Demography, History of

views updated


Demography is the study of a human population, a definable group of people, and of additions to and subtractions from its number. A population is increased by births and immigration and decreased by deaths and emigration. In a "closed population," there is no migration and attention is paid only to reproduction and mortality. Demographers prefer to study populations that are sufficiently large to be unaffected by the idiosyncratic behavior of individuals. Nevertheless, most would argue that their findings are the best description of the behavior of the typical individual. Demographers, especially when studying recent times, are almost always interested in change; consequently, the time dimension is stronger in their work than it is in most social sciences.

Demography is not easy to practice. Its practitioners need to know the numbers and vital rates of large human aggregations and require some comprehension of mathematics and scientific concepts to do their analyses. Adequate measurements of large populations require wealth and a centralized administration and have developed slowly. Historically, such measurements were not carried out for demographic purposes but to assess military strength or the tax base. Frequently, the data were not centralized, making analysis difficult. The registration of births and deaths usually was done for legal purposes such as establishing inheritance rights and was not equally relevant to all parts of society.

The Materials of Demography

Censuses, although usually not including all individuals, were carried out in the ancient world in powerful states such as Egypt, Babylon, Persia, India, and China as well as in some Greek city-states. Republican Rome took a census every five years. More recently, the Domesday Book in eleventh-century England listed landowners, listed undertenants by a single name, and did not list other family members and non-tenants. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there were tax registers in England, France, and the Netherlands and various kinds of counts in German and Italian cities as well as in Spain and Portugal.

The rise of the powerful nation-state made full censuses inevitable. William Petty (1623–1687) campaigned for them in Restoration England. Quebec held a complete census of its very small population in 1665, and at the end of the seventeenth century England, France, and Iceland took censuses that were neither aggregated nor published, while Prussia followed in 1748 and Sweden in 1749. Population registers spread in Scandinavia, starting with Sweden in 1686.

Censuses proliferated in the late eighteenth century: Switzerland in 1798, the United States (mandated by its constitution) in 1800, England and France in 1801, Ireland in 1813, and over 20 more countries by the 1860s. These were not modern censuses initially. Detailed age data and separate lines for each individual were not instituted until the middle of the nineteenth century, and training courses for enumerators came later. Norway undertook the first census sampling in 1900. Censuses in most of the developing world did not occur until the second half of the twentieth century (India, where census taking began in the 1870s, is the most important exception), and not all populations have yet been subjected to a census.

Vital registration still does not characterize much of Asia and nearly all of Africa. Christendom had an advantage in this regard because of the sacramental nature of baptisms, marriages, and funerals and an increasing tendency to record those events. Toledo in Spain made parish registration compulsory in 1497, and the Council of Trent in 1563 did the same for baptisms and marriages in the whole Catholic world. In England in 1538 Thomas Cromwell ordered the church to register all baptisms, marriages, and burials; in the following year France did the same thing for baptisms and burials. In 1635 Buddhist temple registration began in Japan.

With the decline of national churches as Protestant sects and freethinking emerged, it was inevitable in the West that church registration would be succeeded by secular state registration and that births and deaths would replace baptisms and funerals, respectively. This was already the case in the Scandinavian population registers, which were followed by civil registration in France in 1804 under the Napoleonic Code and in England and Wales in 1837. Nevertheless, death registration was not backed up by death certification, with its greater likelihood of correctly stating a cause, until 1855 in Scotland, 1865 in the Netherlands, and 1874 in England and Wales. In the United States vital registration, in contrast to the census, was a state, not a federal, responsibility. As a result, although vital registration began early in Massachusetts, the official registration area, where registration was largely complete, expanded only slowly from the late nineteenth century until its completion in 1933. The first birth statistics for the area were not published until 1915, and in spite of efforts by the American census, much less is known about nineteenth-century American demography than is known about that of Europe or Australia.

The situation in the developing world was partly rectified by the development in the last few decades of the twentieth century of national sample surveys (usually concentrated on women of reproductive age and including only 5,000 to 10,000 respondents). Successively, there were the so-called KAP surveys (on knowledge, attitudes, and practices with regard to fertility) in 1962–1973, the World Fertility Survey (WFS) from 1973 through 1984, and the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), begun in 1984 and still continuing. The WFS covered 61 countries; DHS surveys had been held in 69 countries by 2001, and repeated at least twice in 45 of them. All these surveys collected fertility data; the DHS and WFS collected mortality data as well, although these data usually were regarded as sufficient to provide reliable estimates only for infants and young children.

Other sources included specialized surveys, such as the Indianapolis Study of 1941; efforts by the census bureau or department to collect vital data, especially in the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century; and special demographic surveys, particularly in Francophone Africa in the 1950s. Later in the twentieth century huge demographic surveys were carried out in China (starting with the 1981 one-in-a-thousand sample survey) and India. The computer has allowed demographers to undertake their own analyses of surveys and census samples, thus lessening their dependence on statistical offices and profoundly changing the nature of the discipline.

The Analysts

The Italian Renaissance and the era of European voyages and religious missions to distant continents first stirred interest in estimating population size. The Counter-Reformation and the rise of the Jesuits also came into the picture. Estimates of urban, national, and global populations are associated with Giovanni Botero (1544–1617), Marino Marini (1614–1661), and Giovanni Riccioli (1598–1671). Botero in his 1588 publication Cause della Grandezza…delle Città analyzed the factors determining the growth and prosperity of cities and in his 1596 Relazioni Universali anticipated the economist T. R. Malthus's argument about the relationship between growth in population and pressure on resources.

Little demographic analysis occurred before about 1660. The exception was a continuing interest in mortality rates for the purpose of calculating annuities and tontines. There is a surviving rough life table from third-century Rome that was used for this purpose. Mortality was to continue to dominate demographic interest until the late nineteenth century, partly because it varied more than did fertility as epidemics or famines struck.

Modern demography had to wait for large-scale datasets, scientific interest in their analysis, and sufficient development in mathematics to allow that analysis. Francis Bacon (1561–1626), whom all the early English demographers credited with showing them the way, had, especially in Novum Organum, published in 1620, developed the inductive method and had stressed the need in science to collect facts and search for form in them to identify the underlying natural laws. The early English demographers knew and worked beside Isaac Newton (1643–1727), who was discovering the laws of physics. However, most sixteenth-and seventeenth-century demographers were, like Newton, also searching for a divine pattern and, like him, were Protestants. There are later parallels with the economist Adam Smith's "hidden hand" and Malthus's emphasis on divine underpinnings. The necessary mathematical knowledge was not intuitive, and it is no accident that demographic analysis often was advanced by astronomers such as Edmond Halley (1656–1743) and Pierre Simon La Place (1749–1827) and mathematicians such as Leonhard Euler (1707–1783).

The development of the discipline of demography is usually traced to seventheenth-century England, especially among the founders of the Royal Society. John Graunt (1620–1674), a London merchant often described as the father of demography, employed Bacon's approach and his own experience with merchant bookkeeping to analyze the London Bills of Mortality, or death records, which had been kept since 1532. His major work, published in 1662, established such canons of demography as checking and correcting the data and then searching for regularities. Graunt showed that in sufficiently large populations there was an excess of male births, higher mortality in infancy than at any other age except extreme old age, and a longer female than male lifespan and constructed a prototype of the life table that later would be made rigorous by Halley. Graunt's friend William Petty (1623–1687) applied quantitative methods to the social sciences; pioneered household enumeration, especially for studying the population of cities; and published in 1683 Political Arithmetic, whose title encapsulates the nature of demography. In 1696 Gregory King (1648–1712) drew upon the scattered returns of England's first census and other sources to prepare a manuscript (not published until 1801) calculating the population of England (and estimating continental and global numbers) and computing for 1695 birth, death, and marriage rates as well as age structure.

A notable eighteenth-century advance was Richard Price's (1723–1791) work on actuarial science, which laid the foundations for the British insurance industry. Price argued that knowledge in the natural sciences entails an understanding of probabilities, a view descending from the philosophers René Descartes (1596–1650), John Locke (1632–1704), and David Hume (1711–1776). But in the eighteenth century demography was no longer an exclusively English pursuit. There was a major Swiss contribution from Jean Louis Muret (1715–1796), a mathematician who first devised birth, death, and marriage rates. His contemporary Leonhard Euler (1707–1783), working mostly in Russia and Prussia, created the mathematical theory of both life tables and stable populations, the foundations of modern formal demography. In Sweden, Per Wargentin (1717–1783) employed the first Swedish census and the population registration system to publish in 1766 the first national life table. The commanding figure in eighteenth-century empirical demography was a German, Johann Peter Süssmilch (1707–1767), who published in 1741 and 1761–1762 Die Göttliche Ordnung (The Divine Order with regard to the Human Species, as demonstrated by birth, death and reproduction), an influential treatise (never translated into English). In search for proof of a divine order in the regularity of demographic events he amassed data from a huge number of sources and provided material for succeeding demographers, including T. R. Malthus (1766–1834). Malthus, in his First Essay (1798), with its postulate of population growth being restricted by the slow increase in resources, made a major contribution to population theory. In the succeeding editions of that work over the next three decades he assembled a mass of supporting empirical materials. Pierre Simon Laplace (1749–1827), a French astronomer and mathematician, continued the work on probability, which he applied to mortality, life expectancy, and the length of marriages.

In the eighteenth century empirical demography did not develop as rapidly as might have been anticipated, mainly because issues of cost and popular resistance delayed the advent of national censuses and vital registration systems. The situation changed rapidly in the nineteenth century. From 1855 the term demography came into use and from 1882 the International Conferences on Hygiene and Demography were held. A second cause for the development of the discipline was a downward movement in mortality rates in most Western countries and, toward the end of the century, the beginning of a fertility decline. The focus of the discipline shifted from analyzing stasis to analyzing change. Statisticians such as the Belgian Adolphe Quetelet (1796–1874) and the German Wilhelm Lexis (1837–1914) turned their attention to the movement over time in social measures, especially demographic ones. The analysis of geographic and social differentials in mortality, as well as its changes over time, provided guidance in the battle against disease.

The dominant figure in this effort was William Farr (1807–1883), who analyzed the causes and levels of deaths in England in the Annual Report of the Registrar General from 1839 to 1880, meeting a need arising partly from the problems of the new industrial cities. The analysis of fertility assumed importance once widespread fertility decline began in Western countries in the last third of the nineteenth century. Questions about live births to women appeared in the U.S. census starting in 1900 and in those in Britain and other countries in its empire starting in 1911. Methods for measuring fertility, which eventually yielded such commonly used measures as the gross and net reproduction rates, evolved in the strong demographic group in the Prussian/German Statistical Office in Berlin in the second half of the nineteenth century with the work of Richard Bockhe, leading in the twentieth century to further development by R. R. Kuczynski (1876–1947) in England and Alfred Lotka (1880–1949) in the United States. Interest in changing fertility levels emerged in various countries. In France the focus was on the low level of natural increase following the defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870; in England, led by Francis Galton (1822–1911), the founder of the eugenics movement, it was on differential fertility by social class, with the supposed tendency of the less intelligent to outbreed the bright; and in the United States it was on the higher birthrate among immigrants than among the native-born. Such ideas, together with the older Malthusian concern with the pressure of population on food and other resources, would foster the development of demography in the twentieth century and often make the subject politically sensitive.

The twentieth century witnessed further development of demography's analytic techniques as the number of professionals working in the field greatly increased. Population growth models drew together mortality and fertility approaches. Stable population analysis that had originated in the work of Euler and was developed further by Laplace, Lotka, Ansley Coale (born 1917), and Álvaro López Toro (1926–1972); it was modified for quasi-stable populations by Coale, Paul Demeny (born 1932), and Samuel Preston (born 1943). Mathematical analysis by Nathan Keyfitz (born 1913) and others explored further demographic interrelations. Reacting to swings in the rate of population growth, population projection methodology developed component methods (based on separate age and sex components) stemming from work in 1895 by Edwin Cannan (1861–1935), logistic curve approaches from a 1920 paper by Raymond Pearl (1875–1940) and Lowell Reed (1886–1966), and cohort analysis from a 1936 paper by Pascal Whelpton (1893–1964). Post–World War II interest in the developing world led William Brass (1921–1999) to develop "indirect" methods for estimating vital rates and trends from limited census and survey data. This advance allowed fertility and mortality to be estimated not only for contemporary countries without vital registration but also for many historical populations.


Until the twentieth century the only sense in which demography was a discipline was that there was a growing body of knowledge, both theoretical and empirical, and some teaching of that knowledge in university courses such as statistics and economics. Beginning in the 1920s that situation changed as the West become wealthier, university education expanded in volume and diversity, and interest in population phenomena was stimulated first by the eugenics movement and then by low birth rates in the West during the economic depression of the 1930s.

In the United States foundations played an initial role in the establishment of a population research center led by Warren Thompson (1887–1973) and Whelpton in Ohio in 1922 and the Office of Population Research (OPR) directed by Frank Notestein (1902–1983) at Princeton University in 1936. The Milbank Memorial Fund in New York established its own Population Research Office in 1928 and funded population survey research in China in the following year. In 1936 the Population Investigation Committee was formed in Britain. Population courses had been given at the London School of Economics from the 1930s in the Social Biology Department and from 1936 in Princeton's OPR. A graduate department of demography was established at the Australian National University in 1952.

Demography has struggled to be accepted as a full and continuing university discipline, and its existence has depended to a considerable degree on professional associations, specialized journals, and conferences. The International Union for the Scientific Investigation of Population Problems was founded in 1928 and was reconstituted as the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP) in 1947. The emphasis on the term scientific, which is not common in other disciplines, was intended to suggest that members' research and teaching were not biased by attitudes toward birth control or eugenics. In 1931 the Population Association of America (PAA) was formed. Both the International Union and the PAA had periodic journals that provided limited outlets for publication, but in the 1930s and early 1940s more demographic articles appeared in the Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly. Specialized journals appeared later: Population in France in 1946, Population Studies in Britain in 1947, and Demography in 1963 and Population and Development Review in 1975 in the United States. From its inception the International Union held periodic conferences with published proceedings.

The remarkable expansion of demography in the second half of the twentieth century was largely the product of concern about "population explosion" in the developing world during a period of unprecedented international technical assistance. The United Nations set up a Population Division in 1946, the Population Council was founded in 1952, and the Ford Foundation brought considerable funding to the field starting in 1959. Later, governments were to become even greater sources of support, with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) moving toward massive financial inputs to population programs starting in the early 1960s. By the end of the 1960s the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA, now the United Nations Population Fund) had been established. Population research centers with associated teaching programs were set up in many universities in the United States and other Western countries. They tended to focus on fertility, with a strong emphasis on developing countries. The United Nations helped establish demographic research and training centers in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Scholarships provided by foundations, governments, and international agencies permitted many students in developing countries to take graduate degrees in the population field in Western universities. The funding also permitted the IUSSP and the United Nations to hold large international conferences.

Demography remained unsure about its disciplinary boundaries, especially in the sense of whether it was defined by its empirical studies and their analysis or could be equated with a larger area of intellectual inquiry–population studies–which includes the cause and impact of demographic change. If the latter was the case, it had a claim to be a social science and a need to draw on such fields as economics, sociology, and anthropology for methodology and explanations.

The Recent Past and the Future

By 1970 it was known that fertility decline had begun in much of the developing world except for sub-Saharan Africa. In the early 1980s the Ford Foundation ceased funding the population field, and the population centers it supported foresaw difficulties. Since that time government and international support has tended to move from demographic teaching and research to family planning programs in the developing world. Population centers had to adjust to the new conditions. Some of them developed a greater interest in public health issues in developed countries. Keyfitz wrote that further concentration on methodology would not be rewarding and that the existing methodology should be applied to the great global problems. A few demography programs disappeared, but most moved toward greater integration within universities. Research on developing countries declined. Demography had for over a century been focused on population change, and that change appeared to be coming to a halt as the demographic transition neared an end with low and nearly equal birth rates and death rates.

That halt has not occurred, with the result that demography in its organized institutional condition seems to have an assured future. The reason for this is that the demographic transition does not necessarily produce equal fertility and mortality levels but instead may lead to very low fertility and declining population numbers. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, 44 percent of the world's population lived in countries with fertility at or below the long-term replacement level and much of Europe exhibited fertility well below that level. The first demand on demographers was to investigate the resulting changes in the age structure, with the realization that the old-age pensionable population appeared to be moving in many developed countries from 10 percent in 1950 to 15 to 20 percent in 2000 and ultimately might reach levels beyond 30 percent. In the longer run, and probably first in Europe, the interest of demographers probably will focus on the nature of population decline and the efficacy of interventions to counter it.

See also: Botero, Giovanni; Brass, William; Cannan, Edwin; Coale, Ansley Johnson; Demographic and Health Surveys; Euler, Leonhard; Farr, William; Galton, Francis; Graunt, John; Journals, Population; Keyfitz, Nathan; King, Gregory; Kuczynski, R. R.; Lotka, Alfred; Malthus, Thomas Robert; Notestein, Frank W.; Pearl, Raymond; Petty, William; Population Organizations; Population Thought: History of; Quetelet, Adolphe; Süssmilch, Johann; Thompson, Warren S.; Whelpton, P.K.; World Fertility Survey.


Bulatao, Rodolfo A., and Ronald D. Lee, eds. 1983. Determinants of Fertility in Developing Countries: A Summary of Knowledge. New York: Academic Press.

Caldwell, John, and Pat Caldwell. 1986. Limiting Population Growth, and the Ford Foundation Contribution. London: Frances Pinter.

Demography, 30 (4) (thirtieth anniversary issue), November 1993.

Hauser, Philip M., and Otis Dudley Duncan, eds. 1959. The Study of Population: An Inventory and Appraisal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hodgson, Dennis. 1983. "Demography as a Social Science and a Policy Science." Population and Development Review 9 (1): 1–34.

Kreager, Philip. 1991. "Early Modern Population Theory." Population and Development Review 17(2): 207–227.

Lorimer, Frank. 1959. "The Development of Demography." In The Study of Population: An Inventory and Appraisal, ed. Philip M. Hauser and Otis Dudley Duncan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McNicoll, Geoffrey. 1992. "The Agenda of Population Studies: A Commentary and Complaint." Population and Development Review 18 (1): 399–420.

Petersen, William, and Renee Petersen. 1985. Dictionary of Demography: Biographies. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Population. 1995. Fiftieth anniversary volume.

Population Studies, 50 (3) (fifty-year retrospective), November 1996.

John C. Caldwell