Anthropological Demography

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Anthropological demography is an intersection of two already heterogeneous disciplines. Each has taken that limited part of the intellectual equipment of the other that seems to serve it best. Paradoxically, the segment of anthropology that is most interested in technical demography (human evolution and ecology) finds among demographers the smallest interest in its own ultimate goals, while many cultural anthropologists whose interpretive skills might benefit demography are least interested in or even hostile to it as an empirical enterprise. Nevertheless, among the like-minded, there has been substantial progress.

Substantive and Theoretical Content

The intersection of anthropology and demography may be thought of in two ways: the first substantive, the second theoretical.

Substantive content. Substantively, the intersection has two foci:

  1. The investigation of demographic topics and/or the application of demographic methods in traditional anthropological contexts. This intersection is occupied by some archaeologists, biological anthropologists, evolutionary ecologists, and a few ethnographers.
  2. The application of anthropological methods or understandings of human behavior to demographic investigations in any investigative context. This intersection is occupied by a growing number of demographers seeking to improve generalizations based on sociological or economic theory, by reference to anthropological or culture theory.

The range of these two substantive foci can be quite broad. The first would certainly include ethnographic, archaeological, or biological anthropological studies of population and resources, fertility, mortality, migration, and nuptiality (marriage practices) in nonliterate societies. Such studies in literate societies would also be included if the investigations were explicitly anthropological in method (for example, using intensive ethnographic techniques such as participant observation). Studies in historical demography that focused on traditional concerns of ethnography, such as kinship, family, and household, would also fall within this category. On the fringes of these studies, however, lies a mass of traditional ethnographies dealing in qualitative detail with topics of salient interest in demography: nuptiality, especially the social relations created or maintained by marriage alliances; the recruitment of individuals into social groups in ways that condition reproductive relationships; the role of fertility in establishing social status, socialization, and the onset of sexual activity; gender relations; migration; care of the aged; and death. To the extent that such studies are rigorous and contribute to an understanding of demographic processes, per se, they belong in the first category. Otherwise, their contribution may be in the second.

Theoretical content. Theoretically, there are two interests that tend to differentiate some parts of anthropology from demography and sociology but that in an unexpected way ally it with economics. These interests are:

  1. The behavior of systems or aggregates versus the behavior of actors. Demographers are typically interested in populations, although they are obliged sometimes to consider the constituent actors (as when seeking to change their behavior). Many ethnographers are most interested in individuals, although they are willing sometimes to consider individuals' commonalities (as when generalizing to cultural or institutional patterns).
  2. A focus on central tendency versus a focus on variation. Many demographers are more interested in the former; many ethnographers are most interested in individual or at least subsocietal differences.

These interests are not independent of the subfields or historical practices of anthropology. They differentiate archaeology, biological anthropology, and traditional, structural-functional ("British") social anthropology; they thus differentiate a scientific anthropology on the one hand from more recent trends in interpretivist or activist cultural anthropology on the other. The first set of fields is concerned largely with systemic relationships and may concentrate more on broad averages. The second set is distinguished by its sharp questioning of the validity of systemic characterizations. While sharing with earlier social anthropologists and sociologists a recognition of the importance of institutional structures, many modern ethnographers are more concerned with issues of local knowledge and its exchange between individuals–or "culture"–and especially the agency or individual freedom to exercise choice within institutional and cultural boundaries. While disavowing the economist's assumptions of universal rationality and insisting on the primacy of local culture, the modern ethnographer is also concerned with how choices are made or interpersonally negotiated but in a cultural and moral marketplace. Modern ethnographers would also contest the kind of institutional determinism sometimes found in sociological approaches to social action, insisting on localized actor-driven interpretations of institutions. Thus, like economists, modern ethnographers are interested in how people make choices but according to particularistic rather than universalistic rules. Like sociologists they are interested in how institutions relate to individual behavior, but they are more interested in how individuals bend or break cultural rules than in how they follow them.

Demography in Anthropology

The relationships between archaeology, biological anthropology, and evolutionary ecology on the one hand and demography on the other are straightforward, but in them demography is more important to anthropologists than anthropology is to demographers.

Ideas about the interactions between population and resource base have been fundamental to archaeology, for example in the Marxist-oriented views about technological response to population pressure on resources espoused by V. Gordon Childe, later evident to demographers in the ethnographically motivated analyses of Ester Boserup and in the work of Mark N. Cohen. At the same time, some investigations suggested that plant domestication and population response may have also followed a more Malthusian scenario in which technological innovation is fortuitous, and population increases in response. The findings of archaeological demography are of great importance to demographic theory, especially to questions of population equilibrium. Archaeological attempts to discuss population-resource balance are limited, however, by their lack of technical demographic sophistication and difficulties of demographic measurement in archaeological contexts. Attempts to discern cause and effect between population pressure and technological innovation are limited by the absence of precise, fine-grained chronologies and by problems of potential infinite regress in which population change and technological change alternate over time with no clear causal precedence.

The centrality of these same issues of population and resources to biological anthropology and evolutionary ecology emerges from T. R. Malthus's own anticipation of the concepts of fitness and selection from randomly occurring variability that were later proposed by the nineteenth-century English naturalist Charles Darwin. For Malthus, innovation was fortuitous with respect to the population-resource balance; in the same way, for Darwin, the appearance of variability was fortuitous with respect to selection.

Biological anthropologists have two major demographic interests. The first is to describe the fundamental demographic parameters of the species under conditions unaffected by modern life. Much of this work is paleodemographic, depending on the evaluation of recovered skeletal material. The work may also be conducted through comparison with the primate cousins of humans. The second interest, which is more precisely part of evolutionary ecology, is to explain how the more than 99 percent of human history spent in hunting and gathering has led, by selection, to the underlying physiology and psychology of humans and indeed to the institutional structures and cultural components that are evident in demographic processes today. A major focus is on the evolution of life histories, that is, typical demographic profiles of individuals with their underlying physiological and psychological characteristics; this focus is shared with evolutionary psychology. Much of the demographic work done in modern paleodemography, biological anthropology, and evolutionary ecology is technically sophisticated. The practice of demography in these fields has advanced greatly since the withering critique delivered by William Petersen in 1975.

But it is the relationship between demography and ethnography that is at once the most promising to practicing demographers and the most problematic.

Demography and Ethnography

A focus on demographic issues or data as an integral or even an underlying part of ethnographic investigation is evident in the work of early British structural-functional scholars and was strongly advocated by Ludwik Krzywicki in 1934. Raymond Firth's work on Tikopia, originally published in 1936, was explicitly demographic, showing the pressure of expanding population on limited resources and its consequences in demographic processes. In the United States, similar concerns were evident in the ecological work of Julian H. Steward and Roy Rappaport and in the cultural materialism of Marvin Harris. Emphasis on the gathering of basic demographic data, even if only in a rudimentary census, was standard practice for most ethnographers until perhaps the 1980s, when the interests of social and cultural anthropology turned from empirical to interpretivist approaches. Paradoxically, it was just then that demographers, dissatisfied with the apparent failure of their own empirical approaches to achieve sustainable generalizations about fertility change, began to appeal to anthropology to provide explanations that would at least work in local contexts, even if they were not always generalizable. A harbinger of this trend was seen in demographic work on "excess" fertility in modern nonindustrial societies that included work by anthropologists and focused on structural-functional relations between social systems and demographic behavior.

Data collection approaches. In part, this appeal was for ethnographers to provide locally gathered and fine-grained data (the first substantive focus, above) or locally significant meanings or behavioral motivations (the second substantive focus). The need for such data and meanings was fueled by the policy-driven emphasis, in demography, on the introduction or implementation of fertility control in nonindustrial societies. In order to introduce such control, policymakers had to change the behavior of actors and needed advice on how to do so. Initially, demographers sought to identify universalistic criteria (in typically economic fashion). But they soon came to appreciate that they had to understand more local motivations for the maintenance of high fertility and to identify those factors that might persuade actors to lower it. This endeavor, however, is problematic. Whereas most demographers use data gathered at a population level, usually by survey or census methods, most ethnographers work at an individual, household, or at most the level of the local group (e.g., village). The outcomes of these different enterprises are often not comparable. The averages obtained from surveys and censuses may be stable, but such sources are limited in their depth. The rich-ness of ethnographic data is unachievable by other methods, but the data are from small samples and can be quite unstable. Much demographic data gathered by ethnography had been unreliable or presented in forms incompatible with accepted demo-graphic analytic techniques (as in the use of nonstandard age ranges).

In response to these challenges, some anthropologists began to do explicit and methodologically informed demographic investigations. Some demographers explicitly invoked and attempted to implement ethnographic techniques or to work with ethnographers. The principal outcome of such endeavors has been the emergence of the subfield of microdemography. In this subfield's simplest applications, ethnographers deliver a new empirical grist for the demographer's mill–"add fieldwork and stir" (Kertzer and Fricke, p. 2). At its best, microdemography seeks to situate and explicate demographic behavior in local terms.

At the same time, placing demographic behavior in social and cultural context continued, for example in "family systems theory," which relates kinship and family structures to demographic decision-making, or in taking account of overarching political-economic structures. Despite the conflict between structural-functional and intepretivist views within cultural anthropology itself, these approaches, taking into account the broad conditions under which most actors in a given social environment may exercise their agency, have been most productive. There is a strong similarity between these efforts and institutionally or value-oriented social demography. In parallel is a continuation of the emphasis on cultural milieu and communication between actors in the network-oriented research of some demographers.

One problem encountered by the joining of ethnography and demography and shared with the survey approach is a lack of temporal depth. Many of the problems that interest demographers are dynamic and occur across generations, often several generations. Only a series of compatibly designed and comparably implemented surveys or censuses can meet the demand for time depth. Even such surveys are usually impoverished for the purposes of institutional contextualization or interpretation, because they focus on the usual limited set of social and economic variables (education, income, etc.), and these usually only as of the date of survey, even when lifelong or cross-generational reproductive histories are recovered. While rich and informative about individuals, ethnographic data cannot go much beyond life histories, so that transgenerational processes are unrecoverable, except by the taking of genealogies, which are notoriously biased and often recounted principally to legitimate current social structures. In consequence, both demographers and anthropologists have turned to history, either by using historical or ethnohistorical sources or by doing long-term re-visitation fieldwork involving more than one generation of fieldworkers.

Defining culture. Despite these advances–implementation of technical demographic methods by some ethnographers, entry into fieldwork by some demographers, attempts to recover transgenerational temporal depth by ethnographers and demographers, and the focus on demographic matters by historians–serious problems remain. One of these is the problematic nature of culture as an explicator of behavior. An idea invented by anthropologists, and elaborated especially by the American school–associated with the anthropologist Franz Boas (1858–1942)–culture is a fuzzy concept, more definable as the complement of other things (biology, institutions, environment, etc.) than in its own right. Attempts to define it continue in anthropology. Inquiring and dissatisfied demographers, seizing on culture to extricate themselves from the failures of transition theory in explaining demographic change, have laid hold of a very slippery fish. Their colleagues in sociology and ethnography have not solved the puzzle of how environment, institutions, and values interact to condition individual behavior, and of course it is that individual behavior, aggregated into population statistics, that is the focus of demographic interest. The deficiencies of demographic theory are not ameliorated by the poverty of social theory.

Role of quantification. A third point of difficulty, beyond the limits of what is recoverable by ethnographic fieldwork and what can be utilized from the concept of culture, is the markedly different mind-sets of most ethnographers and most demographers. All demographers are comfortable with mathematics and the use of numerical indicators as measures of or at least as proxies for conditioning variables and outcomes. While demographers are intense critics of the quality of their data, so that they constantly doubt particular facts, they believe in the existence of facts and that facts can be known at least approximately. They are also comfortable with statistical notions of indeterminacy and especially with precise descriptions of uncertainty.

By contrast, many ethnographers are uncomfortable with mathematics. They are disinclined to accept or are even hostile to the use of numerical indicators. While earlier ethnographers were uncritically accepting of the truth of informants' statements, modern ethnographers doubt the possibility of determining objective truth at all. Where demographers would rely on probabilities, ethnographers would retreat into literary vagueness. Yet the ethnographers have an important point in their insistence on the interpersonally negotiated nature of social "facts," and the mathematical "hard core" of demographic investigation is softer than the demographers think. Indeed, the shift of some demography from empirical computation to a search for social meanings that inform individual decisions may have exposed an underbelly of unknowability that bedevils all attempts to understand behavior. Petersen's critique of demography in the hands of anthropologists is well matched by Nancy Scheper-Hughes's 1997 attack on studies of the human condition in the hands of demographers.


Despite these caveats, both anthropology and demography have benefited from the interaction between the two fields. Many more anthropologists are now sensitive to and often technically equipped to deal with demographic issues. Many more demographers are now alert to the need to define relevant decision-making units and personal goals in terms of local patterns of action, rather than in terms of familiar Western categories. Whether these advances can be sustained depends on the ability of demographers to broaden their theoretical horizons and on the determination of anthropologists to exercise empirical rigor. The alliance between demography and anthropology (aside from modern cultural anthropology) is well-grounded and durable but would be improved if the interests of demographers were more general and less tied to contemporary policy-driven issues. The flirtation between a demography unsatisfied in its own house and looking for some theoretical excitement in cultural anthropology can be rescued from mere flirtation under three conditions:

  1. Recognition of the continuing analytical utility of institutional structures, even when they are evaded or modified by actors. Interpretivist ethnographers should recognize such structures, while functionalist ethnographers and social demographers should take them with a grain of salt.
  2. A discriminating use of the concept of culture. Demographers must realize that culture may not live up to the allure of a first encounter. Nevertheless, the economists among them would profit by explicitly incorporating local preferences into their formulations. Ethnographers should seek to lay bare how choices are actually made rather than simply enlarge on how informants talk about their feelings.
  3. A mutual understanding of goals and limitations. Critical and activist ethnographers must do a better job of the ethnography of demography in order to understand what it is demographers actually do, and why they do it, especially how they are driven to rely on and are then constrained by their data sources. Demographers must understand the intensely local and primarily political-humanistic agenda of interpretivist ethnography.

See also: Caldwell, John C.; Caste; Culture and Population; Evolutionary Demography; Gender; Hunter-Gatherers; Indigenous Peoples; Nomads; Paleodemography; Prehistoric Populations; Primate Demography.


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Eugene A. Hammel