Status competition, inequality, and fertility: Implications for the demographic transition

Mary K. Shenk, Hillard S. Kaplan, Paul L. Hooper

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Scopus citations


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 howsuch 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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20150150
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1692
StatePublished - Apr 19 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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