Transscript from chapter 6 in S. Skirbekk (2000): The New Liberal Ideology. ISS, University of Oslo.



Sigurd Skirbekk:

Family structure and functionality

A weakened marriage

It is easy to find statistics to illustrate how western countries, in particular, have undergone major changes in the family in the space of a few short decades. Chief among these is the loss in standing that marriage has suffered over time. Fewer people are getting married, and fewer are getting divorced. It is hard to deny that this belittlement of marriage is related to notions about sexual morality; but is also due to changes in societies institutions.

Unlike previously, the duties and obligations of marriage are not being counterbalanced by the rights of marriage as the only universally accepted and legitimate framework for sexual conduct. As an extension of our earlier analysis, it is only natural to ask whether this change can be understood as a functional adjustment to new community relationships, with scope for individual freedom, or whether it is more likely that we are dealing with a dysfunctional adjustment, one that seeks legitimacy for our times with the aid of ideological trickery.

To answer this, we must confront the issue of whether the family, in today’s society, has important functions that cannot be assumed by other institutions, whether these necessitate a specific marriage-regulated family structure, or whether other institutions and perhaps other forms of the family could have assumed these tasks satisfactorily, in a functional sense.

We may begin by determining what constitutes a family. The US Bureau of Census has offered the following definition: ´A family consists of two or more persons who are living together and who are bound to each other by kinship, marriage or adoption.ª Others have given more comprehensive descriptions of what may rightly be called a family. Family researcher Dolf Zillmann of the University of Alabama has listed nine characteristics as the most important, the most durable and the most valuable traits of the family: (1) A couple consisting of a man and a woman constitute the core of a family. (2) This couple commits itself to live together for an unlimited period of time, potentially for life. (3) The couple intends to have children, and ultimately do so. (4) The couple is prepared to care for their children. (5) The couple will support their children with a view to their mental, emotional, moral and financial independence. The couple contributes to a common future financial goal. (7) The couple accepts sexual exclusivity. (8) The couple accepts the fact that family happiness depends on a constant investment of time and initiative. (9) The couple accepts the fact that it must resist temptations that would disrupt the family and cause potential conflicts and violence.

One of these definitions could be called a ´minimum definitionª, one without any moral aim; the other could be called a ´maximum definitionª, one with moral aims. But even with the minimum definition, it is not always meaningful to speak of a family in every instance where we find several people living together  let alone instances in which individuals constitute a housekeeping unit.

It is easy to see that both the form and the ideal of the family vary in different societies, and that these have changed over time. This does not imply, however, that all forms of the family are, or have been, equally functional for all societies and population groups. Nor does it imply a boundless breadth of variation. Those forms of the family that we can study  in practice, this means a selection of forms that have been functional enough to have survived to our day  all share a number of similarities. In the first place, every society regards family belonging as an important aspect of an individual’s identity and sense of belonging. Establishing and joining a family has been universally ritualized. Further, we find that these marriage rites follow rules determined by the community; they are not something that couples just decide to do. In these rituals, representatives for the couples two families will normally be present. In addition, a priest, a medicine man, or a representative of the community at large will officiate at rites which mark the status transition of the couple. This suggests that the establishment of families is universally perceived as a community matter, not just a private matter.

In the middle of this century it was customary  in social anthropological circles, at any rate  to claim that most ´societiesª on this planet permitted polygamy, even though the vast majority of people lived in societies that only permitted monogamy. In fact, the majority of those who lived in societies that did permit polygamy, chose to live as monogamous families. In a functional context it is interesting to note that every prominent modern society conforms to the monogamous norm. Social anthropologist George Murdock, who was the first one to count ´societiesª, found the core family in all the 250 societies for which, up to then, he had been able to amass any data. The forms of the family could vary, as could the obligations of relatives outside the core family; but the father-mother-child relationship was universally held to be a distinct social unit with important tasks. This meant that the core family is not a new family form, nor just some civic [or: bourgeois] concoction.

This background suggests that something quite dramatic might be taking place in our day  and in our part of the world, in particular  if that which has always been the most fundamental social unit in all previous societies has become a private matter in a market for couples, while the authorities and our cultural life and institutions consider themselves neutral if they strive for as much equality as possible between the different types of PARDANNELSER.

Historically, there have been many kinds of PARDANNELSER; but many of these have never been accepted  much less enjoyed the same standing. Kingsley Davis has compiled a list of different types of PARFORHOLD, which he placed on a sliding scale, from loose to steady relationships. His list looked like this: liaison, cohabitation, concensual unions, common law marriage, and marriage. It is the latter that have been regulated by law and for which specific obligations and functions have been prescribed. And it is primarily these which have been in decline.

It is always a question how far back it is appropriate to go in order to gain a comparative perspective on the developments in our society. Family historian Carle C. Zimmermann has felt that this process in our modern western civilization can be compared with processes in ancient civilizations. As for the Greek and Roman civilizations he felt there was justification for claiming that the decline of these nation-states was due to fairly similar changes involving the institution of the family. Zimmermann listed eleven hallmarks of the decline: (1) the spread of quick divorces; (2) a decline in family birth rates coupled with an overall decline in population; (3) the elimination of the true meaning of entering into marriage; (4) support for negative interpretations of heroes and virtues of the past; (5) the spread of theories which claimed that comradeship or loser forms of the family would alleviate the problems; (6) people who had been married under older family traditions were not allowed to continue these traditions, while younger people shirked the obligations of their elders; (7) the spread of ANTIFAMILISME by urbane and pseudo-intellectual circles; (8) the breaking down of most barriers toward the break-up of marriage; (9) the revolt of young people against their parents, making parenthood more problematical; (10) the spread of youthful deviation; and (11) the acceptance of different forms of sexual perversion.

Before we jump to any drastic conclusions, we should proceed with caution. The number of present-day divorces could suggest that marriage does not enjoy the same standing today that it once did. The annual decline in the number of marriages in a population with no major differences in the size of the various age groups is another goal [[hva betyr denne setningen?]] Marriages have become more unstable. More people are living in relationships that do not enjoy the same degree of stability as marriage.

In the mid-1990s, British demographers had registered that 56% of all English women over the age of 16 were married, 23% were single, 14% were widows, and 7% were divorced. These same demographers estimated that by the year 2020, only 48% would be married, 25% would be single, 13% would be widows, and 14% would be divorced. The Norwegian demographer Bjørg Moen wrote, as early as 1981, about Swedish FØDSELSKULL of the time, and estimated that only half of the youngest Swedish ALDERSKULLET would ever get married, if the FØDSELSKULLET followed the same behavior pattern that measurements for the period 1965 1970 showed.

This development, which can be illustrated with different kinds of data, can be explained in several ways. Some have been inclined to see this as an expression of positive values such as liberation, equality and tolerance. Others have regarded this development as a general moral decline. The responsibility can thus be spread among the parties involved, as well as those who have specific RAMMEVILKÅR for the people’s choice [[får ikke tak i dette]], i.e. both culturally radical spokesmen and commercial players. Part of the development can be seen as unintended effects of measures taken for noble purposes, such as a desire to hinder the discrimination of illegitimate children.

Changes in the family’s status can be viewed as one aspect of a general disintegration of tradition. Economic differentiation, political democratization, and cultural rationalism were bound to result in the inability of traditionalism to continue as a self-justifying pattern for getting married. However, as we have seen in the analysis of frameworks of meaning and moral perceptions, a number of different forms of adjustment would have been potential answers to these challenges. The fact that different countries have provided different answers to these challenges is due to differences in their cultural forms. There is little point in trying to regard all variations in getting married and getting divorced as evidence that some societies had made greater economic strides than others. In 1965, Canada had 46 divorces per 100,000 inhabitants, while the same year the United States had 250 divorces. This difference cannot be explained in terms of minor differences in economic structure between the United States and Canada.

Analytically speaking, there is little reason to assume that those forms of cohabitation which have spread the most in recent years represent a future pattern for a modern adjustment, or represent the most rational and functional answer to the challenge of modernity. Interpretations that take this for granted, exclude comparative analyses.

Changes on the family front have been topics of heated discussion. In every country that has permitted open discussion, the predominant forms have been subject to criticism. Research has certainly not spoken with one tongue in these discussions; nor have the people, for that matter. Only rarely has the majority rallied in support of change at the outset of a development, even though most people, in some way or another, have found adjusting to what has taken place to be reasonable. This suggests that we might regard the general liberal interpretations in the media and in various organizations in terms of the strength of specific cultural codes. Those who could argue that they were on the side of liberty, equality and tolerance have, more often than not, come out ahead.

It is tempting to interpret this as a sign of neo-liberalism’s strength and its appeal to the mind. But our experience of how this has all come about is more complex. The early liberals took the marriage-regulated family as a matter of course. A liberal theoretician such as Herbert Spencer argued in favor of strict family morals as the most functional for a leading society. Nor have modern social liberals or social democrats operated on the assumption of some original program to privatize or deinstitutionalize the family, even though certain Leninist pronouncements could be interpreted in that light. A study of the Social Democrats’ family policy in Sweden can tell us more about how the deinstitutionalization of the family acquired political legitimacy. Sweden has long been a pioneer in this development, and those with connections to the Social Democratic Party there have been a driving force in this development.

The Swedish Case

In Sweden, Alva and Gunnar Myrdal were the first ones to put family policy into a social and political framework; in the mid-1930s they wrote a book entitled ´The Crisis in Population Developmentª. The authors pointed out the national dangers of the contemporary decline in the birth rate and argued for an active social policy geared toward society’s poorest, so that these could eventually be able to establish normal families. In the 1940s, Gunnar Myrdal wrote that all the experts were in agreement that every effort should be made to prevent illegitimate births. This goal was one of the reasons that radical politicians in Sweden supported the work of RFSU, with the unforeseen consequences that this had during the 1960s and ‘70s, as already mentioned. The new interpretations of the goals and tasks of family policy arose at a time when radical Sweden was compelled to acknowledge that its policies had had effects other than those originally intended, and that it would either have to change policies or alter the political goals of those policies.

Already by the mid-1960s, a number of semi-official written pronouncements were made in Sweden in favor of a ´new familyª, in which equality between the sexes was highlighted as a supreme value. The development of individual potential was a stated goal of family policy. Adults were to be treated the same way by society, whether they chose to live alone or in a BOFELLESSKAP. The Swedish Institute, an organization dedicated to the spread of Swedish social views abroad, published a work in which the author, under the title ´The Family is Not Sacredª, asserted that marriage and divorce should be regarded as completely private matters between individuals, with no interference from society. The reference to equality and to women’s freedom of choice became an important element in the 1970s’ debate about what was to become a Social Democratic change of views as to the goals for a progressive family policy. This view was largely institutionalized in the new Swedish family legislation of 1974. It was also played a significant role in discussions of the family’s position in the other Nordic countries.

The development in Sweden is of particular interest: it is here that the deinstitutionalization of family establishment has made the farthest strides  in our part of the world, at any rate; and it is here that we find the most pronounced political programs for promoting this policy as something positive. According to certain studies, Sweden also stands out as the western country in which marriage is weakest in public opinion, despite the fact  or because of the fact  that Sweden has gone far in removing some of the bothersome obligations that legally applied to formalized marriage.

In the previous chapter we quoted the following passage from the Swedish study on marriage and the family: … [[ Hent dette inn fra kap. 5 ]] Normally, this would suffice to put the burden of proof on the advocates of cohabitation in deciding whether cohabitation can serve as the functional equivalent of marriage. It says a great deal about the strength of a framework of meaning that is dominated by values associated with individual-oriented liberties, when our society demands a justification for the stand that people should get married, and not for the stand that those who live together should not get married.

Explicit and implicit arguments for cohabitation have become more widespread in recent years; in the popular media this has gone hand in hand with  if not preceded  actual developments. However, these arguments have never risen above the counter-arguments that could be leveled against them. The viability of the various arguments can, admittedly, be legitimately assessed in different ways. In part, they could be evaluated on the basis of the relationship between claims and actual circumstances, and in part on the basis of existing data on differences between marriage and cohabitation. An example of testing for the former would be attitude studies that can be confronted by legitimatizing claims to the effect that cohabiting couples usually choose their type of union on the basis of an ideal conviction or with the claim that they choose cohabitation because of their confidence in the strength of their own life  cf. the expression ´love marriageª that is often used for cohabitation in the 1970s and 1980s.

Against these interpretations is a Swedish study which concluded that young people generally moved in together without any prior decision not to get married. In fact, there was often no prior decision to even move in with each other; ´it just happened that wayª. Another Swedish study, this one of 279 family lawyers during the 1970s, confirms this picture. As to what grounds their clients usually gave for avoiding marriage, about six out of ten lawyers stated that ´they didn’t want to commit themselvesª. Only one out of ten mentioned that for many, love was such a strong force that they reckoned they could get by without a formal marriage.

Nevertheless, the weakening of marriage is not a distinctly Swedish phenomenon. As we have already mentioned, certain changes have had the effect of watering down the family’s tasks, while the development of birth control technology, an economic safety net, and the media’s ideals and expectations in partially liberated youth environments have all made it appealing to go in for less binding forms of PARDANNELSER. For example, in the United States it is estimated that the number of cohabiting couples has risen from 0.5 million in 1970 to 1.5 million in 1980, and to 2.5 million in 1990. Though these figures may not be 100% reliable, it is hardly doubtful that the position of marriage in the US has suffered in recent years. Relatively speaking, fewer people are getting married and more people are ending their marriages.

In sociology, it was long taken for granted that whatever befell the marriage-regulated family could be explained as a form of adjustment to new social circumstances, circumstances which could admittedly be problematical in a transitional phase. This has been a major pattern for interpretations among sociological family theoreticians in the second half of this century, from Talcott Parsons to Anthony Giddens. There is, however, another tradition, often relegated to the sidelines, represented by such names as Carle C. Zimmerman and David Popenoe. These men have seen the development as a manifestation of the decline of an important social institution. The question of which of these two interpretations is the most convincing could be resolved if professionals could agree on whether developments pointed to conditions inside or outside of functional minimum goals for a social development.

The family and unavoidable functions

It is not difficult to find examples of how some have stood to gain and others have stood to lose from the marital deinstitutionalization of family structures. On the positive side, it is most often the career potential of the SELBEVISTE woman that is mentioned. On the other hand, it is not hard to find examples of individuals who have stood to lose from the proliferation of looser family structures. But usually it is the children who are mentioned most prominently, who live in fear that their parents will one day leave each other, children who increasingly must be reconciled to a life in divided families or be made wards of stepparents.

It is not easy to weigh the winners against the losers, if the guideline for a development that is either wanted or unwanted is an accounting of the increase or decrease in individual suffering. This goal only indirectly tells us something about what we are trying to make a point about  namely, the influence of culture on society, either enhancing or hurting its ability to function. Usually, functional analyses have to be based on other types of data than the calculation of individual happiness. [[har jeg forstått dette riktig???]] To determine whether a given form of modernity adjustment points to conditions inside or outside functional limits, we must first decide whether the family has any functions that are so important that no society could ignore them indefinitely. Then we must decide whether these functions are dependent on a specific institution  in other words, whether a deinstitutionalization or a transfer of tasks from the family to other institutions is functionally realistic.

We may begin by asking ourselves what the family’s social functions are. From a historical perspective, or that of comparative social anthropology, we could compile a long list of functions that have been associated with the family. The family has been a governing factor in people’s sense of belonging and their sense of security; it has helped ensure the production of food and other necessities of life; it has cared for the young and the old, the sick and the helpless; it has figured in the exchange of goods and services and been a link between the individual and society at large. Modernity has led to a differentiation and specialization of these functions. Nowadays we expect more of the family as an emotional room, so to speak, and as a base for leisure activities. The question is whether these are necessary functions that satisfy the requirements of a specific INSTITUERING. To begin with, we must ask which family-related tasks are so important that society would loose important requisites for its functionality if these tasks were not safeguarded in a careful manner.

Talcott Parsons answered this question by pointing to three or four family-related requisites which no society  especially not modern ones  could make do without indefinitely. These involved reproduction, the primary socialization of children, and being an identity-preserving primary group, which most people would depend on. In fact, the regulation of sexuality has been mentioned as a separate ´requisiteª. Regulating societies assume a certain order in people’s sexual lives. No society can survive without erotic ties between people or without a regulation of these ties. Moreover, people are expected to take responsibility for their offspring.

Reproduction is the one task that is easiest to deal with in terms of functional analysis. Without an infusion of new blood, any society will die out. In practice, the extent to which this can take place through emigration from other societies and cultures is limited, if new generations are to be expected to pledge primary allegiance to a society with a given historical tradition and be willing to defend and carry on that tradition. In olden times, people gave birth to many more children than survived into adulthood, not to mention the next generation, who had their own offspring. We could conceive of more humane, and yet functional, alternatives to those conditions. But we could also conceive of alternatives that point beyond the functional, independent of whether the first generation would experience this as positive for themselves and for their children. Overpopulation is a form of dysfunctional adjustment that can threaten a society, particularly if the immigration option does not exist. Another dysfunctional adjustment would be a birthrate that remains below the reproductive limit for long periods of time.

Functionally speaking, we may safely assert that a society must have regulations for dealing with children during the first few years of their life. This is necessary not just to ensure their immediate needs, but also in order to introduce children to a societal tradition and help develop their personalities so that they can function in society, preferably in a personal way.

Finally, the family must be held up as the closest and most durable primary group of a society’s citizens, even in the face of belonging to an orientation family and to a reproductive family. The family must not only see to the material and social needs of its members, their contact network and private life; it must also be a coordinating unit for the individual’s experiences. The family assumes importance as an emotional base for popular participation in society, in the words of Talcott Parsons.


Let us assume for the sake of argument that these are important functions that a modern society cannot do without, at least not without incurring serious and destructive consequences. We must ask what this means for our understanding of the function of marriage as an institution: It is reasonable to assume that these functions could be taken over by government bodies, by kindergartens and training centers, and that the marriage-regulated family is but one of several options for popular social attachments, designed especially for those who prefer security to liberty?

The answer to this question depends on the extent to which a population needs institutional FØRINGER before enough people make life choices that are functional for society. Moreover, the answer depends on whether it can be argued that marriage, as opposed to other forms of couples relationships [PARDANNELSER] possesses structural qualities that recommends it as the most functional choice for couple relationships in our time as well. Let us stress two characteristics of constituent families: both the inner FØRINGER, which are related to the couple’s roles and obligations toward one another, and the external delimitation, which is meant to protect the family sphere against a normative invasion from other institutions of society. In our type of society, this means, first and foremost, protection from economically derived market norms, and from equality norms that spring from a political and bureaucratic tradition. Both are capable of destabilizing the family unit.

Structural circumstances can be expected to have an impact on how family functions are dealt with. In every society, reproduction depends on a lot more than biological urges. In modern society, where the birth rate is eve more dependent on couples’ will and active decisions than in earlier societies, reproduction can assume the character of a long-term investment. Institutional frameworks, which can bolster faith in the durability of couples’ relationships and prescribe duties and forms of cooperation for both parties, are expected to be important in the planning of the birth rate. In our part of the world, these expectations appear to be borne out. Family statistics show that couples that are part of constituent family forms generally give birth to more children than couples that belong to more informal units. To the degree that the difference between a marital and a non-marital reproduction is decisive for a population’s reproduction over time, this is an aim of the functionality of marriage. Generally speaking, it is important for the preservation of the family that there are norms and legal tenets for how different conflicts should be handled. This too could require institutional FØRINGER.

A successful primary socialization is important for a subsequent secondary socialization into specific sectors of a society. Even though primary socialization may be perceived as being based on a private relationship between parents and their children, this relationship is still dependent on institutional frameworks. The way in which mothers and fathers relate to their children usually has to do with examples, and the kind of examples is not immaterial to society. A father who has a relationship with a specific women, and a mother who has a relationship with a specific man are both different kinds of examples than your average kind man or woman. This explains, among other things, why homosexuals and single people do not enjoy the same functional status in adoption cases as do couples of the opposite sex.

The family’s task as lasting primary group depends on its being subject to those institutional frameworks that can ensure this kind of durability. The institutional structure can also provide frameworks for the family’s rights and obligations in relation to other societal institutions.

The argumentation for the functional advantages of marriage could be carried even further. Nevertheless, the question many in our day would pose is this: Could other forms of couples relationships become commonplace and receive more or less the same functions as marriage has enjoyed, yet at the same time be more in accordance with modern notions of freedom? This leads us to a closer look at what we know about the differences between marriage and cohabitation.

The difference between marriage and cohabitation

The method which is closest at hand for testing the status of cohabitation involves comparing its stability with that of marriage. However, there are a number of problems with making a comparison on this basis. In the first place, what is termed cohabitation is not just meant to be an alternative to marriage. It also purports to be an alternative to engagement, which has traditionally been easier to dissolve than marriage. In the second place, cohabitation is such a new phenomenon that we do not have enough experience in analyzing its long-term effects. In the third place, both marriage and cohabitation are set in cultural contexts. This means that in societies in which marriage clearly predominates, cohabitation will assume the form of those expectations which characterize a marriage-oriented culture. In societies where cohabitation is customary and accepted, this will also affect people’s attitudes toward each other in their marriages. Among other things, this means that a cohabitation union at the end of the 20th century is not completely the same as a cohabitation of mid-20th century.

The change in these relationships over time may, on the other hand, represent a kind of important bit of information, if we wish to evaluate what these changes predispose people for. From the Nordic countries we can find different kinds of statistics that point out these changes. Already by the 1980s it was possible to show, in all the Nordic countries, that the marriage rates for childless women living out of wedlock declined markedly for each new birth cohort during the period from 1936-40 to 1956-60. In Norway, the chances that a relationship would develop into marriage dropped by about two-thirds, from about 90% to 31%. The figures for the development of registered cohabitation in Sweden and Denmark were even more dramatic.

By working with data from the Norwegian STATISTISK SENTRALBYRÅS fertility study from the end of the 1970s, demographer Randi Selmer was able to show that the probability that a cohabitation union wound end in marriage had declined even in cases where children were involved. She found that out of those who were born between 1941 and 1945 and who had begun living together as 15-19-year-olds, and who had not had children or gotten married, only 12% had not continued their relationship two years after having entered into it. The corresponding frequency of dissolution had risen to 26% for the birth cohort 1956-59. For those who had begun living together as 20-24-year-olds, the corresponding frequency of dissolution 10% for the birth cohort 1941-45 and 24% for the birth cohort 1951-55.

The increasing instability over time among cohabitors has been succeeded by an increasing number of divorces among married couples. Nevertheless, marriages have consistently represented the most stable category of cohabitation. This is not just because cohabitation has often been regarded as a kind of trial marriage. Even where the couple has had children together  which should indicate that they considered the relationship to be a lasting one  cohabitors have a dissolution rate as much as three times higher than that for married couples with children.

These calculations are not only relevant in a Nordic context. Studies from other countries also confirm that non-institutionalized cohabitation is more fragile than marital cohabitation.

One of the most frequently used arguments for legitimatizing cohabitation is that it acts in the capacity of a trial marriage, in which the parties get a chance to become acquainted with each other before they make an earnest commitment. This was supposed to lead to a selecting of couples that were compatible, which in turn was expected to make for more stable marriages. To a large extent, it is still the case cohabitation unions are regarded as less binding. Those who are willing to bind themselves tend to get married. In German quarters it has been claimed that the inherent instability of non-marital cohabitation can be traced back to a personal selection. It is those with the fewest predispositions for stable family forming who wish to avoid marriage. Still, this line of reasoning is somewhat incomplete when it is broadly used to legitimatize trial marriage. The proportion of ´risk candidatesª is not constant from country to country, and there are countries such as Sweden, countries that have gone farthest in legitimatizing non-marital cohabitation, that also have the highest percentage of such candidates. American data does not suggest that those who have spent some time in a cohabitor relationship are prone to form more stable marriages than those who have chosen the more traditional route to marriage. As for having been through a cohabitor relationship with a partner other than the one with whom one has children, the data seems to suggest that the chances increase for the dissolution of the family further down the line.

Different studies tend to suggest that changes in patterns of cohabitation have been determined by something quite different than functional considerations for the formation of families. On the other hand, these changes can largely be explained on the basis of changes in the framework of meaning and cultural references. On the individual level, it can be shown that people who live in a ´common lawª relationship generally have more liberal attitudes than marriage people, particularly with regard to divorce. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to perceive cohabitation as something that two people choose individually on the basis of a specific prioritizing of values. In the Norwegian family and vocational survey from 1988, we see that while 18% of a selection of 4019 women stated that they were living with a cohabitor, only 2% supported the claim that ´cohabitation is always preferable to marriageª. What people do is one thing; what they would have done if circumstances had been more propitious for a different choice is another matter.

A Swedish study shows that 53% of a selection of cohabitors stated that both parties wanted to get married, while 33% stated that they themselves, but not their partner, wanted to get married. The lack of determination with respect to marriage was explained in terms of weak social trends in Swedish society for choices of this kind. This type of data encourages us to take a closer look at the question of whether the development can be explained in simple equations as the liberation of the individual from institutions. There is reason to ask whether women, all told, have been well served by the specific changes in question.

Have women been well served by these changes?

When men in our day take a critical attitude toward changes on the cohabitation front, they are usually met in predominant intellectual circles with reaction that men’s criticisms are an expression of their loss of previous privileges. It is claimed that the development must be regarded as part and parcel of women’s liberation. To the degree that developments have led to more family break-ups, in which it is the women who often take the initiative, this is because men remain stuck in old, ingrained role patterns and have not absorbed the laws of equality. Reference is often made to specific types of feminist literature from recent years in an attempt to justify the patriarchal and subjugating nature of marriage. The mystical arch-image that binds these reactions together can be found in the story of the doll house  one of Ibsen’s psychologically weakest, but still most enacted plays.

It is not difficult to find examples that fit into this idealized interpretation; and it is this kind of example that is constantly used in the public media. Still, there is much to suggest that the choice of examples is not unrelated to the way of life and lifestyle interests of those who make those choice. All of which suggests we should take a closer look at the question of whether the de-emphasize of marriage as an institution, all in all, has been in women’s best interests.

Many kinds of data can help shed light on such questions. Current conditions, marked by unstable marriages and even frailer cohabitations, could be compared with historical examples. Our basis for comparison could be last century’s manner of getting married, characterized by the parents’ active role and the couple’s veto  or vice versa  or by ideals from our own century, in which the couple passes through different stages of infatuation, engagement, and marriage, where the more rights one got, the harder it became to break off the relationship. Our comparison could also be a theoretical one. In this case, future forms of the family could be compared with functions that were adapted to a long-term social adjustment.

A number of commonplace interpretations can be refuted fairly directly. A couple of Norwegian studies can be mentioned in this connection. Svein Blom and Ola Listhaug, on the basis of data concerning health and a sense of well-being, have concluded that married partners of both sexes fare the best in different types of comparison, even with we correct for selection variables and age variables. In their conclusion they state the following: ´So it should not be a manifestation of collective irrationality when the majority of adult people get married. Reports of violence and family abuse reveal the shadowy aspects of the institution; and even though the phenomenon appears to have been on the rise, there is nothing in our data to suggest that this is anything but a deviation from the normal situation.

Objections can always be leveled against studies of general trends. In this area, violence can be said to take place behind closed doors in different families, a fact that all active policemen can confirm. The question remains, however, whether this violence is due to marriage as an institution, or whether it is because people spend much of their time in families, with this being the arena for a great deal of emotional exposure. To determine whether it promotes or hinders violence, marriage may be compared with violence in areas where the unmarried live out their emotions. We should also make an appraisal of the validity of many estimates of the outbreak of violence; indeed, these may be ideologically tinged. We must also take into consideration the fact that violence can be mutual.

Based on American data of registered incidences of violence, it is estimated that approximately 57,000 women were abused every year by their husbands every year between 1979 and 1987. But during this same period, 200,000 women were reported to have been abused by their boyfriends, and 216,000 by their ex-husbands. Of all registered violent crimes committed against women in this period, 65% were committed by these ´friendsª or by ex-husbands, compared with 9% by husbands. The differences here are too great to be attributed to women being more prone to report violence from their ex-husbands than vice versa. Measured in rates for criminal abuse of women, 12 years and older, for the period 1973-1992, the percentage was 43 for unmarried women, 45 for separated women, and just 11 for married women. Another study concluded that for every pregnant women reported to be abused by her husband, there are nearly four pregnant women who are abused by their unmarried partners. Even though it can always be argued with different selections for different forms of cohabitation unions, the data suggests that marriage, in general, lessens the spread of violence toward women.

To arrive at an explanation for this phenomenon, we may return to Emile Durkheim. He claimed in his time that it was the husband who had the greatest mental benefit from marriage, because marriage set limits for limitless needs, a fact that is a condition for inner rest. This assertion that men have more limitless predispositions than women can be justified from an evolutionary-psychological view. As an extension of this reason, we could argue that a civilizing of the man’s urges requires institutional frameworks, and that by and large this benefits women. This, in turn, suggests that a de-emphasis on institutional borders respecting the realization of needs could lower the threshold for the use of violence in several areas.

In this connection we should also consider the matter of rape. Let us take a look at a relevant commission report for the United Nations Human Rights Commission, submitted by Radhika Coomaraswamy on April 2, 1997, concerning the spread of rape, forced prostitution and sexual harassment in recent years. The commission concluded that the women all over the world are subject to increasing levels of violence. Studies at American, Canadian and British universities suggest that one out of six women has been the victim of violence with sexual overtones.


Spokesmen for individualized ideologies have tended to view the institution of marriage as a framework around husbands’ [or: the man’s] rights, which has been blamed for men thinking they did not need to show a lot of consideration for their wives. Relationships based on emotions were thought to lead to greater mutuality. This is the background for all those attempts to legitimatize all voluntariness and to define as rape all sexual relationships that were not based on mutual agreement. In practice, however, it has been impossible to determine the existence or degree of voluntariness in the many rape cases that came to court. Where it was a case of one party’s word against another, the courts usually gave the accused the benefit of the doubt. As a result, most raped women feel that they have a lot to loose and little to gain by going to court. Nevertheless, in neo-liberal societies, this has not led to a renewed interest in the institutional criteria for distinguishing between legitimacy and illegitimacy. This could have reversed the burden of proof where a man was accused of raping a woman with whom he was not married.

Naturally, gauging the use of violence against women is not the only way to decide whether women have lost or won in the de-institutionalization of family formation. Usually, women are also concerned with their children’s circumstances. So it would be in appropriate to mention some studies of how changes in the family have affected children’s circumstances of life.

Here too, not all research backs up neo-liberal interpretations. It is true that some men do tyrannize their wife and children, but statistically, this is not typical. The information we have about men’s mistreatment and abuse of children show that, on the contrary, that bad behavior is overrepresented among men who are not husbands. The independent British research institute Family Education Trust has studied family court cases in England for a 6-year period during the 1990s and found a clear connection between child abuse and family structure. British children who lived with unmarried parents were generally victims of more violence and abuse than children who were members of married families. Among children who lived together with a man who was not the child’s father, the chances of being killed were 30 times greater than among children who lived with their fathers. Several studies show that girls who live with stepfathers are at greater risk of sexual abuse than girls who live with their fathers.

Other studies conclude that the changes in family structure represent the greatest long-term threat to American children. This threat must be taken very seriously indeed in a country which, in the course of just one generation, has experienced changes in the family that have seen a decline in the number of children living with their biological fathers from about eight out of ten to six out of ten. What has been termed ´the feminization of childhoodª is a historical experiment. True, there are cases in which parental separation is experienced as a liberation for the children, but long-term studies in California suggest that this reaction is atypical for more than 10% OF CASES. The argument which states that children in previous times experienced the death of their fathers just as often as contemporary children experienced their fathers abandonment of the family does not add up. Family researcher David Popenoe writes that when a father dies, the child grieves. When a father leaves the family, the child experiences worry and guilt. Death robs fathers of their lives, but keeps their fatherhood intact. Abandonment of the family preserves the fathers, but kills fatherhood. Popenoe has also subsequently published a book in which he argues that fatherhood and marriage are indispensable for the good of children and society.

We can once again ask whether the de-institutionalization of family relationships means that women generally have gained more freedom to make their own choices, and whether this has consequently set the stage for new forms of personal development. There are studies of rapes among acquaintances with a weak family-institutional FØRING. One of the sociologists who first dealt with the consequences of de-institutionalization for relationships was Willard Waller. According to him, in relationships that were not bound by institutionalized forms, those who were least interested in seeing the relationship continue were the ones who had the most say in determining the rules of the game. Where there were children involved, and mothers had a vested interest in keeping the family intact, the husband often had a disproportionate advantage. Waller’s observations fit well with other sociological explanations of the way institutions function in regulating opposing interests, and do so in a way that serves to preserve society. Some interpersonal norms were primarily intended to limit infringements; still other norms were intended to cause people to grow together.

Men and women are not only different in complimentary ways, or in ways that set the stage for mutual attraction. Evolutionary-psychological arguments and explanations related to women’s close relationship to their offspring suggest that it is not only masculine role models and emotional seclusion that causes men and women to have fundamentally different attitudes toward commitment to marriage. Young men are noticeably more favorably disposed toward a cohabitation union than their female counterparts. There is nothing that suggests that an increasing acceptance of cohabitation is an expression of women’s increased influence on the norms of society.

If women have greater social sensitivity, this can be advantageous if the framework around the social interaction is fairly fixed. On the other hand, it is not sure that relationship-oriented ethics, which has typically characterized women more than men, is capable of coping in situations where even the rules of the game are determined by the parties. Women who have been trained to believe that the man’s emotional life is basically the same as women’s  only more hampered in terms of emotional expression after the age of four  tend to believe that the man will allow himself to be blinded by falling in love, as long as one is trusting with him. This can lead to big disappointments when she discovers that sexual satisfaction often has a liberating effect on a needs-oriented man, while this binds a relationship-oriented woman. There is much to suggest that women, all in all, have stood to lose a great deal from de-institutionalization.

Market norms and bureaucratic norms

When most people talk about women’s liberation, they are usually thinking about the spread of specific lifestyles and ways of acting, which are considered liberated, or preferably modern and liberated. People can both be for or against these lifestyles, and for or against liberation. People in normal environments often show a greater willingness to look at the negative aspects of liberation than professionals, who have a closer relationship to ideology-producing environments.

Nevertheless, we rarely encounter people in ordinary environments who problematize the description of lifestyle changes that are thought to express liberation. It is easier for those who a theoretical schooling to see that the perception of development as liberation is an interpretation, and that there are other interpretations that might prove more useful in a broad explanation. Where some see changes as a liberation from traditional gender roles and marital norms, others see those same changes as an adjustment to market norms suited to an economic institution and to bureaucratic norms suited to a political institution, as a result of the family’s becoming more vulnerable through de-institutionalization, and through a gradual relinquishment of their defenses of institutionally specific norms. [Dette var mye for én setning! Vet ikke hvordan du evt. ville forkorte det.]

This can all seem very theoretical. The significance of problematizing interpretations will become clearer if we think about day-to-day observations of changes in lifestyle. For instance, nowadays many women dress in a sexier way than women usually did in the past. But we must see what it is that is new about this, and that can evoke contemporary explanations. The fact that women use clothes to enhance their sexuality is certainly not a new phenomenon, one that would require any special cultural-historical explanation. Rather, we should direct our attention to the uni-sex fashion wave of the 1970s. What is new is not that clothes are used partly to cover up and partly to show off the body’s shape by means of sexual symbolism. In times past, there were also clear-cut rules for what constituted an appropriate way to dress in various social situations. But we would have great difficulty in finding an earlier period in which ordinary women daily went about in tight skirts and close-fitting men’s slacks in order to attract the attention of the common man on the street and in public places, or a time when symbols of the female sex were used to help sell al kinds of products and services. This is historically new, and it calls for a special cultural-historical explanation.

If we were content merely to study most people’s interpretations of these phenomena, we would most likely get stuck at women’s’ right to chose their own lifestyle, or at a moral repugnance of widespread lifestyles. To explain why a given lifestyle has become widespread in precisely our own time, we must turn to theories of institutional macrostructures, and this is by no means a characteristic of popular explanations.

If we see individual adjustment in relation to norms that derive from different institutional subsystems in a society, we will begin to see the explanations. An emphasis on characteristic norms for different institutions enables us to get beyond the framework conditions for individual choices. The reason why an institution is more characterized by certain than others has to do with the way tasks are organized in the institution, and with the way these institutions relate to others. Explanations based on institutional systems need not account for special motives on the part of al those who subscribe to the institution’s norms. A comparative institutional perspective can provide explanations on a structural macro level.

If we go back to the dawn of the modern age, we will find societal regulations that illustrate the functionality of institutional GRENSEDRAGNINGER. Institutionally related norms used to be clearly marked by their own respective areas of life: Seen in a social context, religious norms functioned as taboos for that which was sacrosanct, and as an example for various rules of living, especially on the individual level. Political norms were marked by legislative rules for governing administrative units, with those rights and duties for citizens that flowed from the authority’s legitimate decisions. Economic norms dominated the markets for buying and selling and the goal/means-rationality in the manufacturing processes, partly limited by socio-political laws. Even norms related to family relationships were institutionally limited and legally protected. The institution-specific family norms were conspicuously governed by tradition and faith, and were characterized by diffuse and mutual obligations with respect to an assigned role and to a maritally achieved status. Relationships were collectively-oriented, with family and relatives the orienting units, and were characterized by norms of loyalty for particularistic relationships. Marital exclusivity was maintained through sanctioned norms in the local community, through legislation, and through religious and popular examples.

Today’s situation could appear to be a confused version of a differentiated society, partly because market norms and bureaucratic norms have gradually come to influence an increasing number of relationships in which these norms are unlikely to be functional.

The institutional perspective shows us that we are not necessarily facing a liberation from societal pressure when we meet women who dress to attract as much attention as possible from unknown persons of the opposite sex. Nor can this be understood as an adjustment to a market-oriented organization of sex. The normative FØRINGER we would expect from the economic institution point to the perception of sex symbolism as a means of bartering in the marketplace. Strong sex symbols take on meaning when they are perceived as an advertisement for evoking the interest of potential customers, one of whom, on being selected, might prove to be a part of a lasting relationship. The fact that this does not often work is partly because men tend to think it is fair to consider women as sex objects in the marketplace, as something to satisfy their own needs, or as a means of finding a partner who will confirm men’s preconceived views of themselves.

Institutional norms not only put a framework around interpersonal activity; they do the same with the parties as persons. More than before, women must admit that they are constantly being viewed as sex objects, and that they risk sexual advances in a wife variety of situations. To avoid being caught off-guard, they must remain constantly on guard, a condition that often calls for a constant infusion of imagery and musical stimulus. Such a relational explanation might be more convincing than an individual-psychological explanation, which explains the same use of media stimuli as a form of needs realization.

Certain evidence suggests that such a continuous state of alertness can affect a person’s concentration on other things, such as work, politics and culture. Nevertheless, other dilemmas can be just as restrictive. Young women will have to be reconciled to being appraised in the sex market for their value as an experience-enhancing partner. In this competition, those who can appear to be the most devoted will be most likely to charm a man. At the same time, a devotion without a safety net might lead to many painful falls. One way of trying to cope with this dilemma involves learning to play the role of a warm woman, but acted out with an emotional reserve. A large part of the feminine role repertoire in so-called TV soap operas are just this: an education in exactly this kind of adjustment. This is hardly the most functional starting point for a modern family union, which was intended to rest on an emotional foundation. In other words, market norms have very little functionality where family unions are concerned.

It is not only norms from the economic institution that have invaded the family sphere as the family has become increasingly de-institutionalized. Political-bureaucratic norms have also made inroads, although this has not brought about more functional forms of family union.

The socio-political assistance apparatus is concerned not only with employment service, training, illness and care for the elderly, tasks too burdensome for family and relatives in view of the modern demands on living standards. Spokesmen for health services and social politics have gradually ´definedª their way into a number of areas which were previously thought to belong to the private sphere. The justification for this has partly rested in accounts of violence and neglect of the family. In a neo-liberal culture few objections are raised to the notion that all individuals are equipped with rights which the state is obligated to accommodate as far as possible. Thus the health services, in the name of humanity, becomes the spokesman for a more or less comprehensive psycho-physiological needs satisfaction, and assumes the task of dealing with individuals’ sexual rights in the face of family constraints and limits. Within this framework of meaning, traditional gender norms can be explained in medical categories as former ages’ measures for preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases as well as unwanted pregnancies. This is a situational understanding which suggests that birth control agents can serve as the functional equivalent of moral norms. If the family is to have any chance under the new institutional conditions, it will have to compete in offering the individual more experiential benefits inside than outside the framework of the family.

The socio-political bureaucracy has largely been developed as an administration of an assistance apparatus designed to provide all citizens with extra rights, and not just to deal with those who fall outside the familiar and voluntary network. Neo-liberal arguments for helping the needy with universal rights has given social politics a universalistic goal. This, in turn, has provided the framework for a number of new socio-political rules of the game. Those who successfully agitate on behalf of their clients as those with special  and many  needs, have received uncritical political assurances of considerable assistance.

The question is whether socio-political institutions should only be understood as service organs for society’s weakest. In a very critical review of Swedish family politics, David Popenoe has questioned the logic and child-friendliness of legislation which, in the name of humanity, forbids all corporal punishment, while at the same time putting cohabitation on a par with marriage, even though the former, statistically speaking, have three times the rate of dissolution as marriages, even where children are involved. Today it is the threat of parents leaving each other that creates the greatest foreboding in children. When socio-politicians do not see the inconsistencies in their own activity, this suggests that they relate to an environment with socio-political norms tat are different from upon which a functional family institution is built.

In a number of countries, in politically conservative quarters, there has been a reaction to a usurping bureaucratization, especially on the family front. The slogan of the hour was a return to the old virtues: ´Back to the basicsª. However, neither Thatcher’s nor Reagan’s politics led to greater stability of the family in their respective countries. On the contrary, the de-emphasis of the socio-political influence led to greater market influence. The institution of the family is not innate in the sense that it is bound to reclaim its position irrespective of the strength of surrounding institutions. It may not be innate, but it is certainly functional.

Functionality and fruitfulness

In most countries most people would regard the increase in family breakups as evidence that something was wrong, whether they see this as immoral, detrimental, or just something unwanted. The fate of children is often used to support and justify this perception, along with married partners who have been left in the lurch, and a general sense of unease that developments are out of control.

We might have expected that people in leading positions would have done something to turn this development in another direction  at any rate, if we assume that people in leading positions have gotten there because they are more skilled than others in interpreting and leading societal development, but that they otherwise share the values of the common people. On the other hand, if we assume that people in positions of power have generally arrived there because they have been smarter than others at exploiting society’s structures and predominant interpretations, our expectations would be otherwise. Then we would not be surprised to find that people in an interpretive position prefer to explain the breakup of families either as a positive expression of individual liberation, as an unfortunate price to pay for others and more goods, or as an expression of unavoidable development. The common thread in all of these interpretations is that they tend to disarm critical attitudes toward the predominant ideology. It is when these norms are compared with institutional norm systems in a differentiated society that we can identify these norms as market-oriented and see them in relation to the cultural patterns that emerge from an economic institution.

Nevertheless, certain functions of the family are very hard to explain away. This is particularly true of the relationship between family form and birth rate, and of the long-term prospects in the face of a fall in population. This has been particularly borne out in Germany, a country with a tradition for high welfare outlays, low pension age, and long-term birth rates under the reproductive level. At the same time, the country’s political past has made it ideologically difficult to wage an offensive ´population policyª. According to the magazine Focus for August 14, 1995, at that time 8.8 million German married couples did not have any children; 6.8 million had one child, 4.9 million had two children, 1.2 million had three children, and 0.35 million had four or more children. Of those who lived alone, 1.9 million had one child, 0.6 million had two, and 0.16 million had three or more children.

Over the long term, a birth rate below the reproductive limit could be evidence of a dysfunctional adjustment  in any case, when there are no compelling factors that would suggest the population figures should drop. But we should stress that it is the chronically low birth figures that are critical to the survival of a society rather than chance discrepancies from year to year. A temporary decline in the annual birth rate could be due to an economic downturn that has caused some married couples to postpone having children. The situation would be different if an entire year’s worth of couples were to decide to have fewer children. During the 1930s, statistics of periodic figures were interpreted as tough they were cohort figures. This later led to the view that those who cry ´wolfª are somewhat hysterical. The figures for the period after 1970 are unambiguous with respect to the long-term development. In Europe as well as our own country, the birth rates point to a level that is well below the reproductive limit of 2.1 children for women who survive their fertility period.

Some of the European Mediterranean countries, renowned for their sensual cultures, had birth rates in the mid-1990s which, on average, were 1.4 to 1.2 children per woman. We could appear to be on the threshold of a new population law: The more cultivation of sex, the fewer children! In certain districts of central Asia, the population figures are lower than one child per woman.

Calculations based on birth developments up to 1992 caused European demographers to predict an average rate of childbirths of 1.48 for the younger generation of women in the 12 EU countries of that time. Even more disheartening was the fact that there was no realistic political plan for effecting a marked rise in the birth rate. It is against this background that we must understand what the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Gaston Thron, said when he claimed that Europe was committing collective suicide.

There is no doubt that this represents a dysfunctional development, according to every discussed criteria of functionality. The question remains, however, whether this dysfunctinalism can be generally applied to cultural forms that have developed in relation to the neo-liberal ideology.

In our cultural circle, there will be a wealth of objections. The decline in the birth rate will be explained by some on the basis of economic theories, theories about women’s occupational activities, theories about historical necessity and demographic transitions and, above all, this decline will be evaluated as the result of women’s newly-won right to have the last word on their own fertility. The latter provides us with a non-cultural explanation, but also an explanation with great moral mobilization potential.

These explanations can all be made to fit various contexts in which they seemingly apply, but none of them has gained universal recognition; the reason is clear: They are not comprehensive; they cannot replace cultural explanations. Explanations based on inadequate economic resources are contradicted by experiences from other times and societies in which families had far more children than the Europe of today, even though these communities had less leisure time and fewer financial resources. Moreover, it is not always the poorest who have the fewest children. If a concept of relative poverty is introduced in order to rescue the theory, this brings us straight-away into the realm of value explanations that are based on evaluations of children as opposed to commodities. Nor can theories about the increased numbers of women in salaried occupations can explain anything except variations of the declining birth rate. Comparative studies from Norway do not suggest that occupationally active women have conspicuously fewer children than those who are not occupationally active.

Nor do historically deterministic laws concerning ´demographic transitionsª turn out to be anything except a trend. This explanation has rested on preconceptions that a decline in child mortality will necessarily lead to a corresponding decline in birth rates, after a transitional phase with high birth rates and low mortality rates. Experience thus far tells us that Europe has fallen far under the reproductive level, while the fall in birth rates in most other countries has far to go before reaching that level. Within Europe, immigrants from other cultures generally have more children than the native-born population. For Germany, the disparity in fertility rates has been put at 20%. This suggests that a number of special characteristics of an individualistic culture in our part of the world appear to be an explanatory factor we cannot get around.

In the public debate, if not necessarily in demographic circles, the most common explanation for the fall-off in births is the potential of birth control and women’s heightened technical potential for having the last word on their own fertility. The era of forced births is over. Those who bemoan this development are said to be attacking women’s liberation!

A certain familiarity with the fate of specific women caused the author early on to doubt the validity of the latter explanation. Norsk Gallup was contacted in 1975 and asked to do a representative study among Norwegian women, to determine, if possible, whether the decline in the birth rate was an expression of women’s general wishes. Of those who had children at that time, 23% responded that they had only one child; 36% responded that they had two; 22% had three, while approx. 20% reported having four or more children. To the question how many children they thought was appropriate for a Norwegian family, less than 1% of all those polled answered ´no childrenª, 2% responded one child, 44% two children, 41% three children, 10% four or more children, and only 4% responded ´don’t knowª. This distribution of responses showed already at that time that the primary wishes for number of children was above the number that women up to that time had had  or could be expected to have. To the degree that there was a mismatch between ideals and reality, this went contrary to propaganda, even though in certain cases there was a match.

Another study of the same question was carried out in the 1980s in a number of western countries. These studies showed the same trend, to an even more marked degree. The ideal number of children for European women at that time was about one child more than they had had. At the same time, comparisons showed that while the number of realized births in all the countries that were studied, with the exception of Ireland, were under the reproductive level, the ideals in every country were higher than the reproductive limit. The reason the Europeans had not reached the reproductive level can no longer be explained on the basis of women’s primary wishes.

The variation in European women’s occupational participation compared with the variations in the number of childbirths make it unreasonable to explain the low birth rate in Europe in recent years by claiming that women have received paid employment. For example, the periode target for children pr. women in Italy in 1997 is calculated at 1.22, while it was 1.86 in Norway. At the same time, OECD figures from 1997 show that scarcely 44% of Italian women were occupationally active, as opposed to 75% of Norwegian women.

This kind of study is all the more reason to focus on intermediate circumstances between wishes and realization to explain the decline in births. The de-institutionalization and disestablishing of the family appear to be good candidates for an explanation. In fact, this has been confirmed in more systematic demographic studies. The an official committee appointed to study population developments in Norway wrote their report in their report in 1984: ´Changes in fertility outside of marriage and changes in the durability distribution of marriages means relatively little. The key factors are fertility in marriage and the proportion of married women. What kept the birth rate high in the 1950s when the population of parents was small, was the fact that the percentage of married couples increased sharply. From 1965 there was a sharp drop in marital fertility. This did not have immediate consequences for the birth rate, due to the favorable change in the age structure that took place at the same time. The full ramifications only appeared after 1970. But the negative effect of marital fertility disappeared after a few years. In the late 1970s, a diminishing percentage of married women contributed most to the fall in the birth rate.ª We read further: ´We conclude that the intermediate variable related to marital behavior has had a marked influence on the development of the birth rate in the 1950s and after 1975. It is clear that the new relationship forms do not compensate for the decline in traditional marriages as far as fertility is concerned.

Despite the fact that more women than ever are giving birth, since it has become more common for unmarried couples to have children, this does not compensate for the effects of a weakened marital culture. Comparisons between fertility among cohabitors and married couples must be tempered by the somewhat uneven age distribution; more cohabitors than married couples can expect to have fertile years ahead of them. Nonetheless, the difference in birth rates between groups is so large that it is unrealistic to assume that age variation will ultimately compensate for differences in reproductive behavior.

This suggests that the de-institutionalization of family unions will be a key link in what appears to be a dysfunctional adjustment. The culture aspect of the decline in births enters into the picture in part through attitudinal changes in the direction of increased emphasis on self-realization instead of relative- and family-realization, and in part as the unintended effects of a de-emphasis and privatization of the institution of marriage, adapted to the interpretations in a neo-liberal cultural complex.

Studies of the difference between what is called the first and the second demographic transition suggest that we are faced with changes of a cultural nature. Whereas the first decline in birth rate could be explained in terms of parents’ wishes to secure a better financial and social status for their children, the decline in later years must be explained in terms of stronger wishes by the parents to gain time in which to invest more in their own self-realization and their own well-being. A Dutch demography describes the new ideals as a ´secular individualismª, with an emphasis on ´the individual’s right and freedom of defining both goals and the means of achieving themª.

The close connection between changes on the family front and the rather extensive cultural changes in the course of the last few decades makes it highly unlikely that we will see a radical revision of the position of the family as an institution as long as society is dominated by neo-liberal ideology and frameworks of meaning that are focused on self-realization. On the other hand, the relationship between a neo-liberally adjusted culture and a dysfunctional reproduction indicate that we are facing an extremely precarious situation, when viewed from a slightly longer perspective.

In order to evaluate the strength of a given development, it is not enough to consider all the forces that are at work in the ongoing development. Any explanation of the strength of such forces will be incomplete if it is not seen in relation to the weaknesses of opposing forces. Thus it would be unreasonable to say that forces which have been reckoned as culturally conservative are weak merely because they cannot be made to fit a competitive argumentation. The fact that they have not been able to stand out in the ongoing debate, especially after 1968, is due to an inability to cope with new cultural framework conditions. The burden of proof does not rest with those who speak on behalf of individual liberation, but with those who speak on behalf of a supra-individual order. Loyalty to tradition can be useful for understanding a culture from the inside. In the public arena, however, the most weighty arguments will be those that are related to research. Conservative spokesmen have not been good at developing and exploiting social research on their terms.

Even though we are faced with a significant imbalance between conservative and neo-liberal where it concerns the utilization of different types of research, the dominance of neo-liberalism cannot be explained without drawing upon a wealth of ideological constructions and myth formation. To draw closer to this aspect of contemporary culture, it would be useful to take a closer look at a debate that has unfolded after it became known in the 1970s that western societies were no longer maintaining reproduction levels. The debate on immigration deals in part with immigrants, but also with methods of interpretation which have kept important problem statements from rising to the fore.