Endogeneity vs causality in family research: is it always the chicken-and-egg problem?

This is a post by Evgenia Bystrov based on her article Testing the Second Demographic Transition Theory with Seemingly Unrelated Regression: Marital Postponement and Human Empowerment recently published in the European Sociological Review. The article focuses on the relations between values and marriage behaviour. The writing of this article was triggered by numerous academic debates around the chain of causation that led to the European second demographic transition (SDT).

That the second demographic transition comprises changes in family related behaviour (such as, for instance, postponement of marriage, childbearing and changes in living arrangements), accompanied by changes in value orientation is not contested. Arguments arise though in relation to the causes-and-consequences of this major socio-demographic phenomenon of the late 20th century. Some argue that socio-economic changes, a reproductive revolution, and other structural forces led to the SDT. Others claim that it is cultural or ideational change that was the initial trigger. My research tackles this question directly and tries to resolve the puzzle empirically. The main question of interest is to clarify the nature of relations between socio-economic, socio-cultural and socio-demographic changes. In particular, I address the relatively neglected issue of relations between peoples’ worldviews, norms and values, and their behaviour.

The main claim that is tested in the article is that the relations between values and behaviour need not necessarily be in a cause-and-consequence form, since in complex systems many processes may and do occur simultaneously. There are also so-called endogeneity or feedback effects, so that each factor is both a cause and a consequence. For example, social values influence the course of action of individuals, which in turn creates the societal background which shapes people’s values. In cases where this feedback is the focus of research, an appropriate research strategy is to analyse the endogeneity of the relations within the system, and highlight the mechanisms. If values affect behaviour more than vice versa, and changes in values do lead to demographic changes, such as marriage postponement, as argued by the proponents of the SDT theoretical approach, how does it happen, and what are the additional important factors in play?

Measuring solely ‘the strength of effects’ in contemporary quantitative research is an approach that is usually, and many times justifiably criticized. In the case of testing a system of complex relations in order to understand whether the change in values or the change in behaviour was the trigger, this statistical approach is, however, methodologically sound. Seemingly unrelated regression modelling is a procedure where a system of regression equations is estimated simultaneously. The purpose is to extract a meaningful comparison of the produced effects. In this research, the ultimate purpose was to find out whether societal value changes have indeed a stronger effect on marriage postponement in 45 societies than the opposite. Therefore, demonstrating the effect of emancipative value changes on various measures of marriage postponement, such as the average increase in age at marriage and in the percentage of never-married, and the opposite effects, is essential.

The evidence found in this study is that the relations between values and marriage behaviour are reciprocal in the sense that each has an influence on another, with some asymmetry, where values have a stronger effect on behaviour. Emancipative value change in societies, where the SDT related processes are a relevant term for this change, influence marriage postponement directly or indirectly via additional factors, such as women’s increased participation in higher education, economic prosperity and human development – all of which define human empowerment at large. These findings are fundamental to a broader understanding of the variation in SDT related processes; they definitely advocate bringing back values in demographic research and open a stage for future studies.

Evgenia Bystrov holds a PhD in sociology from the University of Bremen and Jacobs University Bremen. The research article in spotlight is part of her dissertation, entitled: ‘The Second Demographic Transition Theory in Practice: The Case of Israel’. Any feedback on this research spotlight is welcome via email evgenia.bystrov@gmail.com.

One comment

  1. evgenia.bystrov@gmail.com my gmail program said : there is no such address ;(

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