Lir (Cheng-Tong) Wang successfully defended her dissertation, entitled “Forces There and Here: Global and Local Influence on Divorce and Child Marriage.” The project came together very nicely, and the defense went extremely well. Congratulations Lir!
Lir’s dissertation uses the world society perspective to study family formation globally, focusing on the decline of child marriage and the rise of divorce. Scholars such as Arland Thornton have long recognized that Western-style family structures have become increasingly normative around the world, buoyed by Western scholarship (e.g., modernization theorists of the 1960s and 1970s) and international organizations, which characterize the Western nuclear family as the ideal family form. Lir develops explores and fleshes out the overlap between Thornton’s “developmental idealism” and world society theory… to the profit of both perspectives.
Lir argues that cultural understandings of the individual and marriage — increasingly institutionalized in human rights treaties and international organizations — legitimate divorce and recast child marriage as a human rights violation. Marriage historically varied a lot around the world, but marital decisions were often the province of the family or clan (e.g., arranged marriages) and served collective purposes. However, with the rise of new norms regarding individual autonomy, human rights, and women’s rights, the concept of marriage changes.
In a nutshell, marriage gets re-written around new global scripts that cast marriage as a contract between sovereign individuals who have extensive human rights. Historically common practices like child marriage get re-cast as gross human rights violations. And, marriage comes to be seen as an individual choice (rather than, say, a sacred religious bond) and thus one that people should be able to enter or exit as a matter of free will.
Lir also develops a very interesting idea: That world society can have strong effects even in the absence of specific global norms or codified proclamations. For instance: while international treaties specifically decry child marriage, there is no equivalent strong global norm supporting the right to divorce. Lir draws on the legal concept of the penumbra… even if there is no specific norm about divorce, new scripts about divorce emerge from the “penumbras” of world society. If treaties confer human rights, gender equality, etc, then the right to divorce is essentially implied. In other words, global norms regarding human rights and gender equality “spill over” and alter patterns of divorce, despite the fact that divorce isn’t directly addressed in treaties or UN discourses.
The empirical project is very impressive. Lir did tremendous work assembling data on child marriage and divorce from UN sources and the Demographic and Health Surveys, yielding statistical analyses that are far more ambitious than prior work. For instance, Lir develops panel models of divorce for a large sample of countries, whereas previous cross-national analyses are mainly cross-sectional and have small samples.
Lir uses both cross-national and multilevel models to explore the global forces that shape child marriage and divorce. She consistently finds that countries most exposed to contemporary global cultural norms have less child marriage and more divorce. Lir measures global cultural pressures in several ways, including national ratification of treaties like CEDAW, as well as the presence of INGOs or Women’s INGOs in a country.
Like Louisa Roberts, who also defended recently, Lir is an example of new scholarship exploring the effects of world society on individuals. The perspective started out as a theory of state policy diffusion, but a growing body of evidence shows that global culture is remaking organizations and individuals… not just nation-states. Great job Lir!