Status Competition, Inequality, and Fertility: Implications for the Demographic Transition

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The role that social status plays in small-scale societies suggests that status may be important for understanding the evolution of human fertility decisions, and for understanding how such decisions play out in modern contexts. This paper explores whether modelling competition for status—in the sense of relative rank within a society—can help shed light on fertility decline and the demographic transition. We develop a model of how levels of inequality and status competition affect optimal investment by parents in the embodied capital (health, strength, and skills) and social status of offspring, focusing on feedbacks between individual decisions and socio-ecological conditions. We find that conditions similar to those in demographic transition societies yield increased investment in both embodied capital and social status, generating substantial decreases in fertility, particularly under conditions of high inequality and intense status competition. We suggest that a complete explanation for both fertility variation in small-scale societies and modern fertility decline will take into account the effects of status competition and inequality.


This article was originally published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, volume 371, issue 1692, in 2016.

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