Cultural Meanings and the Aggregation of Actions: The Case of Sex and Schooling in Malawi

Margaret Frye

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Scopus citations


How can cultural understandings simultaneously diverge from and contribute to aggregate patterns of action? On one hand, shared cognitive associations guide people’s everyday actions, and these actions comprise the behavioral trends that sociologists seek to measure and understand. On the other hand, these shared understandings often contradict behavioral trends. I address this theoretical puzzle by considering the empirical case of sexual relationships and school dropout in Malawi. Moving recursively between longitudinal survey data and in-depth interviews, I compare statistical patterns and cultural beliefs about the relationship between sexual relationships and school dropout. Interviewees emphasized ways that relationships render girls incapable of continuing in school, whereas survey data provide limited support for these posited causal processes. However, these shared beliefs about the detrimental effects of relationships for school performance have real effects: teachers, parents, and students act as if these narratives were true, and these behavioral responses sustain the broader antinomy between sex and schooling. This analysis reveals new insights into how cultural understandings—and the various ways people respond to and enforce them—contribute to the demographic patterns we observe using survey data.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)945-976
Number of pages32
JournalAmerican Sociological Review
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 1 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science


  • culture
  • demography
  • education
  • sexual relationships
  • sub-Saharan Africa


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