Cultural and Socioeconomic Influences on Divorce During Modernization: Southeast Asia, 1940s to 1960s


  • Charles Hirschman,

    1. Charles Hirschman is Boeing International Professor, Department of Sociology and Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs, University of Washington.
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  • Bussarawan Teerawichitchainan

    1. Bussarawan Teerawichitchainan is a graduate student. Department of Sociology, University of Washington.
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The conventional model of a rising divorce rate during the process of modernization is a staple element of the sociological theory of the family. This generalization is challenged, however, by traditional high-divorce societies, primarily in Islamic Southeast Asia, which have experienced a decline in divorce with modernization. In this study, based on micro-level survey data, the authors explore the social roots of marital disruption in Indonesia and Malaysia and in another Southeast Asian society, Thailand, which has not been identified as a high-divorce society. Comparable survey data from the 1970s (from the World Fertility Survey) allow for an in-depth analysis of traditional patterns of divorce before the rapid modernization of recent decades. Two major findings emerge from the multivariate analysis. First, there is a common pattern across all three societies of higher levels of divorce among “traditional” women—those who live in rural areas, marry at young ages, and have lower levels of education. Second, the authors find significant sociocultural (ethnic, regional, religious) differentials in divorce within each country that cannot be explained by demographic and socioeconomic composition. They present an interpretation of how moderately high levels of divorce were accommodated in traditional Southeast Asian societies.