The Political Consequences of the Below Replacement Fertility Rate in Contemporary Bulgaria

NSF Cultural Anthropology Scholars Award
The National Science Foundation announces an opportunity for methodological training by cultural anthropologists who are active researchers. The purpose is to help cultural anthropologists upgrade their methodological skills by learning a specific analytical technique, which will improve their research abilities.

Under the auspices of the NSG Cultural Anthropology Scholars program, I undertook to increase my knowledge of demographic methods and the field of cultural demography. In the summers of 2008 and 2009, I worked together with Dr. Laura Bernardi at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Gernmany. We examined interview data collected by Dr. Bernardi's Bulgarian research assistants and tried to understand the cultural factors influencing below replacement fertility and what effects this might have politically.

Project Summary

The Political Consequences of the Below Replacement Fertility Rate in Contemporary Bulgaria

Principle investigator - Kristen Ghodsee, Associate Professor of Gender and Women's Studies

In 2000, Bulgaria had a negative natural growth rate of -0.7 percent and its total fertility rate (TFR) was 1.1 children per woman, a dramatic decrease from 2.05 children per woman in 1980. Although the TFR increased slightly by 2004 to 1.29, this growth was not significant enough to reverse the severe population decline predicted for the next decades. Because Bulgaria’s birth rate is far beneath the rate necessary to replace the current population (2.1 children per woman), the country is characterized by what demographers call ‘lowest low fertility, and what some Bulgarian researchers have called a "demographic crisis" or even "demographic death." It had the lowest fertility rate of any European country between 1995 and 1997, and still has one of the lowest fertility rates in all of Europe. Bulgaria’s population stood at 7.9 million in 2001, and the United Nations projects that by 2050 this figure will shrink by 31 percent – the second steepest decline in all of Europe. More importantly, the UN estimates that the percentage of the Bulgarian population over age 65 will increase from 16 percent in 2000 to 30 percent in 2050, meaning that there will be fewer people of working age to support an ever-increasing number of pensioners.

In Bulgaria, severe population decline, a high proportion of senior citizens, and differential birth rates between ethnic and religious groups have frightened many Bulgarians and contributed to the rise of a radically nationalist right-wing political party, which shocked both domestic and international observers by entering the National Assembly after the parliamentary elections of 2005. This research aims to understand the political consequences of below replacement fertility for small countries in an era of increasing nationalism, and to combine cultural examinations of fertility with statistical analyses.

The Political Consequences of the Below Replacement Fertility Rate in Contemporary Bulgaria The Political Consequences of the Below Replacement Fertility Rate in Contemporary Bulgaria
Long before it became acceptable in the West, the communist government in Bulgaria tried to promote father's involvement with child rearing. This is the 1987 cover of the state published communist women's magazine, Women Today. Volen Siderov is the leader of the nationalist party, Ataka, which gains political support by appealing to fears that the Bulgarian ethnicity will soon cease to exist due to low birth rates among Christians and higher birth rates among Bulgaria's Muslims. The slogan of the party is "Bulgaria for the [ethnic] Bulgarians"
The Political Consequences of the Below Replacement Fertility Rate in Contemporary Bulgaria The Political Consequences of the Below Replacement Fertility Rate in Contemporary Bulgaria
Although some Bulgarian men are actively involved with child care today, the burden of more care work still fall disproportionately on the shoulders of Bulgarian women. One reason that birthrates are falling, is that once generous communist-era supports for women with children have been dismantled with the coming of capitalism and competitive labor markets. Much child care is also provided by grandmothers. With increasing economic hardships, however, women's mothers and mothers-in-law are having to stay in the labor force longer and are thus unable to help. Also, relying on grandmothers creates strong intergenerational dependencies which some young women are keen to avoid
The Political Consequences of the Below Replacement Fertility Rate in Contemporary Bulgaria
Bulgaria also has an aging population. Already, young people of childbearing age can expect to have to look after both their children and their parents after the dismantling of the once generous pension system. Also, it is customary in Bulgaria to live with your parents (or your partner's parents) long after you have married and started your own family. The elderly are almost universally cared for at home.


Laura Bernardi, Université de Lausanne (PDF)

Max Plank Institute for Demographic research

Independent Research Group: The Culture of Reproduction

The outcomes of the research thus far are:

"Left Wing, Right Wing, Everything: Xenophobia, Neo-totalitarianism and Populist Politics in Contemporary Bulgaria," Problems of Post-Communism, 55(3) May-June 2008 (PDF)

The primary paper has been presented at two international conferences:

Understanding European Living Arrangements: Perspectives from Anthropological Demography
London School of Economics and Political Science, 18 December 2009, London, U.K.
The Presentation
 PDF (PDF of Powerpoint Slides)

European Population Conference
1-4 September, Vienna, Austria

Session 206: Living arrangements and coresidence

"Starting a family at your parent’s house: Multigenerational households and below replacement fertility in Bulgaria • Kristen Ghodsee, Bowdoin College; Laura Bernardi, Université de Lausanne / University of Lausanne"

Draft of the paper

Two papers currently in progress

"Starting a Family at Your Parent’s House: Multigenerational Households and Below Replacement Fertility in Bulgaria"

Gender Roles and Modern European Patrilocality: Cultural Factors Influencing Below Replacement Fertility in Bulgaria. Under review at Gender & Society.


Bulgaria’s Demographic Crisis: Underlying Causes and Some Short-Term Implications (PDF)
ROSSEN VASSILEV, Ohio State University

Editorial "Bulgaria: Enjoy it while it lasts"
Milena Hristova

Bulgarian National Statistical Institute (in English)

Bulgarian National Statistical Institute (in Bulgarian)

The Work of Bulgarian demographer Dimiter Philipov (in English)

National Demographic Strategy of the Republic of Bulgaria (PDF)