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Geography, Population


Population geography, with intellectual roots that go back to the mid-nineteenth century, studies the way in which spatial variations in the distribution, composition, migration, and growth of population are related to the nature of places. A concern with spatial variation has been the geographer's distinctive contribution to population studies, in comparison to the demographer, who is much more interested in patterns of birth, marriage, and death, and less interested in the influence of migration and spatial variations in general.

Within the discipline of geography, population study has long been important, and increasingly the boundaries between geography and other disciplines interested in population matters–economics, sociology, history, psychology, and biology, as well as demography–are blurred. Population geography is not concerned exclusively with spatial distribution, or with description over theory: it can encompass, for example, the explanation of regional and national levels of fertility, detailed patterns of disease diffusion, and advanced modeling of interregional population growth. Population variables also form a key component in Geographical Information Systems, which allow the processing of large amounts of data for discrete geographical units. Nevertheless, population geographers are more concerned with migration and spatial variation than with other matters. The International Journal of Population Geography, founded in 1995, is a useful indicator of the scope of the field.

Development of Population Geography

Lesek Kosinskî traces the origins of population geography back to the German and French schools of human geography of the second half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. These schools had a particular concern with population mapping and with the relationship between population and the environment. It was only after World War II, however, that the sub-discipline began to take its modern shape, following the publications of Pierre George (1951) in France (reflecting that country's particular interest in demographic issues), and Glenn T. Trewartha (1953) in the United States. Germany, where demography had been discredited by its association with Nazi policy, and some other countries were slower to follow, although there was significant progress in the Soviet Union, Japan, and India. For Trewartha, "population is the point of reference from which all other elements are observed and from which they all, singly and collectively, derive significance and meaning. It is population which furnishes the focus" (1953, pp. 6 and 14). His "tentative system of content and organisation" for population geography defined the field broadly, including historical population geography, the dynamics of population growth, distribution, migration, population structure, and socioeconomic characteristics. At the core of population geography was a fascination with the global pattern of population distribution and the way it reflected both demographic processes and the wider human and physical environment.

The postwar growth in the field was facilitated by the increased availability of demographic data and impelled by the very obvious relevance of population issues in both the developed and developing countries. Publication of a number of influential textbooks–such as those by John Clarke (1965) and George Demko, Harold Rose, and George Schnell (1970)–gave population geography a firm place in the geography curriculum in many countries. The field was strengthened by an improved institutional environment, marked by the activities sponsored by the Commission on Population Geography of the International Geographical Union (especially from the late 1950s), the Population Specialty Group of the Association of American Geographers (from 1980), and the Population Geography Study Group of the Institute of British Geographers (from 1963). Population geographers have had some, though more limited, involvement with multidisciplinary groups such as the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population.

These early foundations of population geography were quite different from (and indeed had relatively little effect on) demography, but from the 1970s it was increasingly argued that geographers needed to focus more clearly on demographic methods. Thus, texts such as Robert Woods (1979) gave greater emphasis to the central demographic phenomena of fertility and mortality and rather less to migration. The idea was to merge population geography and spatial demography around a core of theory derived from demography. This coincided with the greater use of quantitative methods in geography generally, with texts such as Philip Rees and Alan Wilson's (1977) focusing on the use of population accounts and models for spatial demographic analysis, and Peter Congdon and Peter Batey's (1989) bringing an interdisciplinary view of "regional demography."

Contemporary Population Geography

Although standard texts such as Huw Jones (1981) still took a broadly based view, for some geographers this attachment to the methods of demography signaled an unwelcome narrowing of population geography, distancing it from the rest of geography just at the time when debates about critical social theory in geography were intense. Some population geographers called for a greater awareness of social theory in population geography, for a more critical view of established data sources and theories, and for a move to qualitative as well as quantitative methods. Interestingly, though their impetus came largely from the discipline of geography, their concerns mirrored ones expressed within demography. These critical geographers would agree with the demographer-anthropologist Susan Greenhalgh's view that "reflexivity about the politics of demographic praxis is notably lacking in the field…. Neither the globalpolitical economies of the 1970s, nor the postmodernisms and postcolonialities of the 1980s and 1990s, nor the feminisms of any decade have had much perceptible impact" (1996, p. 27).

However geographers choose to define their field at a particular moment, their abiding interest is in spatial variations at different scales. Patterns of population growth through time and space, and particularly the demographic transition, have been considered fundamental to the understanding of wider geographical processes of urbanization, industrialization, and the use of resources. There has been a continuing interest in the links between the physical and human environments, for example in the impact of natural disasters.

Attention to fertility and mortality has been directed in particular to highlighting the spatial dimension of patterns and their links with environmental or social conditions–for example the spatial incidence of mortality and disease or fertility. Others have combined demography and geography to produce persuasive portraits of countries or continents. Demographers such as Ansley J. Coale and Susan Cotts Watkins have themselves taken an interest in international and national patterns of demographic change that have clear geographical dimensions. Geographers have also shared with historians an interest in historical geographies of population, reconstructing patterns of fertility and mortality as well as household and family formation through techniques such as family reconstitution and the detailed manipulation of past census, registration, and ecclesiastical records.

Yet population geographers have given most attention to migration, estimating gross and net flows at various scales; building models of interregional flows; and analyzing economic and social causes and consequences. Studies of migration have included international movements, rural-urban, urban-urban, and intra-urban flows, as well as seasonal and diurnal movements. Geographers like Russell King, Paul White, and John Connell have also looked at the subjective experience of migration, drawing on in-depth surveys and creative literature.

Population geography, through its content and approaches, serves to remind both demographers and practitioners with population interests in other disciplines that demographic changes have spatial as well as temporal dimensions. At the same time it reminds geographers that population characteristics are a key ingredient in the character of places.

See also: Central Place Theory; Density and Distribution of Population; Geographic Information Systems; Geopolitics.


Clarke, John I. 1972. Population Geography, 2nd edition. Oxford: Pergamon.

Clarke, John I., ed. 1984. Geography and Population: Approaches and Applications. Oxford: Pergamon.

Cliff, Andrew, and Peter Haggett. 1992. Atlas of Disease Distributions. Oxford: Blackwell.

Coale, Ansley J., and Susan Cotts Watkins, eds. 1986. The Decline of Fertility in Europe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Coleman, David, and John Salt. 1992. The British Population: Patterns, Trends and Processes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Congdon, Peter, and Peter Batey. 1989. Advances in Regional Demography: Information, Forecasts, Models. London: Belhaven.

Demko, George J., Harold M. Rose, and George A. Schnell, 1970. Population Geography: A Reader. New York: McGraw-Hill.

George, Pierre. 1951. Introduction à l'Etude Géographique de la Population du Monde. Paris: Institut National d'Etudes Démographiques.

Gould, William T. S., and M. Brown. 1996. "Research Review 2: Fertility in Sub-Saharan Africa." International Journal of Population Geography 2: 1–22.

Greenhalgh, Susan. 1996. "The Social Construction of Population Science: An Intellectual, Institutional and Political History of Twentieth-Century Demography." Comparative Studies in Society and History 38: 26–66.

Jones, Huw. 1990. Population Geography, 2nd edition. London: Paul Chapman.

King, Russell, Paul White, and John Connell, eds. 1995. Writing Across Worlds: Literature and Migration. London: Routledge.

Kosinskî, Lesek. 1984. "The Roots of Population Geography." In Geography and Population: Approaches and Applications, ed. John I. Clarke. Oxford: Pergamon.

Noin, Daniel, and Robert Woods, eds. 1993. The Changing Population of Europe. Oxford: Blackwell.

Ogden, Philip E. 2000. "Population Geography." In The Dictionary of Human Geography, 4th edition, ed. R. J. Johnston, Derek Gregory, Geraldine Pratt, and Michael Watts. Oxford: Blackwell.

Rees, Philip, and Alan Wilson. 1977. Spatial Population Analysis. London: Edward Arnold.

Trewartha, Glenn T. 1970. "A Case for Population Geography" (1953). In Population Geography: A Reader, ed. George Demko, Harold Rose, and George Schnell. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Woods, Robert I. 1979. Population Analysis in Geography. London: Longman.

Philip E. Ogden

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