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book cover

Kathleen Kiernan's Review of
Marriage and Cohabitation

by Arland Thornton, William Axinn, and Yu Xie
Published by University of Chicago Press, 2007

Review originally in the European Journal of Population. Reproduced with permission of the reviewer.

The core of this book is an in-depth study of Marriage and Cohabitation in the USA which addresses the ways in which decisions surrounding marriage and cohabitation are influenced by cross-generational personal experiences, circumstances, attitudes and the wider family system. The data come from a longitudinal study of just over a 1,000 white families who had a child in the Detroit Metropolitan area in 1961 and who were initially interviewed in 1962 with follow-up surveys of the mother and the cohort child at various intervals until 1993. This Intergenerational Panel Study of Parents and Children (IPS) provides a very rich data set for examining these issues, and a major strength is the information available on the two generations of the same family. Of course the study has major limitations, which are duly acknowledged, in that it is not nationally representative and only covers the experiences of white families. To attempt to redress some of the drawbacks each of the chapters with empirical findings laudably draws on other studies to elaborate on possible shortcomings.

The book is organised into four parts. The first part sets the context for the analyses and commences with an excellent and extensive review of the roots of the American family and marriage drawing on a wide range of European and US literature. In the following chapters the authors proceed to the challenging task of deconstructing the meaning of being single, married or cohabiting and to the conceptualisation of transitioning into different states, which is clearly elaborated and provides an excellent example of the clarity of thinking necessary for establishing the parameters for the data analyses that follow.

The empirical chapters in parts two and three have a long reach commencing with the attributes of the parents' lives prior to the birth of the study, the context in which the child lived during their childhood and adolescence and factors from their young adult years that have a bearing on their partnership behaviour.

The authors' analyses clearly show the strong and lasting effects of a wide range of intergenerational factors for the marriage and cohabiting behaviour of offspring. Factors include the marital and fertility experiences of the parents, the socio-economic circumstances of the family, religious affiliation and degree of religiosity, along with the social organisation of family life. All these factors exerted an independent influence on the timing of partnership formation, the type of partnership (marriage or cohabitation) and the rate of entry into partnerships. Undoubtedly, one of the strengths of this study is the all too rare and invaluable information it contains on attitudes, values and beliefs of both mothers and their offspring that can be related to subsequent behaviours. Information that is almost impossible to collect retrospectively. Their study shows that mothers' attitudes, values and beliefs are related to their children's behaviour, but they also show that much of this influence is mediated through the child's own attitudes, beliefs and values. This is also an exemplar of an explication of the pathways of the first- and second-generation influences on the partnership behaviour of young adults, which is another espoused goal of the book. As well as these influences the authors provide a detailed examination of how the young people's religious affiliation and level of religious commitment, their educational experiences, and their employment, potential earnings and career aspirations relate to their partnership behaviours.

The final and quite short part of the book provides a summary of the inter-generational and within-generation effects on the partnership behaviour of the offspring generation and also discusses the implications of the findings for the understanding of marriage and cohabitation in contemporary USA, which comple- ments the very much longer historical chapter that launches the book. This book is a brave attempt at providing a review of the history of the development of marriage and cohabitation in prior centuries and of utilising the life histories of a generation of parents and children who lived out their lives across much of the twentieth century to benchmark, illustrate and facilitate our understanding of the meaning of marriage and cohabitation in the lives of these generations.

Kathleen Kiernan is a Professor of Social Policy and Demography at the University of York.