Demography Essay

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What is Demography?

Demography is the scientific study of human population and its processes, such as fertility, mortality, and migration, and how these factors change over time and affect population size, growth, structure and composition, and the natural environment. The field of demography typically has been organized in terms of two strands of scholarship: formal and social demography.

Sources of Demographic Information

One source of demographic information is a census, which provides a count of the number of people in a given area at a given point in time. Another source is a vital register, which documents population events, such as births, deaths, marriages, and divorce. Sample surveys provide information helpful for assessing population events in the context of broader social and economic change.

Demographic Perspectives: Theories of Population Change

In one of the earliest theories of population change, Malthus (1798) argued that the world would expand at a rate that could not be supported by the environment. Demographic evidence today indicates that this has not happened and the global society makes food at a tempo far above Malthus’s original projections (Weeks 2004).

More than a century after Malthus, the theory of demographic transition emerged. The basic premise is that societies move through three stages of population growth: (1) a period of high mortality and fertility; (2) a period of mortality decline as the standard of living improved; and (3) a final stage when fertility declined.

The subtle assumption of demographic transition theory was that economic development created the preconditions for declines in mortality and fertility. Evidence from the European Fertility Project (Coale 1973) indicated a high level of regional variation in when fertility declined, suggesting that economic development was not enough to explain change in population growth. As a result, a series of reformulations emerged. Some argued that ideational components giving meaning to the costs and benefits of children were important. Similarly, Caldwell (1976) argued that fertility would not decline until the flow of wealth, which had been from children to parents, was reversed. In response to the baby boom birth cohort of the 1950s and 1960s, Robert Easterlin (1978) argued that economic well-being was important in explaining fertility declines. Individuals will marry earlier and have higher birth rates if they can achieve a level of economic well-being similar to their parents’. If it is more difficult to achieve a standard of living similar to what was experienced as a child, individuals will delay marriage and childbearing.

Recent demographic trends suggest a deceleration in population growth on a global scale due to widespread declines in fertility. Some argue that these demographic changes characterize a ”second demographic transition,” also described in three stages (Lesthaeghe 1995). The first stage (1955— 70), is marked by acceleration in divorce rates and an increase in the age of marriage. Increases in cohabitation and childbearing outside of marriage characterized the second stage (1975—80). In the third stage (mid-1980s and onwards), divorce rates flattened, cohabitation largely replaced remarriage, and delays in fertility were recouped after age 30. These changes are attributed to increasing individual autonomy and gender symmetry and a greater focus on the relationship between adult partners than in the past.

Many of the original theories, however, focused on developed countries. Yet, research revealed that the pace of transition was faster in developing than developed countries. Thus, other factors related to fertility behavior, such as control over family planning funds and the distribution of methods, and the diffusion of westernized family values, have been used to explain fertility decline in developing countries.


  1. Caldwell, J. C. (1976) Toward a restatement of demographic transition theory. Population and Development Review 2: 321—66.
  2. Coale, A. J. (1973) The demographic transition. Proceedings of the IUSSP International Population Conference. Liege, pp. 53—71.
  3. Easterlin, R. (1978) What will 1984 be like? Socioeconomic implications of recent twists in age structure. Demography 15: 397—432.
  4. Lesthaeghe, R. (1995) The second demographic transition in Western countries: an interpretation. In: Mason, K. & Jensen, A. (eds.), Gender and Family Change in Industrialized Countries. Clarendon Press, Oxford, pp. 17—62.
  5. Malthus, T. (1798). An Essay on the Principle of Population. J. Johnson, in St. Paul’s Church-Yard, London. Weeks, J. R. (2004) Population: an Introduction to Concepts and Issues. Wadsworth Publishing Company, Belmont, CA.

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