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

Number: 40
Year: 2011
Author(s): Guido Alfani, Vincent Gourdon, Agnese Vitali
Keywords: godparenthood,godparents,spiritual kinship,demographic change,social change,social customs,social norms,baptism,lowest-low fertility
This article analyzes social norms regulating selection of godparents in Italy and France and how they will be affected by demographic change. On the grounds of Vatican statistics and of the World Values Survey, it demonstrates that baptisms still occur for the vast majority of children in Catholic Europe and that birth rituals are considered important even by non-believers. Relying on historical data, it shows that the custom of selecting godparents from among kinsmen, currently dominant, is a recent development. A new survey about selection of godparents in Italy and France is used which shows that they are not chosen for religious, but for social-relational reasons. Selection of kinsmen is the norm, with uncles and aunts being the majority choice. For Italy, choice determinants are explored by means of multinomial regressions. The results are contrasted with demographic change to show that in lowest-low fertility countries current godparenthood models are bound to disappear.

Guido Alfani

Universita Bocconi, Dondena Centre for Research on Social Dynamics


Vincent Gourdon

CNRS—Centre Roland Mousnier


Agnese Vitali

Universita Bocconi, Dondena Centre for Research on Social Dynamics



Keywords: godparenthood, godparents, spiritual kinship, demographic change, social change, social customs, social norms, baptism, lowest-low fertility


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