Demographic theory frequently assumes that pre-transitional populations adopt fatalistic attitudes to fertility and mortality. Fertility decline is said to require a “pro-active” mentality incorporating a newly conceived idea of numeracy about children and a new-found awareness by individuals of where they stand in relation to demographic norms. Non-numeric responses to questions about desired family size are interpreted as meaning that women are unable to conceptualise their ideal number of children and are unaware of their demographic environment. However, ethnographic evidence from the Malian Fulani will show how women accurately appraise their mortality and fertility regimes and how they actively seek to manipulate them via a series of ritual behaviours. It is described how women do think numerically about demographic outcomes but are reluctant to verbalise this numeracy as it is believed that it will incur supernatural risks. The implications for demographic research of the widespread belief in the danger of verbalising numbers of children are discussed.
Social Science & Medicine (2001) 52 (12) 1827-1841 [doi:10.1016/S0277-9536(00)00300-2]