Davis, Kingsley

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One of the foremost demographers of his time and one of the most eminent and influential figures in twentieth-century American social science, Kingsley Davis made major contributions to demographic theory, the sociology of the family, and especially the understanding of the world demographic transition.

In 1930 Davis received a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Texas, where he was editor of the literary magazine. In 1932 he enrolled as a graduate student in Harvard's sociology department, receiving a doctorate in 1936. At Harvard he studied under Talcott Parsons, Pitrim Sorokin, W. Lloyd Warner, and Carle Zimmerman but did not take the one course in population offered by E. B. Wilson. He received no training in formal demography until 1940–1941, when as a postdoctoral fellow at the Social Science Research Council he studied under Samuel Stouffer at the University of Chicago and at the U.S. Bureau of the Census.

Davis held academic appointments at Clark University (1936–1937), Pennsylvania State University (1937–1944), Princeton University (1942–1948), Columbia University (1948–1955), the University of California at Berkeley (1955–1977), the University of Southern California (1977–1990), and the Hoover Institution (1981–1992). He was president of the American Sociological Association in 1959 and president of the Population Association of America in 1962–1963 and received the Population Association of America's Irene B. Taueber Award for Outstanding Research in Demography in 1978. In 1965 he was the first sociologist to be elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

Davis first achieved a considerable reputation for his research on the family, but his interest in population dynamics and related policy matters was evident in his earliest writings. An article, "Reproductive Institutions and the Pressure for Population," published when Davis was 28, offered an incisive analysis of the decline of the birthrate in modern industrial societies, locating the cause in the "ripening incongruity between our reproductive system (the family) and the rest of modern social organization" (1937, p. 290; 1997, p. 612). Davis rounded out the analysis with an original and provocative discussion of the policies, actual and potential, that can be used in an attempt to resolve that incongruity. The article foreshadowed not only the main topics Davis pursued throughout his long scientific career but also the distinctive and often combative style with which he explored important social phenomena.

Davis's preoccupation with demographic research proper began, however, with his appointment at Princeton University in 1942. At that university he wrote an influential article, "The World Demographic Transition" (1945), and did the major work on his opus, The Population of India and Pakistan (1951). In 1956, with Judith Blake, then his wife, he coauthored a path-breaking article on social structure and fertility, identifying the variables through which social factors can affect human reproduction. His 1963 presidential address to the Population Association of America, "The Theory of Change and Response in Modern Demographic History," was an important contribution to demographic transition theory. Influential works on world urbanization and international migration followed.

Davis was an engaged scholar, often writing on demographic topics and policy issues for a wide audience. His arresting and forceful critique of the inability of family planning programs to achieve population stabilization that appeared in Science in 1967 spawned many heated debates in academia and in Washington policy circles. Davis contended that in implying that the only requirement for fertility reduction was a perfect contraceptive device, family planners avoided discussion of the possibility that fundamental changes in social organization were necessary prerequisites.

In the last stage of his scientific career Davis continued to explore changes in the family and in sex roles and their effect on fertility. He also organized influential conferences that focused attention on the causes and consequences of below-replacement fertility levels and the relationship between resources, the environment, and population change.

Davis was a compelling teacher, and many prominent demographers trained under his stewardship. He wrote with exceptional clarity. His linguistic innovations include the terms population explosion and zero population growth. Moreover, along with his colleague Frank Notestein, he was the first to popularize the term demographic transition.

See also: Blake, Judith; Demographic Transition; Demography, History of; Fertility, Proximate Determinants of; Population Thought, Contemporary.


selected works by kingsley davis.

Davis, Kingsley. 1937. "Reproductive Institutions and the Pressure for Population." Sociological Review, July, pp. 289–366. Reprinted in Population and Development Review 23: 611–624 (1997).

——. 1945. "The World Demographic Transition." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 237: 1–11.

——. 1949. Human Society. New York: Macmillan.

——. 1951. The Population of India and Pakistan Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

——. 1963. "The Theory of Change and Response in Modern Demographic History." Population Index 29: 345–366.

——. 1967. "Population Policy: Will Current Programs Succeed?" Science 158: 730–739.

——. 1969/1972. World Urbanization 1950–1970. Berkeley, CA: Institute of International Studies.

——. 1973. Cities: Their Origin, Growth and Human Impact. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.

——. 1984. "Wives and Work: The Sex Role Revolution and Its Consequences." Population and Development Review 10(3): 397–417.

Davis, Kingsley, and Judith Blake. 1956. "Social Structure and Fertility: An Analytic Framework." Economic Development and Cultural Change 4: 211–235.

Davis, Kingsley, ed., with M. S. Bernstam. 1991. Resources, Environment, and Population: Present Knowledge, Future Options. New York: Oxford University Press. Supplement to Vol. 16 of Population and Development Review.

Davis, Kingsley, ed., with M. S. Bernstam and R. R. Campbell. 1987. Below-Replacement Fertility in Industrial Societies: Causes, Consequences, Policies. New York: Cambridge University Press. Supplement to Vol. 12 of Population and Development Review.

selected works about kingsley davis.

Petersen, William. 1979. "Davis, Kingsley." In International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, ed. David L. Sills. Vol. 18: Biographical Supplement. New York: Free Press.

David M. Heer

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