Theorising Television and Demographic Behaviour

Television and celebrity are ubiquitous in the industrial world and, increasingly, in many parts of the developing world. Making the link between television and childbearing preferences and outcomes may seem a leap of faith, but recent studies are increasingly finding associations, particularly in the developing world. Apart from my own work, numerous studies have reflected on the relationship between television and childbearing, especially in India and Brazilian soap operas. In the past week, however, the issue has been brought to the fore by a blog post on Geocurrents by Martin Lewis at Stanford University, who explicitly examines the role of television in driving down fertility in India. For Lewis,

“television depresses fertility because many of its offerings provide a model of middle-class families successfully grappling with the transition from tradition to modernity, helped by the fact that they have few children to support.”

Lewis’s blog has generated much online comment, including this comprehensive rebuttal (which in turn prompted Lewis to write this response.)

However, both Lewis’s assertions – and those of some of his critics – tend to oversimplify the relationship between television and family formation, not least by assuming certain relationships between particular levels of ‘development’, ‘modernity’ and how they link to television.

In a chapter recently published in a book entitled No Time for Children? Fertility Rates and Population Decline I proposed a new model for thinking about the relationship between mass media and fertility which cuts across lines of development. The model, reproduced below, suggests four key ‘genres’. The first are top-down, explicit messages by Governments and NGOs designed to promote uptake of family planning or public health. Next in line are so-called ‘edutainment’ programmes. This method, pioneered by Miguel Sabido in Mexico, aims to convey a message through character development and plot lines in serials.

Characters may begin the series exhibiting the antithesis of the values being taught, but through interaction with other characters, twists and turns in the plot, and sometimes even outside intervention, come to see the value of the program’s underlying message. (Population Media Center).

Next in line are soap operas and telenovelas. In the Brazilian case, studies have demonstrated how soap operas impacted upon choices regarding family formation through the presentation of urban families with few children. However, it is crucial to understand that impacting upon fertility decline or family formation was never an explicit intention of the scriptwriters. It is, perhaps, in this area that Lewis’s concept of the presentation of a ‘modern’ alternative future lies.

Finally, in the chapter I try to argue that in contemporary industrial and post-industrial countries there is also a relationship between mass media and family formation/fertility behaviour – but it is much more subtle and difficult to entangle. Television can present (and entrench) new, desirable cultural forms, but can also misrepresent them and present unrealistic expectations or stigmatised demonstrations. In the chapter I discuss how ‘maternity reality’ shows such as ‘One Born Every Minute’ present a skewed version of childbearing which could impact negatively on attitudes towards maternity.

Blog model

Of course, these four genres are not locked into this trajectory of development. Celebrity culture and ‘Western’ television are widespread in developing countries, while explicit public health messaging is visible in the most developed settings. However, the model serves to suggest the general relationship in the development of mass media and its relationship to fertility.

In essence, we know very little about the role of television – and by extension advertising and celebrity culture – in individual formation of ideas concerning childbearing. It is vital, therefore, to foster a greater relationship between population scholars and the television and media industries, in conjunction with areas such as advertising, psychology and sociology to gain a greater understanding of the possible interactions between the various presentations of family life on television, and the views held by, particularly, young people. Indeed, as other studies begin to probe the impact of both explicit and implicit media message on other walks of life such as voting behaviour, consumption, eating disorders and women’s rights and sex stereotypes, an analysis of this kind would be timely. Only by pursuing this research agenda will we be able to fully understand the role, and significance, of the media as a component of the reflecting, and driving, fertility change across the world.

It is, of course, difficult to disentangle any role played by television from the vast array of psychological inputs which go into childbearing. This chapter briefly outlines the relationship between television and fertility in the developing world, then presents some recent research and thoughts on television in lower fertility settings to suggest how television could influence childbearing decisions. The over-arching message is that this relationship is woefully under-researched, especially given the ubiquitous nature of television and celebrity in the modern world.


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Stuart Gietel-Basten

About Stuart Gietel-Basten

Dr. Stuart Gietel-Basten is currently Associate Professor in Social Policy at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford. He is also a Research Fellow of the Social Policy and Risk Society Research Centre, National Taiwan University; the Finnish Population Research Institute and the European Research Centre on Contemporary Taiwan, Universität Tübingen. Former places of employment include IIASA, European University Institute and he received his PhD from the University of Cambridge. His research interests revolve around the fertility and ageing in Asia, as well as theoretical approaches to why people have children in the twenty-first century.

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