The demography of words: The global decline in non-numeric fertility preferences, 1993–2011

Margaret Frye, Lauren Bachan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


This paper examines the decline in non-numeric responses to questions about fertility preferences among women in the developing world. These types of response—such as ‘don’t know’ or ‘it’s up to God’—have often been interpreted through the lens of fertility transition theory as an indication that reproduction has not yet entered women’s ‘calculus of conscious choice’. However, this has yet to be investigated cross-nationally and over time. Using 19 years of data from 32 countries, we find that non-numeric fertility preferences decline most substantially in the early stages of a country’s fertility transition. Using country-specific and multilevel models, we explore the individual- and contextual-level characteristics associated with women’s likelihood of providing a non-numeric response to questions about their fertility preferences. Non-numeric fertility preferences are influenced by a host of social factors, with educational attainment and knowledge of contraception being the most robust and consistent predictors.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)187-209
Number of pages23
JournalPopulation Studies
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 4 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Demography
  • History


  • fertility preferences
  • fertility transitions
  • non-numeric responses


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