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Open Access Publications from the University of California

What Explains Race and Ethnic Variation in Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce, and Nonmarital Fertility?


Over the past 20 years we have made enormous strides towards understanding racial and ethnic variation in marriage, nonmarital fertility, and family stability. Particularly strong contributions include the documentation of important constraints to stable family formation imposed by male unemployment, a deeper understanding of cohabitation and the transition from informal unions to marriage, and the incorporation of more ethnic groups into the analysis, particularly Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans, although more work in this direction is needed.

In this chapter we begin by briefly reviewing previous findings on race-ethnic variation in stable union formation and nonmarital fertility. We then suggest directions for future research, structuring our discussion around the multiple dimensions of marriage. By far the majority of studies attempting to explain race-ethnic variation in family patterns have focused on the economic dimension of marriage, but recent ethnographic research suggests the importance of other dimensions as well. These include interpersonal aspects such as trust and commitment, as well as the influence of socially constructed understandings about respectable marriage. Finally, we discuss data needs to more fully explore these multiple dimensions of marriage to better understand race-ethnic variation in family patterns.

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