Categories and Contexts: Anthropological and Historical Studies in Critical Demography

Categories and Contexts: Anthropological and Historical Studies in Critical Demography

Categories and Contexts: Anthropological and Historical Studies in Critical Demography

Categories and Contexts: Anthropological and Historical Studies in Critical Demography

Synopsis

Throughout its history as a social science, demography has been associated with an exclusively quantitative orientation for studying social problems. As a result, demographers tend to analyse population issues scientifically through sets of fixed social categories that are divorced from dynamic relationships and local contexts and processes. This volume questions these fixed categories in two ways. First, it examines the historical and political circumstances in which such categories had their provenance, and, second, it reassesses their uncritical applications over space and time in a diverse range of empirical case studies, encouraging throughout a constructive interdisciplinary dialogue involving anthropologists, demographers, historians, and sociologists. This volume seeks to examine the political complexities that lie at the heart of population studies by focusing on category formation, category use, and category critique. It shows that this takes the form of a dialectic between the needs for clarity of scientific and administrative analysis and the recalcitrant diversity of the social contexts and human processes that generate population change. The critical reflections of each chapter are enriched by meticulous ethnographic fieldwork and historical research drawn from every continent. This volume, therefore, exemplifies a new methodology for research in population studies, one that does not simply accept and re-use the established categories of population science but seeks critically and reflexively to explore, test, and re-evaluate their meanings in diverse contexts. It shows that for demography to realise its full potential it must urgently re-examine and contextualize the social categories used today in population research.

Excerpt

Demography has in many ways been a great academic success story. Coming of age as a modern scientific pursuit in conjunction with rising concerns in the richer countries about a multiplying world population that seemed to threaten future prosperity, if not world famine and misery, it offered apparently objective methods for describing and explaining population dynamics. the sharp decline in fertility in much of the world over the past couple of decades has reduced alarm over the prospect of population explosion, but other population problems have quickly taken its place among both the general public and the world's power-holders. Most of the wealthier countries today are gripped with worry about perilously low fertility rates and ageing populations, while international migration produces its own anxieties in these countries; and horrific prognostications of devastation of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa lead to a whole new field of demographic study.

Yet if demography has been a 'can do' of discipline, one that has not in the past overly troubled itself with the kinds of epistemological questions that have, during the past few decades, so exercised anthropologists, among others, recent years have seen a crack in the positivist façade. the rise to dominance of the national sample survey in demography, which on the one hand is one of the clearest signs of this positivism, has on the other led to some cries of concern from within the demographic community. Can one really claim to have knowledge about demographic behaviour and its causes in a society about which one knows almost nothing other than what is provided in the machine-readable data provided by a Demographic and Health Survey? Other cracks have appeared in the dominant theoretical stance that formerly helped define demography. Demographic transition theory—seeking to explain the course of fertility decline—embarrassingly failed to be supported by empirical study, leading some of its former champions to call for more 'cultural' explanations of demographic behaviour, although exactly what this might entail was unclear. Indeed, things have gotten to the point where two American demographers recently published a book titled Demography in the Age of the Postmodern (Nancy Riley and James McCarthy, Cambridge University Press, 2003), calling for a radical reappraisal of the epistemological tenets of demographic study.

Categories and Contexts offers an invaluable entry point to these new perspectives by focusing on the nature of the categories employed in demographic analysis and the quandaries faced by a discipline that seeks objectivity and the meta-language of science, yet is by its very nature rooted in a highly politicized process of knowledge construction and the wielding of power. the book addresses issues that reflect the conundrum of sophisticated demographic research: comparative research and theory-building would appear to require the construction of standard categories for analysis, yet the categories actually employed in demography are for the most part western folk categories dressed in scientific garb.

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