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Prepared for the Seminar on Social Categories in Population Health, organised by the
Committee on Anthropological Demography of the International Union for the Scientific
Study of Population, 15-18 September 1999, Cairo, Egypt.
Marital-Status and Reproductive Age as Social
Categories in Population Studies
Tulsi Patel
Department of Sociology
Delhi School of Economics
University of Delhi School of Economics
Delhi-110007, India
[email protected]
If we disagree with others we are not unquestionably wise, and they are not
unquestionably foolish
(Article X of Prince Umayado’s Injunctions)
This paper takes another look at the system in which categories of marriage and age have
been used in the research in Population Studies. The task is more in terms of the processes
towards developing, reformulating and building upon the categories and the knowledge that is
already accumulated.
When an ethnographer begins his study of a strange people he is in a remarkably analogous
position, and in the case of an unknown society he may exactly, in no trite sense, be described
as culturally blind, believe Durkheim and Mauss (1963). He is confronted with a confusion of
foreign impressions, none of which can safely be assumed to be what they appear. And the
contrast between these and the usages of his own society may be so jarring as even to induce
a sense of shock, and it is only with the most arduous and protracted efforts that he can grasp
something of how the people he is trying to understand (see) themselves and the world in
which they live. And not until he has achieved this can he usefully proceed to the technical
investigations proper to his academic subject.
Durkheim and Mauss (1963) in Primitive Classification give a striking imagery for discerning
objects in research. They state that a congenitally blind person who, when gains sight, does
not see the world which we accept as normal. Only very gradually and with intense effort can
he teach himself that that this chaos and confusion manifests an order, and only by resolute
application does he learn to distinguish and classify objects and acquire the meaning of terms
such as space and shape. Durkheim and Mauss pioneered the attempt to seek the social
conditions which make for man’s differential categorisations. Of course, in the field of
Sociology of knowledge, the central problem has been to give an account of the social
causation of man’s categories of thought. In this regard, Needham is worth quoting:
Another procedure later to become characteristic of the Annee Sociologique school, is that of
seeing a certain range of facts in their totality, as composing in a systematic fashion a whole
parts of which cannot be adequately comprehended in isolation from each other. As a precept,
this may seem obvious and even trite today, but it is not at all obvious that a systematic
relationship may be established between a rule of marriage and the attribution of responsibility
for a death, between the route followed by a people on the move and the cosmological
associations of its component groups. In any case however readily conceded in principle, it
would by no means be difficult to cite investigations today which in practice suffer from lack of
attention to the precept (1963; xxxiv).
Prepared for the Seminar on Social Categories in Population Health, organised by the
Committee on Anthropological Demography of the International Union for the Scientific
Study of Population, 15-18 September 1999, Cairo, Egypt.
The importance of this notion of classification, especially in kinship and descent systems by
scholars from Kroeber (1917), Hocart (1938) and Leach (1958) onwards is well known. Leach
claims to have come close to the Trobrianders’ conception of their meaning. The significance
of the concept of classification is only apprehended after arduous application of the task of
understanding social phenomena, the less one knows about human society and collective
representations the less they appear to mean. They should be acknowledged as having
achieved gratifying success in rendering many aspects of social life intelligible. Intelligibility is
a central concern of all knowledge-related exercise.
The ways reality is given its moral bias and the very processes by which natural and moral
order are constructed lie buried beneath the explicit forms of our everyday life, our culture and
even our ways of seeking understanding (Douglas 1973). Morality apart, the understanding of
the world by members in a society or group is partly socially derived, and largely
unquestionable with a potential for questioning. Schutz (1973) elaborates on the paradox of
rationality on the common-sense level in that, as a phenomenon becomes more standardised
the prevailing action pattern becomes more anonymous , and the greater is the subjective
chance of conformity. And when practical experiences prove the unity of the world, the
knowledge seems to appear as natural, with little readiness to abandon attitudes towards it.
The moral order and the knowledge that sustains it are created by social conventions. If their
man-made origins were not hidden they would be stripped of much of their authority. The
conventions themselves are therefore not merely tacit but often extremely inaccessible to
investigation. This poses a formidable challenge for use of social categories in research.
When it comes to actually conducting large-scale survey type research, especially data
collection, Merton’s (1968) view that behaviour is oriented towards linguistic or conceptual
meanings connoted by the terms applied to a situation is relevant. He thinks,
... in research our conceptual language tends to fix our perceptions and
derivatively, our thought and behaviour. The concept defines the situation, and
the research worker responds accordingly. Explicit conceptual analysis helps
him recognise to what he is responding and which (possibly significant) elements
he is ignoring. The findings of Whorf on this matter are, with appropriate
modifications, applicable to empirical research (1968, 145).
Concepts and categories have always been handy for disciplines to analyse and interpret their
subject matter. Since Aristotle and then Kant, the use of ‘category’ is in the logical sense that
entities are classifiable according to that which may be significantly predicated of them. It
denotes the elementary concepts of pure understanding. Though no longer in use in logic, in
non-philosophical contexts, category can be used interchangeably with class, type or kind.
Each discipline has been coining, developing and refining its own categories and concepts to
pursue its goals. Over time, some concepts and categories become specific to a particular
discipline in the way these are understood and used, for e.g. age at marriage or reproductive
age in research in the Population Sciences. At the same time, there are concepts and
categories that are used across disciplinary boundaries. Marital-status for example is a case
in point. While anthropologists are known to be among the first ones to have recognised and
dwelt upon the cultural and social significance of concepts and institutions like age, marriage,
and reproduction, other social sciences like Sociology, Psychology and Law have also been
concerned with these categories. These categories impinge upon several aspects of everyday
life and thus assume a significance of sorts.
Different dimensions of these concepts and categories get studied in different disciplines. A
multidisciplinary approach might raise a set of queries to explore the use of some of the
concepts and categories. However, this is not the exercise this paper sets out to engage in.
The attempt here is to focus on two of the categories in use in the discipline and bounce these
categories against the micro-level village demographic study conducted in India. I did reflect
upon and use at the same time the concepts of women’s status, gainful employment, age at
marriage and the economic value of children in my earlier work (1994). Marital- status and
Prepared for the Seminar on Social Categories in Population Health, organised by the
Committee on Anthropological Demography of the International Union for the Scientific
Study of Population, 15-18 September 1999, Cairo, Egypt.
reproductive age, I felt deserve some more attention and, for my personal benefit, some feed
Both marriage and reproduction are important, and often crucial institutions for society the
world over. Both permeate into arenas such as domestic group, kinship, political organisation
and gender relations among others. These are features of social organisation. Roles,
relationships, mannerisms, intimacy, lineage continuity, etc. are all in one way or another
related and/or manifested through marriage and reproduction. We shall see the two
categories in the backdrop of social structure in general and use examples form other studies
that offer some reflections on them. Each of these categories will also be understood in the
light of the research I conducted in rural north India. Reproductive age will be taken up first
followed by Marital-status. The essential character of the method of classification in Population
Studies and the ensuing policies that influence people, especially women’s lives be discussed.
Reproductive Age
Though age and ageing, including stages of maturation as observable and experienced natural
processes, are universal they are always incorporated into forms of social structure and or
invested with cultural value and significance. The life course is invested with customary values
and meanings and subject to social control throughout its course. The notions about jural,
moral and religious doctrines relate with norms about marriage, parenthood and other
physiological relationships.
Social and Atomistic Age
What must be emphasised is that stages of maturation over the individual life cycle are not
determined by or coterminous with chronological age. Age in the latter sense is established
by a cultural apparatus, a dating system that is independent of and neutral in regard to both the
biological substructure and the social incorporation of maturational stages. Criteria and norms
of chronological age imposed on these stages in western societies occur not mainly because
the apparatus is available and dominates our thinking about maturation but because the laws
that define and determine the rights and duties of citizenship demand it . Young children
worked in British coal mines 150 years ago because the law, or more exactly the state, allowed
them to be so employed, and they stopped doing so when the state prohibited such labour by
individuals under a certain age, regardless of their stature, strength, state of health, or
intelligence. Today parents are in breach of law of they do not ensure that their children, again
regardless of physical or mental capacity, attend school until the age of 16 (Fortes 1984, 101).
Further, in trying to fit the western models of social and physiological development, Fortes
refers to Goody (1976) to reiterate the tendency among anthropologists to translate what are
from the actor’s point of view generational categories into observers’ age categories. In his
study among the Tallensi, Fortes found it both directly and indirectly misleading even though
the questions were arrived at in a round about way (obviously after knowing well that the
Tallensi did not have a language that matched the chronological with the social maturation, as
a westerner would expect). This is further highlighted by relating the chronological and
generational difference among the Tallensi. These are arranged in ways whereby the
generational ranking principle is used in relations in the family and lineage, whereas in the inter
lineage matters birth order is used for ranking. In my study village in Rajasthan, even today
maturation and status that goes with it are not decided chronologically, but by socially
approved achievements. For example, Alpu a mother of four children born and all surviving
was seen to be as eligible for interacting with others in the street as Mangli who was
chronologically about a decade older than Alpu, and had five surviving children but had lost the
first few children she had. Mangli would have been considered much senior and older had she
not lost the initial achievements in childbirth that she had. A similar case is worth quoting,
Prepared for the Seminar on Social Categories in Population Health, organised by the
Committee on Anthropological Demography of the International Union for the Scientific
Study of Population, 15-18 September 1999, Cairo, Egypt.
Maganji, a Jat in his forties, has five daughters and one son who is the youngest.
Two of his daughters are married. Maganji once compared himself with one of
his daughter’s father-in-law. The latter has three sons and two daughters. His
two sons are his first two children. Maganji commented: ‘I am at least five years
older than him. But he has become a bapu (a respectable term for an old man)
so early in life because he has grown up, married sons and daughters-in-law to
work for him. His usual pastime is to relax at the street corner or in the village
elders’ meetings where he is lost under the influence of opium. He doesn’t worry
at all about running the household. My son is still young and unmarried. I am
considered younger than he is. It is his good luck.' (Patel 1994, 82-83)
Couples with only a few children and no grand children, or at least daughters-in-law in the
house are deprived of socially significant roles (of advising, attending elderly persons’
meetings, arranging for grand children’s betrothals, etc.) and the consequent status. The time
spent in social relations and pursuit of leisure increases as children grow up and take over
most of the chores. This depends primarily on one’s fertility performance rather than simply on
age. The above cases vividly portray the contrast in parental and grand parental status in
relations to fertility and age. Thus the biological age and social age may, or as is often the
case, may not coincide and this depends a lot on the socio-cultural context, the individual and
the normative expectations. The time free notion of reproductive endowment in this village in
India is similar to what is reported for Gambia by Bledsoe, Banja and Hill (date not stated on
the paper I received form one of the team members).
In contrast to the generational and birth order references, argues Fortes, age in western
societies operates atomistically, with the formally isolated individual as the unit of reference
and leaves the matter of structural continuity or discontinuity in society to the non-familial
institutional order. This contrast reflects the opposition between the domestic and the politicojural domains.
Fortes (1984) also gives the example of Ashanti where prior to 1945, people acknowledged
bodily developments for social positions and did not even connect menarche with age. But
subsequently, Fortes found that school registrations etc. had even brought in some account
keeping practices, and it had become customary to record many girls’ nubile ceremonies as
held at the age of 16 irrespective of the age at which these were performed. Though the work
by Fortes could be wished away in Population Studies as too ancient for the present day world
but, I had nearly the same experience during fieldwork in a village 18 kms from an urban
tourist city in Rajasthan in December 1995-January 1996. Men, women, girls and even some
boys (who had dropped out of school) were unable to give their chronological age upon asking.
(This is somewhat close to, but still a bit different from the earlier village study I had conducted
(see Patel, 1994). At least a dozen women I met in the first few days in December, 1995 were
amused when I inquired about their age. Each of them would laugh and could not make
enough sense of what I meant. Each one on insistence said, ‘Here I am, See’. By implication,
their physical appearance conveyed their age to me, and I should have had no need to put that
question to them. But I must hasten to add that it also means, I interpret, ‘having lived for so
many years my age is known to everyone through the kinship and community relations I have
been part of, and thus where is the need for any other identification’. I tried the same question
on many other villagers, young and old, and none could reply. So much so, that I asked a girl
who appeared to be around ten years and was carrying her few months old sibling, the baby’s
age, she said very casually, ‘I don’t know’. These examples are being given not to dismiss the
category of age in Population Studies but to point out the discontinuities and fluctuations
chronological age acquires in the light of socio-cultural experiences and expectations. In the
demographic study done by Fortes among the Tallensi in 1945, they constructed a grid of well
known events and occurrences, so that dates of birth could be approximately fixed by
reference to it. My studies in rural north India on fertility in mid 80s and on social support
systems for the aged in late 80s and in 1995-96 had to adopt a similar strategy to approximate
age figures. The effort required in knowing about age is thus enormous even though the world
Prepared for the Seminar on Social Categories in Population Health, organised by the
Committee on Anthropological Demography of the International Union for the Scientific
Study of Population, 15-18 September 1999, Cairo, Egypt.
in which these rural peasants, artisans and tribals live is no longer as alien to the world of
chronological age. Nevertheless, like the rural north Indian respondents, familial and kinship
domains remain central to majority of the world’s population and the two domains of atomistic
and social age are likely to differ frequently in varying degrees for the same individual.
The entry of the state into the familial and kinship domain does lead to some reaction among
the citizens however they define the meaning of categories that the state uses to influence their
lives. In India, age at marriage of both brides and grooms has been showing a gradual
increase since the 1901 Census. From being 13.2 years in 1901, the female age at marriage
had risen to 13.7 in 1901-1911; but fell to 12.7 in 1911-1921 decade owing primarily to the
Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929. This led to numerous marriages of younger children with
the fear that such marriages could not be arranged after the passing of the Act. Interestingly,
age at marriage for the females increased to 14.7 years in the following decade, i.e., during
1931-41. However, Indians have, since then, learnt the ways of circumventing the age
restrictions on marriage by the state. Though the age at marriage for the country as a whole is
higher than the legal age at marriage, there are about half a dozen states where this age is
lower than the legal age at marriage of 18 years for girls and 21 for boys. The cultural and
biological categories in age are not easy to put in neat compartments in the messy reality of
It is worth quoting Fortes to drive home this point,
What I am suggesting is that recognition and consideration of chronological age
as opposed to maturation and generation depend on the differentiation between
the politico-jural and the domestic domains of social life. Strip the individual of
kinship status—that is, let the identity of the person’s parent or child or spouse or
sibling be irrelevant to the granting of citizenship, with all its economic and other
concomitants and what remains to serve as a criterion for social classification
other than sex, local association, and chronological age’ (1984, 115).
These are not few and far between notions of perception and definition. The social and/or
ritual diffuses with chronological and/or biological in several ways. For instance, in SierraLeone girls are initiated into the Sande (women’s religion) at puberty and are then legitimately
eligible for marriage and pregnancy. But unless their skeletal development is broad enough for
pregnancy maternal mortality is a risk. ‘Everyone knows, by looking at girls clad only in the
traditional wraparound skirt, if they are biologically mature’ (Jumbai and MacCormack 1997,
Character of Demographic Data
Despite the non-malleability of social age lending itself to biological age, it is crucial for
demographic data to be quantifiable most of the time. The large canvass covered by
demography demands that some quantitative data be there to have reasonable ideas about
the size, composition and distribution of population across the globe. In addition, large data
sets are required to make, substantiate or counter an argument. Figures speak for
themselves. As Population Studies deals with very large data sets, there are in-built
compulsions in the method of classification and treatment. It makes it difficult to directly link
the micro-level realities of life with the macro ones except as aggregates. It is in this process
that common denominators need to be devised to make the regional, national and global
realities decipherable. But the need is also to keep from certain reductionism dictated by
numbers alone. Numbers are assigned to individuals with immediate politico-social and
cultural conditions of their lives. Faces to the demographic numbers would require a common
point, which could bring the micro-- and the macro realities closer together. But the element of
universality in figures is not the dominant characteristic of the social constructs. The use of
‘marital-status’ and ‘reproductive age’ are both categories that illustrate this point. These are
social science constructs, which have demographic relationship and consequences, inasmuch
Prepared for the Seminar on Social Categories in Population Health, organised by the
Committee on Anthropological Demography of the International Union for the Scientific
Study of Population, 15-18 September 1999, Cairo, Egypt.
as most births take place within marriage all over the world on the one hand and obviously, on
the other, births can take place only during the reproductive age.
In Population Studies the term reproductive age implies that it is the reproductive age of
women for all practical purposes. Like in any other science and social science, Population
Studies has its own concepts and these have been through the series of developments that
concepts go through whether their organisation involves succession, configuration, including
co-existence and/or procedures of intervention. In this vein, Foucault (1972, ch 5) opens up
the steps of formation of concepts to argue that instead of replacing concepts in a virtual
deductive edifice. Narrow definitions of cultural categories are so well entrenched that that
Phoenix (1992) dismisses the well established preconceived notions of motherhood by choice
among the White and by chance among the Black women on the basis of her in-depth data
among the two groups of women in Britain. It is worth describing the organisation of the field of
statements where concepts such as reproductive age appeared and circulated.
Noso Politics/Technology of Population
That a concerted level of intervention not only by the state but also by many other social
organisations in the field of health had begun in the 18 century, noso-politics of some kind as
portrayed by Foucault (1980) was in practice in earlier societies as well. The surveillance of
one class over the other could be seen happening. The early 18 century academic and the
early 19 century statistical societies endeavoured to organise a global, quantifiable knowledge
of phenomena, including morbid ones.
But one must also note another process…the emergence of the health and physical well-being
of the population in general as one of the essential objectives of political power. Here it is not a
matter of offering support to a particularly fragile, troubled and troublesome margin of the
population, but of how to raise the level of health of the social body as a whole. Different
power apparatuses are called upon to take charge of ‘bodies’, not simply so as to exact blood
service from them or levy dues, but to help and if necessary constrain them to ensure their own
good health. The imperative of health: at once the duty of each and the objective of all."
(Foucault 1980, 169-70)
But what was mixed procedures of policing in the 18 century begin to get broken down into
different elements.
What is the basis of this transformation? Broadly one can say that it has to do with the
preservation, upkeep and conservation of the ‘labour force’. But no doubt the problem is a
wider one. It arguably concerns the economico-political effects of the accumulation of men.
The great eighteenth century demographic upswing in western Europe, the necessity for coordinating and integrating it into the apparatus of production and the urgency of controlling it
with finer and more adequate power mechanisms cause ‘population’, with its numerical
variables of space and chronology, longevity and health, to emerge not only as a problem but
as an object of surveillance, analysis, intervention, modification etc. The project of a
technology of population begins to be sketched: demographic estimates , the calculation of the
pyramid of ages, different life expectations and levels of mortality, studies of the reciprocal
relations of growth of wealth and growth of population, various measures of incitement to
marriage and procreation, the development of forms of education and professional training.
Within this set of problems, the “body” –the body of individuals and the body of populations—
appears as the bearer of new variable, not merely as between the scarce and the numerous,
the submissive and the restive, rich and poor, healthy and sick, strong and weak, but also as
between the more or less utilisable, more or less amenable to profitable investment, those with
greater or lesser prospects of survival, death and illness, and with more or less capacity for
being usefully trained.
The biological traits become relevant factors for economic
management, and it becomes necessary to organise around them an apparatus which will
ensure not only their subjection but constant increase of their utility.' (1980, 171-2)
Prepared for the Seminar on Social Categories in Population Health, organised by the
Committee on Anthropological Demography of the International Union for the Scientific
Study of Population, 15-18 September 1999, Cairo, Egypt.
The development of population from people when quantitative reasoning had been a mere
adjunct to the observations form parish registers in the 18 century and even around 1800 is
powerfully traced by Duden (1992). Soon the mathematical treatment of data became the
basis of a new theory and concepts. The new language was created to observe people in
quantitative contexts. These concepts uncovered general truths about mass phenomena even
if cause of a particular action was unknown and remained inaccessible. Populations were
attributed new forms of behaviour explained now by probability and statistics became the New
Latin, and population lost tie to actual people. And since the late 1940s and more so since the
50s, the relationship between population statistics and population control policies of various
hues have been pursued by national governments and international agencies, mostly for the
poorer South, the period distinguished for the removal of population from real people. Though
one realises that part of the distancing might be owing to the character of demographic data,
yet it is worth considering if this distancing is serving the purpose of truthful representation of
people under study. This could logically follow to the question of malleability of data and the
extent of it as against the reality. In effect this is a second level at which one raises the issue
after the first one of Durkheimean cultural blindness of an alien ethnographer.
ICPD and the Recent Discourse on Reproductive Age as a Category
The three international events of the UN: the United Nations Conference on environment and
Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro, June 1992; the International Conference on
Population and Development (ICPD), held in Cairo, September 1994; and the Fourth world
Conference on Women (WCW), held in Beijing, September 1995 heard the women’s voices
louder than earlier. From the international consensus on the need for a radical reform of
economic co-operation and development , the centrality of women’s needs also emerged.
Women’s voice that had been a soft murmur for several decades and officially since the UN
decade for women (1975) broke the sound barrier with these conferences held in quick
succession. The erstwhile murmur could no longer be ignored. Reproductive health,
particularly of women (and only to a small extent men as well as adolescents) came to occupy
special significance. Maternal and Child Health (MCH) had already been the acknowledged
area of attention. This had been realised in the course of Family Planning Programmes’
experiences in many parts of the world.
Leaving aside studies on migration and mortality, the literature in population studies is largely
in the area of fertility. This literature falls broadly into three categories crossing audiences and
bringing common grounds as well. These are: the consequences of population growth on
development; determinants of fertility; and contraceptive practices and family planning
programmes. However, in population studies, the centrality of the woman has always been
there. Almost all the demographic measures of fertility are based of women’s figures, their
number, age, marital status, and numerous other dimensions and aspects that influence
women in fertility outcomes. Similar is women’s centrality in exercises of forecasting future
figures and population estimates. The term reproductive age too as a category in the
understanding of the various dimensions of reproductive outcomes and behaviour has always
been in use. Of course, as we know, age classification is a discrete exercise rather than a
continuous one. The varying classes we find in reproductive age range from age 15-45 or 1549 or 13-45 or 13-49. These classes clearly convey the biological primacy in determining the
reproductive age. However, biological dimension of secondary sterility both in early teenage
and later on towards the last few years of pre-menopausal stage are not given any
consideration. More important than the biological aspects of reproductive age are the social
and cultural dimensions particularly as they influence fertility. For instance, fertility can take
place only after marriage in some societies but this is not the norm in many others. How does
one account for these socio-cultural features in Population Studies’ categories is not an easy
problem. However, the category of reproductive age has a special significance in the wake of
ICPD 1994. The new challenges posed by delinking of sexual activity and marriage, and early
Prepared for the Seminar on Social Categories in Population Health, organised by the
Committee on Anthropological Demography of the International Union for the Scientific
Study of Population, 15-18 September 1999, Cairo, Egypt.
ages at which sexual activity is taking place in many western and other parts of the world are
throwing up serious challenges to social categories in Population.
In population studies, like in feminist writings of the early period, there has been a voice that
seems to speak about all the people. However, unlike feminist research, population studies
recognised early on that the world was not a uniform reality. But this recognition had been
translated only at the level of policy. In other words, it was realised that populations were
structured and changing differently in different parts of the world, and this required different
treatments at the level of policies. Nevertheless, the world has been seen as divided only into
two sets of population realities, one growing too fast and for economic development to be
effective and the other rather slow. The former was a serious pathology, not so much the
latter(in fact it was normal and rational). Planned families and planned parenthood seemed to
be the prescriptions to deal with the pathology. These were ingrained in population policies.
Though women’s voices were not the voices of the policy makers, the policies affected them to
a great extent. The historical account of organisation, implementation and experiences of
people with family planning programmes in most parts of the world reveal that women were
targeted and had greater influence of the policies than did men. The story from the pill, the
condom, the intra-uterine device, the diaphragm, sterilisation, the indictable and the implant, all
have either been exclusively for women only (technologically determined) or were forced
and/or received by women more than their male counterparts. However, over the past decade,
feminists and women’s studies groups have come to realise that there is no single feminist
voice or representation of women that could stand as the universal truth. Voices of women
form the non-western, non-white, working class and non-English speaking societies showed
several differences. Harcourt’s review of the realisation of difference at the international policy
level is worth noting:
This challenge has been particularly important to the United Nations debates,
which are attempting to legislate for all people and all countries. Women
contributing to the debates therefore seek to document the wide variety of
women’s experiences, for example from local community women’s struggles
against the environment at UNCED to testimonies of cultural differences in
reproductive behaviour at the ICPD, to women’s fight to attain recognition of their
rights as human rights at the WCW (World Conference on Women). With the
huge collection of stories and data on women to hand, it is now very difficult to
speak universally of ‘women and environment’, ‘women and population’ or
‘women and development’. Instead, the specificity of any woman’s historical,
political, linguistic, economic, cultural, racial, ethnic, and class background is
demanded when trying to explain her behaviour, needs, or ambitions as an actor
in these three areas (1997, 10).
Differences between men and women continue to be understood through the biological
differences, but there are cultural, economic and political differences which are associated
varyingly with biological difference. It is here that the possibility of further exploration of the
gender principle and its ties with the non-biological organisation of realities and relationships
lie. And this is possible by documenting the local level experiences and realities of women and
deriving certain gender order generalities from the variety obtained. It is the availability of this
variety and difference among societies and regions of the world that the need for addressing
the difference among women rather than treating all women as the same biological entities has
become audible. Population Studies as a discipline has been documenting for a long time, the
micro level experiences of population processes. Also, evidence from these documents has
been used to feed into policies. The micro level data is generated and collated at regional,
national and global levels. Perhaps for the translatability of micro level data into a macro one,
expected out of a discipline like Population Studies is quite justified at a certain level.
However, a great deal of other information that has been generated in recent years on related
aspects of population and particularly gender relations could be taken on board here.
Prepared for the Seminar on Social Categories in Population Health, organised by the
Committee on Anthropological Demography of the International Union for the Scientific
Study of Population, 15-18 September 1999, Cairo, Egypt.
One of the reasons why I thought of deliberating on the applied side of the category of
‘reproductive age’ is primarily because in the present day globalising scenario of the world,
women are being affected in specific ways and not necessarily in the same ways as those in
which men are. Sen and Correa in DAWN Informs 94/5 pointed out that human rights and
women’s health were the battlegrounds of the major struggle between women’s organisations
and religious fundamentalists. Fundamentalism was one of the most damaging global trends.
The issue raised in relation to globalisation is the rise of fundamentalism and uncertainty. At
the ICPD feminist’s fight for reproductive rights was largely against Catholic anti-abortion
groups and Islamic fundamentalist groups. In this light it is women’s health issues that are
most likely to be taken up on board as secular and critical to women’s bodies. And for
population experts the importance of this age group is increasingly becoming crucial. It is
already visible in many ways, particularly from the kind of issues that have been brought up
during the Cairo and the Beijing conferences.
The fear is that akin to the medical reductionism of the birthing body and the conviction that
there is a certain and the only one (rational) way of dealing with pregnancy and childbirth, there
might be a medical reductionism in the reproductive health and policy sphere as well. That
reproductive age is the only relevant age in a woman’s life is going further on with the biological
reductionism and caging the woman during her reproductive age. Without meaning to declare
modern medicine as useless for women, it is significant to note that modern medical discourse
operates to produce a series of practices that define and capture the female reproductive body
as a medical object to be manipulated and dominated by science and technology. This tends
to clear the body from its social and cultural relations, which has not usually been a liberating
and enabling force for women. Patel (1999 a and b) shows how Cartesian dualism of modern
medicine robs rather than empowers the woman during her childbirth experiences. (Cf. DavisFloyd and Sargent 1997, and De Vries 1997 for similar work). The woman, and more so the
female body becomes a universal body in modern medical paradigm. Harcourt sums up this
issue in exploding the myth of freedom of choice that the women of the North have:
The health of the social body (whether the modern industrialised nation has an
ageing or young population, whether women produce enough babies for the
renewal of the modern state, and so on) is linked directly to the individual
reproductive (female) body, removed from women’s diverse social, economic and
political realities (Phillips,1992: Hartman,1995: Lykke and Braidotti 1996),
This exercise may be a pointer towards the danger of isolating a certain biological (if
ascertainable) age in reproductive health policy on women.
There is another reason as well for the fear which emanates from the historical developments
since the 18th century. Foucault’s (1986) History of sexuality throws light on the openness and
frequency of discourse on sex and sexuality and provides an account of the interest in body
politic and its relationship with population and in turn with the female body as the producer of
population. And further down the time lane, linking with the body politic development, a parallel
historical development was the focus on the female body its sexualisation and medicalisation,
as the key to the control and management of population. The eugenics movement for a
healthy population at the beginning of the 20 century brought the female body under medical
scrutiny and control (Duden,1993; Sayers, 1982; and Stanworth, 1987). Though healthy
population was also an issue that mattered to the Greek City State during Plato’s time, unlike
the eugenics of the 20 century, it focused little on the female body. What was once outside
medical interest, ‘the female reproductive process’ became the subject of intense medical
concern and was pathologised in western medicine. From a natural bodily process
experienced by the women, it became a disorder females were no longer capable of handling.
The state patronage derived by medical services for this take over enabled the modern
medicine –state collaboration to decide the health of the body politic. (See Stacey, 1988 and
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Oakley, 1984 for the male take over of the female body)
ambience was forgotten in the mind-body dichotomy.
The social and the emotional
In these historical developments, women’s reproductivity is understood, on the one hand, as
the key to the health and growth of the population, and objectively measured in population
statistics, while on the other hand, it is in need of close medical supervision, removed from
social and emotional needs and constraints. In both cases, women as subjects with choices,
histories and social, political and economic concerns, rather than as objects of the scientific
medical gaze, are missing (Harcourt, 1997,16).
Policy and Premonition
In the South, population is closely related with issues of development. It is the problem of
women producing too many babies and that needs to be curtailed to contain the world wide
‘population explosion’. Women’s bodies again become the central concern in this argument
(Spallone, 1989). The morass of figures which demography requires for its analysis and
conclusions used also by development experts go to reiterate the control of over-population.
Women, and even men loose their complex realities, lives as persons belonging to local
cultures and communities. They are taken out of their immediate environs and become figures
and targets. In most cases, like in India, these have led to interventions more into the female
body than the male body. And the enveloping of these programmes is soft enough to be
appealing, i.e. they are to be desired as they lead to the achievement of traditional
development goals. Whether the women in the south understand them, and their implications,
prefer them, need them or suffer from them when forced to accept them is said to be only a
small cost to be paid for achieving the desirable goal. Maternal and Child Health (MCH), and
education become part and parcel of population programmes. And from the experience of
women in the South, population control through these programmes takes over as an overriding
force. Lactating mothers and pregnant women are the ones who matter. It took very long in
India to change over from MCH to RCH (reproductive and child health, post-ICPD), and not to
exclude reproductive women other than pregnant and lactating mothers in health programmes.
The premonition though is that reproductive age, constituting a very large part of women’s lives
(is formed much before and continues to influence them much later in life) might become the
cut-off indicator for attention to women and especially to their health. It is understandable that
Population Studies would focus on this age group for almost all of their research when dealing
with fertility matters, which are crucial to it as a discipline. And it is in fact also true that women
are most at risk during their reproductive age. But there is evidence showing high MMR
among reproductive age women whose overall health make up has been poor much prior to
the onset of their reproductive age. Also, there is enough evidence, interestingly contributed by
population Studies too, of high morbidity and mortality of girls much younger than the
reproductive age. So is also evidence on elderly women suffering form neglect and
indifference much after they have passed their reproductive age. Yet the focus on
reproductive age both for the purposes of study and aid would not include women outside
reproductive age for health provisions under population programmes however pressing the
scope might be. This is the crux of the premonition. Also, the policy makers may not feel the
necessity to look for conditions of poor health of women in reproductive age. The question as
to why should women in reproductive age be so much at risk needs to be asked. But catching
women while they are reproducing is perhaps the most viable way to contain their proliferation.
It is interesting that at one level there is a certain resonance between societal practices of
treating a female as a person only through her reproductive proof and on the other the focus of
post-ICPD population studies on reproductive age for special health treatment of women in that
age group. Just as women’s status and role, kinship ties, residence, property, guardianship,
etc. alter with her reproductive capacity and performance, it is precisely this woman that
interests Population Studies too. Though households are co-operative conflicting units, they
do, in some weak ways, recognise the social, cultural and economic, and political aspects of
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reproductive women obtained before the onset of their reproductive as well as their ‘postreproductive age’, where as Population Studies, and especially the recent emphasis on
‘reproductive age’ as a category devotes little attention to the pre- and post-reproductive age.
Also, and for more pressing health matters today, the near universal focus on females in the
category ‘reproductive age’ ignores more than half the world’s population. Men are mostly not
covered under the category of ‘reproductive age’ in Population Studies. Questions about the
nature and dictates of classification arise here. If men are reproductively capable from puberty
to death, what kind of age classification does this feature require? At the policy level, there are
two questions. These would be: a) Is it worth (economically viable) covering such a large span
of male reproductive life?, and b) whether focusing on women is enough for population
regulation (for decreasing population in the South and its reverse in the North)?Nevertheless,
HIV-AIDS is forcing the inclusion of men in health policy. And Population Studies, thankfully is
including HIV-AIDS issues under its umbrella. Besides, whether Population Studies would
integrate and see the interdependence of pre- and post-reproductive age women with those in
the reproductive age is for time to tell us.
From the earlier research based in a village in Rajasthan (1994), I came to realise that the
concept of status of women as understood in Population Studies as in all other social sciences
was a difficult one and did not fit in the village life, especially when related with fertility. The life
cycle perspective taken to understand fertility predispositions and material, cultural and
symbolic forces that influence fertility and women’s status opened up a treasure of pathways
into understanding fertility behaviour. Similarly, whether it is for population studies or for
population policies, a life cycle view of women’s health is required. The paper endeavours to
highlight that though it is to be appreciated that the earlier category of maternal health has
been broadened in scope by including reproductive health but narrowing down to only
reproductive age is only half the job done. Despite Wagner’s (1997) stupendous efforts
several years ago (See footnote 1, of this paper), the ICPD has been able to achieve only half
the success. Numerous forces condition reproductive health before a woman reaches
reproductive age. Ignoring the nature and extent of these forces is ill affordable.
Demographic work is so central to policy that it is not easy to compare it with art and aesthetics
and the kind of debate that follows the separation between art and truth------ the discordance
between the two gave Nietzsche, a holy dread.
Marital Status
Marital status has been of importance to both Population Studies (since Malthus’ time) and to
Kinship and Family studies in Anthropology and Sociology. The predominant interest of
Population Studies has been in fertility, be it the determinants, outcomes, models, patterns,
trends or projections and especially in women through whom all fertility rates and ratios are
measured. A look at the journals of Population and Demography would support this
observation. Besides a great deal of the census material, which is culled out for Population
Studies purposes, the famous World Fertility Survey (WFS) and the recent Demographic and
Health Survey (DHS), reiterate this view. The DHS, as the name suggests, declares in the
beginning that it ‘is part of the world-wide DHS programme on fertility, family planning, and
maternal and child health’. The Bangladesh DHS observes at the introduction of marital status
section, ‘Marriage is a primary indicator of exposure of women to the risk of pregnancy and is
therefore, important in understanding fertility patterns’ (BDHS 1994, 71). Similarly, the
Zimbabwe DHS (ZDHS) claims to focus on the principal factors other than contraception that
affect a woman’s risk of becoming pregnant---nuptiality, sexual activity, postpartum,
amenorrhea and abstinence form sexual relations (ZDHS 1994, 69). Though it is heartening to
know that ZDHS takes account of unions that have not formally had a civil or religious
marriage, but has only four classes under the category of marital status: ‘never married’,
‘married’, ‘widowed’, and ‘divorced’.
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While dealing with the problem of projects that transform preliterate, pre-capitalist, pre-modern
people, Anthropology (read also sociology and Population Studies) though has been held as
culturally marginal to modern European society needs to be re-examined. Anthropology, then,
appears to be involved in definitions of the West, while Western projects are transforming the
peoples that ethnographers claim to represent. Both processes need to be studied
systematically. To understand better the local peoples ‘entering’ (or ‘resisting’) modernity,
Anthropology must try to deepen its understanding of the West as something more than a
threadbare ideology. To do that will include attempting to grasp its peculiar historicity, the
mobile powers that have constructed its structures, projects and desires (Asad 1993, 23-4) .
When quantitative data relating populations are aggregated, analysed, and manipulated, they
not only require a certain kind of classification and analysis but also the results can be used to
inform particular kinds of systematic practice directed at that population. The representation of
the data also becomes essential to a distinctive style of argument by which such practices are
justified or criticised. Asad (1993, 7) refers to Ian Hackings in this regard to point out the
possibility to create truth and falsehood) the system (read method in Population Studies)
therefore relates to a mode of human agency (real people doing real things), one that
conditions other people’s lives. The immediate objective of this agency, however, is not to
cause individual actors to behave in one way rather than another. It is to change aggregate
human conditions (distributions, trends, etc.) that are profitable or useful –in, for example,
matters of landed property, disease, and literacy (read also reproduction). Its systematicity
lies, therefore, in probabilities, not causalities. But it is a kind of systematicity (and, therefore,
of power) that is not easily grasped through what is typified as anthropological work. For
although it represents people and their activities at ground level, it does not mirror them (Asad
1993, 7).
Official Population Data: a Contrast Between the First and the
Third World
Classification of people in official statistics in the West, on the other hand, reveals the clarity of
chronological age (See the British census and other official British population statistics). In this
regard it is interesting to note that the user Manual of OPCS Longitudinal Study (LS) produced
by SSRU, of City University, London in 1990 is a study of a set of people picked up since 1971
and followed through to the 81 and 91 censuses. The same sample is to continue to be
followed through to the next two censuses until 2011. It covers births, migration, re-entry,
death of spouse, cancer, death, etc.
There is an entry under the variable of change in marital status. This variable was derived
using information on the marital status and spouse’s date of birth obtained from the 1971 and
1981 censuses. This variable reclassifies LS sample members who were recorded at both
censuses as ‘married’ and ‘remarried’ and who were resident in a private household (with their
spouse also recorded on the same Census form). The classification procedure was such that
men and women were classified as married to the same spouse in 1971 and 1981 if two of the
three elements: I) day, month and year of the spouse’s date of birth were in agreement. 2) A
person was classified as having remarried between 1971 and 1981 if two or three elements of
the spouse’s date of birth were different in the two censuses and if either a) Marital status in
1981 was recorded as ‘remarried’ or b) an intercensal marriage date was given on any of the
birth records for that person which were linked into the LS. Now it is amazing with what
analytical permutation combination can near accurate results about marital status be derived in
societies where date of birth is a crucial and regularly required information at all steps in life.
In the above respect it is worth appreciating the efforts of the British social science and
population science experts in dealing with real people statistically and longitudinally at that. A
look at the British Census too reveals the urge to come closer to reality with every census. For
instance, in the 1991 Census an additional class was added to the existing ones. This is the
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class of ‘remarried’. However, what is intriguing to note is that the Household Survey, also
conducted by the same government department has no ‘remarried’ class. Nevertheless, one
must hasten to add that it has the class of ‘legally separated’. The effort of the more cautious
British Census and Household Survey staff to come closer to reality is worth noting when we
see the plans for having classes under the marital status category for the 2001 Census. There
are going to be six classes in place of the existing five. The existing ones are: ‘never married’,
’married’, ‘divorced’, 'widowed' and ‘remarried’. The new class to be introduced is ‘separated
but still legally married’. This reveals the exercise for the incorporation of reality while dealing
with macro-level country- wide population data, especially in the field of marriage as a social
The contrast in sensitivity to reality and its reflection in these exercises is revealing in the
Bangladesh Demographic Health Survey (BDHS). Table 5.1 deals with current marital status.
There are four classes in the Table. These are: ‘never married’, ‘married’, widowed’, and
‘divorced and deserted’. There is no class covering remarried persons. This is surprising in
the light of the fact that remarriage is not only preferred but also has prescriptive doctrinal
injunctions in Islam, and thus has a very special significance for Bangladesh (BDHS 1994, 72).
A study of the socio-cultural tables, based on the Indian census data, which deal with marriage
and fertility data show the treatment given to the category of marital status. In 1961 and 1971
censuses discussed in Natrajan’s (1971) monograph on age and marital status only three
classes are made. These are: ‘married’, 'unmarried' and ‘widowed’. In 1981 as well as in 1991
censuses, there is a further development in bringing reality closer to classification. The
questions asked and responses coded for marital status in the1981 and 1991 censuses are:
‘never married’ (N), ‘currently married’ (M), ‘widowed’ (W), and ‘divorced and separated’ (S).
For 1981 Census the age groups for marital status begin from 10 years. The first grouping is
of age 10-11, followed by 12-13, 14-15, followed further by a five year class-interval. However,
there appears to be a slight recognition of the existence of difference between ever-married
and currently married shown against each age group in two different columns. Yet, these do
not reveal the actual picture. The gap between the two columns could be owing to delay in
cohabitation, but it could also be due to divorce and/or widow(er)hood---all lumped together in
the two columns of the tables.
Thus even with the tabulation devised to show the difference in figures between the two
columns, the picture remains largely hazy as far as reality is concerned. The instructions to
enumerators in Appendix II in both 1981 and 1991 censuses are identical (see Appendix II).
The issue here is not whether non-cohabiting couples are reported as currently married, but
more crucial is whether those wedded would report as never-married, given the significance of
marriage in society. If they do not report as never-married, where else will they be reported as
belonging? The census of 1991 does not tabulate the ever-married and currently married
under different columns. The tables for the 1991 census are given by five year age groupings
for the four classes of marital-status. Unlike the 1981 census tables, the 1991 Census tables
do not present data by two-year groupings for very young age groups. Instead, the latter
Census clubs all ages zero to 9 years and all those above 80. This practice of census
reporting erases or negates the real picture and brings out a picture that is more close to the
legally accepted one in marriage matters. By providing the slots matching with legal ideals and
norms, a great deal of reality is just not mirrored (See Table C-1at the end)..
The picture in NFHS (National family and Health Survey, the counterpart of what is called DHS
for other countries) conducted after the 1991 census, i.e., in 1992-93 also is somewhat similar.
Nevertheless, it is better than that in the Census of India. NFHS contains information on
marriage and fertility. It is based on a nationally representative sample of 89,777 ever-married
women in the age group 13-49 (not the whole lot of reproductive age women) from 24 states
and the National Capital Territory of Delhi during April 1992-93. Though it covers women 1349 years, there is also coverage of women six or more years: ‘among females age 6 or more
years, 54% are currently married and 37% have never been married’ (NFHS: 43). At the same
time, later on there is a statement that in the country as a whole, the median age at first
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marriage is about 8 months earlier than the median age at first cohabitation with the husband.
Though the marital status grouping between the censuses and NFHS is not too different, the
latter unlike the former has differentiated the class of divorced from that of separated . Also,
the NFHS has been able to work out the time gap of 8 months between marriage (I would
prefer to call it wedding, see Patel 1994 ) and cohabitation by administering two additional
covering questions in the women’s questionnaire. These are: ‘How old were you at the time of
your first marriage?' And, ‘How old were you when you started living with your first husband?'
(See page 349). The two questions in conjunction can provide the relevant information at least
about the two incidents being either simultaneous or separated by time, besides working as a
check on their timing and occurrence. This is certainly a step nearer to reality than the census
In an interesting study of marriage changes in Sri Lanka Caldwell (1999) quotes other
authorities regarding a somewhat over statement of age at marriage on the basis of Census
figures from 1901- 1981. The report of the census noted that ,
... the mean female age is probably higher than is actually the case as there is a
tendency to over-state the age of the bride at the registration of a marriage, on
account of legislation - imperfectly understood, but recognised as existing - as to
the age at which girls can marry. In many cases the parties have contracted
marriages according to their own religious rites and customs, or lived together as
husband and wife for years before registering their marriage (Denham 1912, 350).
The Census Commissioner, E. B. Denham (1912: 323), thought, perhaps optimistically that,
since the 1901 census had been the first at which information on marriage had been obtained,
enumerators had, in his words, become more civilised and thus refused to countenance
customary unions as marriage. The problem was apparently also true of the 1921 census
(Ranasinha, 1950: 192, vol. 1). The impression is given not only that the 1911 and 1921
censuses grossly overstated the age at marriage, at least of females, but that the 1901may
also have overstated it to a less extent. (Caldwell 1999, 41-42).
While discussing the nature of Census taking in Sri Lanka, Caldwell (1999) points to the
practice in earlier censuses to exclude the customarily married which led to increased figures
for celibacy, and with the later censuses including the customary marriages and thus showing
decrease in celibacy (leading to contradictory conclusions from the same marriage rate data
Sarkar 1957, 72-73 and Dixon 1970, 209). Similarly, the low figures for divorced and
separated, points out Caldwell, is owing to legal rather than actual figures. Further the difficulty
in comparing the Sri Lankan World Fertility Survey (SLWFS) and the Sri Lankan Demographic
and Health Survey (SLDHS) for the former covered all married women, while the latter was
restricted to only 15-49 age range. On census figures which show fairly stable marriage in Sri
Lanka, Caldwell concludes on the basis of a few studies, that the lower rates of divorced and
legally separated is owing to the legal rather than actual. Similarly, the discrepancy between
the SLWFS and SLDHS figures for divorce and legally separated is because the former
covered all ever married women, while the latter covered only those 15-49 years. As both
divorce and separation are not respectable in Sri Lanka, people are reluctant to admit it.
Because of social pressures women are also reluctant to actually divorce or separate, and if so
prefer not to state it comfortably. So also is the case with remarriages. Even the three types
of marriage, namely common-law, ceremonial and registered, besides the differences in each
one’s stability makes it more complex to be pictured in surveys of very large magnitude.
The writings of anthropologists and of early travellers indicate greater instability than shows up
in census evidence. The anthropologist, Edmund Leach, wrote of the village of Pul Eliya,
which he studied in 1954, that the common-law marriage, which most villagers practised, was
so unstable, uncertain even, that it was difficult to distinguish between marriage and
promiscuous mating, and that, as a result, most people had been married more than once
(Caldwell 1999, 50).
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The Village Encounter
There was a difficulty I encountered in the village I conducted fieldwork in 1984-85, in
classifying a woman into widow or divorced. This was the case of a woman who had been
divorced by her husband. But when I conducted the study, her ex-husband has already
expired. It was not easy for me to put her under either divorced or widowed straight away. But
in due course I came to understand that she was considered as a widow as her ex-husband
had died. I then classified her as a widow to keep the social reality in tact. Though for matters
of Population Studies this classification may not have much relevance as her marital status is
not of much consequence for fertility outcomes. But it is a significant feature of social and
kinship reality as to how a divorced woman’s ties are linked with her ex-husband’s life. There
was another difficulty besides the classification dilemma. This was to do with finding out about
the marital status from respondents themselves:
One major hurdle existed regarding the question of marital status. In the village usually this
kind of question is not raised, because a woman’s dress, ornaments and her overall
appearance are sufficient indicators. For instance, there is a striking contrast between an
unmarried and a married girl in the blouses they wear. Similarly, there are subtle (and also
obvious) differences in jewellery, design and colour of dress between a married woman and a
widow, and between women of different castes.
Uniformity in dress is found among girls, both wedded and unwed. Thus it is common to
question whether a particular girl is wedded or not. But the question about a girl’s wedding
status did not help me because my respondents were to be ever married women. For a
teenage girl, the kanchali is a sufficient indicator of her ‘married’ status. The only question
then frequently asked is, ‘Where (which place) is the girl married off to?' In other words, the
inquiry tends to identify the girl’s conjugal household and conjugal village. I could distinguish
between married and unmarried women in this way. But several elderly women wearing dull
coloured kanchalis and very little jewellery could not be easily distinguished form widows
during the initial stage of fieldwork. And there was no conventional way of inquiring about their
marital status.
Considering these complications, I inquired about the marital status of most women from their
neighbours or relatives prior to my meeting them. I had to make indirect inquiries about the
elderly women’s husbands’ health, age, etc. I either got the answers about the husband, or
was told that he was dead. Before I adopted this strategy, I seriously erred in asking a few
widows their husband’s age which resulted in awkward situations. The widows responded
either by sobbing for having to recollect a tragedy, or by expressing outright anger at such a
clumsy question. Of course, one or two of them simply clarified that their husband had passed
away (Patel 1994, 241-242).
The social significance of marriage is such that it influences statements about chronological
age both for males and females, more particularly of females in villages in north India at least.
If a girl is married off a couple of years earlier than the roughly average age (around puberty),
her marriage is justified by statements like, ‘she has not developed well physically but she is
not all that young. She only looks small and thus younger than she actually is’. On the other
hand, if for some reason a girl as married at an age well past puberty, contrary statements
about her physical built are made. These include,’ She has had good and nutritious food / her
parents are well built and she has taken after them or she is not as old as you think’. Reverse
arguments are given if the girl in question is yet to be married. Many a time, economic and
other such reasons are widely considered and shared as enough justification for early or late
Though it is not easy in rural India to conceal such a reality, the social matching of age with
being married, separated or divorced is done with some element of hesitation mixed with the
urge to justify the act. Ideals and practice may not coincide all the time. However, these
examples convey much deeper aspirations, fears, and feelings regarding the desirability of
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marriage (need for children, and very crucially, the availability of non-familial options), costs of
marrying early, late or never marrying, which are strongly affected by notions of chastity and
honour of the person, the family and the circle of relatives.
There are numerous non-western, and in fact very large number of the world’s people, who do
not operate with any thing close to such accuracy regarding timing of births. It is here that
reproductive age becomes a difficult category. In place of the clearly biological act of birth
bearing a date, these societies have life cycle crises events and often times supported by
physical built and vice versa. The actual biological event is enveloped in an amalgam of social
and cultural layers of the given society. The continuity of marital-status and reproductive age
in population Studies is illustrative of the dearth of reflexivity, including that of analytical rigour
and classification, in non-western Population Studies. The society of the South is uncritically
superimposed with the categories of the North despite stupendous amounts of data provided
from the South.
Biological and chronological ageing, though occurs at all times in all societies, is always interrelated in complex ways with social, cultural and psychological ageing. Though age is a
discrete variable, it can be dealt with as a continuous one in Population Studies, especially
when it is not seen as discrete by the society in question. Societies give a total framework with
which the biological age and ageing inter-plays. Biological age and social roles fuse together
in the process of reproduction. As the biological age comes to assume a certain set of
meanings in the given historical and cultural context, questions about biological age elicit
answers only in a manner of speaking. One is not suggesting an intense involvement into
hermeneutics and inter-subjectivity in research, though sticking to the positivist paradigm is
worth reflecting upon. Understanding the difficulty in obtaining actual biological age and age
bunching in age reporting-- well known in demography, are pointers towards this difficulty .
Ageing and maturity are matters spread through one’s life cycle and rites of passage. The life
cycle view of age may provide for policy purposes, an enormously challenging proposition.
The nature of demographic data, and its lending itself to statistical treatment and prediction
that speaks easily for large populations is an attraction for the categories to remain is use. But
the relationship between the macro and the micro reality cannot be dictated by the rule of
statistics, and by the compulsion and predictive capacity of statistical analysis. Granted that
Statistics is important and handy, the effort to reflect and represent nuances of micro reality in
its macro translations is a case worth considering.
State intervention and people’s responses, both for age and marriage are not uniform across
societies and thus their nuances should be retained in data gathering and classification. The
ICPD engendered category of reproductive age as rather a gendered one assumes
significance only with respect to women. Also, its relevance for societies or sections of
societies where fertility control is not on policy agenda remains suspect (unless for HIV-AIDS
purposes). The nature of policing and ways of health provision are pointers to a premonition of
use of force for people to resort to the ‘rational’ way of doing things.
Marital status as a thing in itself is not so sanitised a category as it comes to become in
Population Studies. Marriage is an exceedingly charged cultural, social and political category.
It is a process in some and its breakdown is a process in most societies.
Coming close to people’s own conceptions and meanings of categories, it becomes possible to
look at systems of classification and discern their principles of articulation. Once this is done,
a more profitable understanding, and theoretical and analytical exercise is likely to be more
reflective of reality. Though marital status as a category, like age, has been of substantial
value for research in Population Studies, but the restricted paradigm has brought about a
failure to link the studies in other disciplines, such as sociology, anthropology and policy
Prepared for the Seminar on Social Categories in Population Health, organised by the
Committee on Anthropological Demography of the International Union for the Scientific
Study of Population, 15-18 September 1999, Cairo, Egypt.
studies. As society is not static and goes through certain transformations over time, the
categories of understanding society cannot remain static either. The lessons could be learnt
form British census efforts to get as close to reality as possible. Though Indian census is
making some improvements, western categories still superimpose the village Indian reality for
the age category and most of India for the marital status category. There is a great deal of
scope as well as challenge in sharing across restricted disciplinary boundaries.
Prepared for the Seminar on Social Categories in Population Health, organised by the
Committee on Anthropological Demography of the International Union for the Scientific
Study of Population, 15-18 September 1999, Cairo, Egypt.
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Prepared for the Seminar on Social Categories in Population Health, organised by the
Committee on Anthropological Demography of the International Union for the Scientific
Study of Population, 15-18 September 1999, Cairo, Egypt.
1 See Asad (ed., 1975 for the role of anthropology, especially during the colonial period, in the
perception of tradition.
2 The reporting by Lindenbaum 1981 for Sri Lankan rise in age at marriage from infancy in the last
century to post-puberty is similarly questioned by Caldwell (1999, 43) for the confusing use of the
term marriage because infant marriages would not involve connubial relations. The confusion is thus
still present even in recent research that Caldwell points out.