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Post-Demographic Transition Research on Childcare in Kerala

An innovative interdisciplinary methodological approach to demography will do full justice to research on "second generation" issues of child and teenage care in Kerala, a state marked by high family incomes and female literacy alongside low employment and rising aspirations.


the possibility of treating many of the

Post-Demographic Transition

publicly-voiced concerns as hypotheses for further investigation.

Research on Childcare in Kerala In contemporary public discourse, two major sorts of concerns have been raised – one, about the access of children of the

J Devika poor to schooling, nutrition, and health-

An innovative interdisciplinary methodological approach to demography will do full justice to research on “second generation” issues of child and teenage care in Kerala, a state marked by high family incomes and female literacy alongside low employment and rising aspirations.

J Devika ( is at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.

Economic & Political Weekly february 2, 2008

emographic research in Kerala has begun to address post-demographic transition issues actively. The present interest in ageing, in the context of migration from Kerala to the Gulf countries and to the west, evidences this shift, and importantly, such themes are beginning to be explored through interdisciplinary perspectives and methodologies. In contrast, childhood in Kerala is poorly researched. The links between the demographic transition and increased costs of childbearing and rearing, and changes in the value ascribed to children, now acknowledged to be more or less universal [Goody 2003], have been found to apply well to Kerala’s demographic transition [Mahadevan and Sumangala 1987].

However, research on post-demographic transition issues in childhood and child rearing has been meagre. Elsewhere, such research has inquired into issues ranging from changes in the volume of parenting time and parental supervision [Sandberg and Hofferth 2001; Casper 2004], to access to resources of children of different types of families [McLanahan 2004]. More generally, much interest in the intersections of demographic and institutional changes, particularly in the family, has been evident [Cherlin 1999].

This is not to claim that research on children’s issues, some of which that seeks to qualify the claims of the “Kerala model”, have become inconsequential – such as on child labour [Niuewenhuys 1991]. However, examining contemporary public discourse, one is struck by the fact that the issues raised around children and childcare have gone beyond questions of children’s access to instruments of social development. They now concern both giving and receiving ends of childcare, and are in general related to the vicissitudes of disciplinary social institutions, including the family. Much ongoing research into the family and gender in Kerala does pose care, and two, about the impact of changing familial structures and social expectations on them. Some of the insights generated by recent research on changing family life across class lines in Kerala do give ample reason to treat these concerns as valid hypotheses for investigation. Perhaps one needs to tone down the emphasis on welfarist state policy [Jeffrey 2003], and pay attention to other 20th century social shifts, indicated in emergent anthropological and historical writing on Kerala, to identify emergent research issues in childhood and childcare.

The issues raised in public discussion around childcare and childhood in Kerala may indeed add up to a post-demographic transition research agenda.

Costs of Childcare

For instance, recent anthropological work does capture the breakdown of traditional support systems for childcare, the increasing burdens on mothers, the fall in family size, and the aspirations to upward mobility through education and employment across class lines [Uyl 1995; Osella and Osella 2000; Lindberg 2001]. This literature indicates that the burdens of mothering may have increased, as the postdemo graphic transition reduces family size, but pushes up the value and costs of child raising. This, viewed alongside the research on higher educational attainments by women, poor female work participation, and high female unemployment [Mazumdar and Guruswamy 2006], may raise important questions about childcare in Kerala.

Emergent feminist work has discussed the implications of women’s domestic agency in the nuclear family for their entry into public life as workers and citizens, but its effects on notions and practices of childcare, schooling, and expectations about children remain unexplored.

The above-mentioned literature gives us reason to think that women’s responsibilities as providers for the family are on


the rise in Kerala. Indeed, some recent feminist demographic research on women’s work and childcare arrangements among the poor in Kerala has revealed the changing composition of women’s work, their continuing and rising responsibilities as caregivers for children, and the increasing share of expenditure for children from the incomes of mothers [Thampi 2007].

Indeed, the present context has been identified as one in which female-headed or supported families are on the rise all over the world, and that very often they are endowed with much less resources than other families. Two factors have been identified as accelerating this phenomenon: the disruption of traditional patriarchal governance in families, and the declining real incomes in the wake of economic crises which prompts men to give up supporting families [Buvinic and Gupta 1997: 263]. Demographic work in the industrialised world seems to indicate that children of unstable and underprovided families are more disadvantaged than their counterparts in stable and materially well-off families, in the context of the withdrawing welfare state [McLanahan 2004]. While one may not simply transfer such a conclusion, given rising workloads and low earnings of Malayalee women, and increasing inability to meet rising demands for dowry – it does appear that dowry transfers are a way in which Malayalees try to ensure stability in marriage [Kodoth 2006; Gallo 2005] – it may be worthwhile to explore whether children of unstable families are indeed at a greater disadvantage at present.

However, in the context of high labour migration from Kerala, female headship arises from the “left behind” status of many women, and thus the poverty-female headship correlation and its implication for child welfare cannot exhaust the range of possible research questions. The impact of changes in the family in the wake of increased family incomes through migration, heightened levels of consumption and social aspiration upon children has been a prominent issue raised in public discussions.

In academic discourse, “left behind” female heads have received some attention, but the implications of the general shift of power within the family, along both the husband-wife and parent-child axes, when women attain high levels of education, or when their “left behind” status allows them to acquire headship, have remained unexplored. Indeed, whether the present conjunction of high family incomes, high female education combined with low employment, increasing social and economic aspirations and consumption does not lead to intensification of a version of “child-crafting” (as distinguished from “childcare”) [Folbre 1998] may be explored.

Working on ‘Raw Material’

Recent historical research too may justify such an exploration. It has been pointed out that the centrality of family life in contemporary Malayalee society is the culmination of a long-term social process of “domestication”, a process in and through which people have been directed towards investing most of their time, energies and desires in the home. At the same time, this also implies a certain “taming”, a making useful, a political docility, of individuals [Devika 2002]. Ever since the aspirations towards modernity became evident in Malayalee society since the late 19th century, there has been an increasing thrust towards transforming domestic space into an individualising space within which children were to be moulded into productive individuals capable of living within a liberal polity and a capitalist economic order [Devika 2007].

The more the domestic domain became a space for the shaping of perfect individuals, the more child rearing may resemble a craft like activity in which children are treated as a sort of “raw material” upon which parents work. This offers the parents a tantalising mix of emotional intensities, pleasure and pain. Parenting is then persistent, even agonising, labour, combined with the pleasure of near total absorption and insulation from any larger worries stemming beyond the home, and the pleasurable, if precarious, expectation of a perfect end product. The strains and tensions of domestic responsibilities and its pleasures and consolations all stem from a common source: the direction of a major share of the energies of men and women into their supposedly natural calling, parenting.

This has had two important implications for participation in the public: one, parenting, as in handicraft, requires such constant attention to the “work at hand”, that it turns the person engaged in parenting completely away from the public; two, it shapes participation in the public in such a way that the interests of the household and family life acquire an inordinately high centrality within it. Thus the householder seems to acquire a weight decidedly above the citizen in public life as well.

In the light of the above account, several issues regarding child welfare that have been discussed actively in the Malayalee public recently may be real enough to be regarded as important issues for research. For instance there has been much concern expressed about the excessive regulation of time and activities of children and the general withdrawal of time and spaces for unsupervised play and interaction, especially for teenagers. Given the historical trajectory of the modern Malayalee family, and given the present-day context of migration-dependence and aspirations of ever greater sections towards upward mobility, the heightening pressure to mould children into the saleable professions is something that would follow. Or, take for instance, reports of increasing physical and mental violence against children from their parents and from school. This, again, may be hypothesised to be a predictable consequence of the tendency mentioned above, to treat children more as “raw material” and less as human beings. The frequently voiced issue of the neglect of child rights, especially their sexual rights, in Kerala, also makes sense – for sexuality may be understood only as an attribute of active and living beings, and not of inert “raw material”.

Some recent research does reveal this in an oblique way, by drawing attention to the alarming ignorance among teenagers of sexuality and their rights over their bodies [Mathew 2005]. Another area of concern that is now frequently a topic of public discussion is the rising burden of the instruction and supervision of children upon mothers, and thus the shifting of the responsibility of pedagogic supervision on to families, rather than schools. The impact of this shift in pedagogic and supervisory authority on the mental and physical well-being of children (which would mean moving beyond concerns about nutrition, literacy or basic healthcare) on domestic time management regimes, and resources

february 2, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly


spent on children across social groups, may indeed be considerable.

Parent-Child Power Axis

Indeed, it may even be possible to hypothesise that while the levelling of educational achievements between husband and wife in the nuclear family (as also the superior achievement of the wife, as is the case in many Malayalee families, especially those of migrants) may indeed soften the patriarchal undergirding of the husband-wife axis of power, it may actually enhance the parent-child axis of power. That is, children may indeed be now subject to greater degrees of patriarchal control within the family when both parents are equally educated and upwardly mobile. It must be mentioned, though, that this does not unravel into an argument against higher education for women and mothers. It, however, may expose the consequences of the specific kind of agency of modern motherhood opened up within modernity for Malayalee women, which makes them agents of “delegated patriarchy”, while it simultaneously sanctions their exclusion from public forms of power.

Besides the above, the contemporary context of globalisation has had important cultural effects on childhood and teenage, many of which have been explored elsewhere [for instance, Stearns 2005]. While the shaping of new youth cultures in Kerala is beginning to be explored [for instance, Lukose 2005], childhood and adolescence remain largely ignored. I do not, however, mean to argue that all the issues raised about the family in the public may have interesting questions for researchers. For instance, we do find a huge anxiety in public discourse about rising divorce rates in Kerala. It has, however, been pointed out that this may be actually indicating not so much increasing number of separations, as increasing legalisation of marriage in the state. The prevalence of matrilineal norms and family structures in the earlier times may have allowed women to separate more smoothly; and marriage was sanctioned more by the community and less subject to legalisation [Kodoth 2006].

Interdisciplinary Approach

It may be evident by now that including the above concerns in the new agenda for research indicates interdisciplinary

Economic & Political Weekly february 2, 2008

methodological horizons. The issues mentioned certainly have aspects of interest to historical, sociological, psychological, and anthropological researchers and the themes of interest shade into research in fields like gender, sexuality and family studies, and cultural studies. The interdisciplinary turn in the social sciences has certainly not left demography untouched.

In the last two decades, creative exchanges between demographers, cultural anthropologists and historians have highlighted the importance of the changing meanings of procreation, family life, and the good life, for understanding changes in fertility [Caldwell et al 1987; Carter 1988; Greenhalgh 1990]. The editors of a special issue of the Journal of Interdisciplinary History call for an approach that “joins the quantitative strengths of demographic history with the interpretive power of cultural and oral history. The former can pinpoint when, where, and among whom significant changes in family formation occurred, but texts and testimonies are indispensable for a more complete understanding of why those changes occurred and what they meant to the groups and communities involved…” [Szretzer et al 2003: 154]. Feminist interventions in demo graphy too have attempted to shift emphasis from the “big picture” of broad demographic changes to the local and the micro contexts of change, to generate non-linear accounts of change which take conflict, resistance and culture seriously [Greenhalgh and Li 1995; McDaniels 1996; Bledsoe et al 1994; Kaler 2000].

These methodological innovations may indeed be of crucial significance to demo graphers dealing with the “second generation” or post-demographic transition issues in Malayalee society precisely because unlike the “first generation” issues in child welfare, these are not posed in ways that may call for, predominantly, quantitative methodologies. That is, while issues of access to literacy, health, and nutrition were posed in such a way that they seemed to call for quantification and analysis of large-scale survey data, the issues outlined above may require a more ingenious combination of quantitative and qualitative and archival methods and textual interpretation, derived from sociology, anthropology, history, cultural studies and psychology. Contrary to the common view, this may not diminish the status of demography as a “policy science” [Ittman 2003].

It is no longer evident that “policy knowledge” limits itself to the generation of manageable categories and quantifiable data. Indeed, many of the “second generation” issues that have emerged are not ones that warrant simple, universal, and familiar governmental solutions. The processes that shape them are not so readily discernible or easily enumerated. They arise at the conjunctures of distinct historical and social forces, and call for solutions that are complex but specific to this moment in particular societies. In fact, the call for interdisciplinarity in demographic research has also been explicitly linked with the need to produce more balanced analysis for sound policy, and to prevent it from veering towards extreme positions [Cherlin 1999].

Thus effective policymaking will itself require knowledge generated with a more varied set of tools. No doubt, as elsewhere in the world, demography here will rise to meet this new challenge.


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february 2, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly

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