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Next Brown Bag

Mon, Jan 22, 2018, noon: Narayan Sastry

book cover

Lixia Qu's Review of
Marriage and Cohabitation

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

Review originally in Journal of Population Research (2009) 26:283-284. Reproduced with permission of the publisher.
DOI 10.1007/s12546-009-9015-4

This book examines factors that influence young people's decisions regarding union-formation pathways: whether to cohabit or marry at the outset and, for those who choose cohabitation, whether to subsequently marry. The authors are particularly concerned with intergenerational processes that may affect these decisions.

The book is divided into four parts and contains 12 chapters in total. Part I sets the study in its historical context and discusses conceptual issues. The authors provide a review of marriage and family life in western European regions. They not only document the dramatic changes in the social and economic aspects of marriage and family life that have occurred over the last two centuries, but also highlight important continuities in these domains of life-continuities that tend to be overlooked in the relevant literature. The review provides a significant reminder of these matters and also shows that 'the candle of history can help illuminate understanding of current social relationships' (p. 305).

The authors discuss five alternative ways of conceptualizing cohabitation and marriage: cohabitation and the single status as equivalent contrasts to marriage; marriage and cohabitation as equivalent contrasts to being single; marriage and cohabitation as independent alternatives to being single; marriage and cohabitation as a choice conditional on the decision to form a union; and cohabitation as part of the marriage process. The authors also point out that cohabitors are a heterogeneous group and the meaning of cohabitation is diverse and fluid. The analyses in the book mainly use the third and fifth conceptualizations.

Parts II and III outline the results of quantitative analysis, focusing on a sample of white mothers who gave birth in 1961 in the Detroit Metropolitan Area and their children born at this time. These mothers and children participated in the International Panel Study of Parents and Children, which entailed eight interviews with the mothers over 31 years (beginning in 1962) and three with the children when they were 18-31 years old. The analyses estimate the total, direct and indirect effects of a wide range of factors relating to each generation, on the young person's union formation (by marriage or cohabitation) and any transition from cohabitation to marriage. The authors draw on this analysis to suggest insights into unionformation pathways, discussing the apparent ways in which intergenerational effects occur.

Part II investigates the effects on the young people's union-formation pathways of a wide range of maternal factors, including those that existed before the study children's birth, and those that were apparent as the children grew up. These factors include the mother's family background, including her experience of family organization (social interaction with family members and friends) during her own childhood and adolescence, her parents' socio-economic standing, her religiosity and own marital experience. The results suggest that mothers' experiences in early childhood and adolescence played a role in the union-formation pathways of their children as young adults.

Part III shifts attention to mother- and child-related factors during the years when the second generation started forming romantic relationships. The authors focus on courtship processes during the second generation's adolescence, their own and their mothers' religiosity, family attitudes and values, educational experiences, and educational and career aspirations. The experience of courtship during adolescence appeared to have a strong effect on decisions about whether to form unions through marriage or cohabitation. Similarly, religiosity, educational and career aspirations, and family attitudes and values, seemed to be important. Part IV summarizes the findings and draws the conclusions.

As the authors acknowledge, this study has a number of limitations. For instance, it is based on a single age cohort of young people born to white mothers in a selected region. The findings therefore cannot be generalized to people born at an earlier or later time, and to young people with other racial or ethnic origins. In addition, fathers were not interviewed in the study and paternal factors are not examined. Nevertheless, the findings raise hypotheses for future research that may focus on young people born in more recent times, and those with different racial and ethnic origins.

The book will be of interest to researchers in family-related fields. The literature review is extensive, the presentations of statistical modelling results are easy to understand, and the findings regarding possible intergenerational influences on union formation pathways are insightful.

Lixia Qu, Australian Institute of Family Studies