Jennifer Johnson-Hanks

Jennifer Johnson-Hanks's picture
Research Interests: 
Population, culture, family
484 Barrows
Curriculum Vitae: 

Jennifer Johnson-Hanks ethnographer and demographer of family and the life course. Her research focuses on the relationship between population rates and cultural patterns, and on the mediation of that relationship by (individual?) intentional action.  Papers in Current Anthropology and the American Journal of Sociology, for example, ask how are individual actions coordinated into stable rates, such as birth rates or marriage rates? What roles do individual intentions play in accounting for action, and in the formation of rates? And conversely, how are intentions and demographically relevant actions socially and culturally structured?  

Her first book , Uncertain Honor, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2006. It explores the relationship between population rates and cultural practices through a study of the transition to motherhood among educated women in Southern Cameroon. Integrating demographic and ethnographic evidence and theory, Uncertain Honor argues that the certain young Cameroonian women delay motherhood as part of a broader attempt to assert a modern form of honor only recently made possible by formal education, Catholicism, and economic change.

Co-authoring with Phil Morgan, Chris Bachrach, and Hans-Peter Kohler, Johnson-Hanks published Understanding Family Change and Variation: Toward a theory of Conjunctural Action in 2011. It argues that social demography has moved too far away from core debates in social theory, and must be reintegrated. The book then poses a framework through which that reintegration can occur. This framework posits that material and schematic structures profoundly shape the occurrence, frequency, and context of the vital events that constitute the object of social demography. Fertility and family behaviors are therefore best understood as a function not just of individual traits, but of the structured contexts in which behavior occurs. 

Johnson-Hanks is currently working on a third book, tentatively titled Sex in Public: Population and the Paradox of Choice. This book begins with the apparent dilemma that no-one commits suicide because fewer people than average have done so in this calendar year; no one has an unwanted pregnancy in order to offset the thwarted intentions of the infertile. And yet, rates of suicide remain stunningly flat, and (in the US at least) observed births match the desired number of births almost exactly. How does this happen? The question here is not only how individual desires or intentions are brought in line with culturally normative ones, but also how the distribution of intentions, actions, and outcomes is sustained over time. The book is about quantification in the social sciences, about what happens when we count social things. What is at stake in asking social science questions in numerical ways? What can be gained? And what risks does counting imply? 

Johnson-Hanks earned her BA from Berkeley, and her MA and PhD from Northwestern, all in Anthropology. She is joint appointed in the Departments of Sociology and Demography, and currently serves as Associate Dean of Social Sciences. 


Representative Publications: 


2011 Johnson-Hanks, Jennifer,  Christine Bachrach, S.Philip Moragan, Hans-Peter Kohler. Understanding Family Change and Variation: Toward a theory of Conjunctural Action. Springer. 

2006 Johnson-Hanks, Jennifer. Uncertain Honor: Modern Motherhood in an African Crisis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

1999 Bledsoe, Caroline, John Casterline, Jennifer Johnson-Kuhn and John Haaga, eds. Critical Perspectives on Schooling and Fertility in the Developing World. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.