Social customs and demographic change: the case of godparenthood in Catholic Europe

Vincent Gourdon, CNRS, Paris
Guido Alfani, Università Bocconi
Agnese Vitali, Università Bocconi

It is a well-known fact that demographic change can alter the inner dynamics of a society. However, this kind of influences is also clearly underexplored: or, more precisely, has attracted study on a fairly limited selection of topics (for example, marriage). This contribution aims at shedding some light on an almost unexplored topic: godparenthood. It focuses on the cases of Italy and France making use of a sizeable database resulting from surveys conduced by the authors, that include detailed information on about 700 Italian and 400 French baptisms.This data shows the absolute prevalence of selection of godparents among kinsmen. In Italy for example, relations account for 75-80% of all godparents, with a marked prevalence of uncles and aunts. As a rule, uncles and aunts, if available, are selected to act as godparents, and more “open” strategies of selection appear only after they have been satisfied (second or further child) or when there are none. This model of selection, which corresponds to a consolidated social custom both in Italy and in France, in the first country is doomed. A consequence of being a “lowest-low fertility” country is that uncles and aunts are bound to disappear as the lone-child generations reach reproductive age.The contribution compares the godparenthood models of Italy and France (also taking into account regional variations) and provides a quantitative analysis of the strategies of selection. It underlines both similarities and differences, and tries to explain them taking into account the different history of godparenthood in different areas. It evaluates the implications of the demographic trends of Italy and France, which are going to prove much more disruptive of social customs in the case of the former. Lastly, it formulates hypothesis about future developments that take into account demographic as well as social, cultural and economic aspects.

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Presented in Poster Session 1

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