syndrome of encirclement-