Academic journal article Population

Demography, a Fully Formed Science or a Science in the Making? an Outline Programme

Academic journal article Population

Demography, a Fully Formed Science or a Science in the Making? an Outline Programme

Article excerpt

In this article, we examine D. Tabutin's view that "demography has certainly become a science in the true sense of the word, with its body of research objects, methods and paradigms." We also attempt to understand why he nevertheless goes on to state that "demography [is] marking time, and still just as hesitant when it comes to understanding and explaining." We then go on to (1.) explore the subject matter of demography, (2.) sketch out a more precise programme for the discipline, (3.) examine its paradigms and (4.) stress the value of a more axiomatic approach, which would reinforce its scientific pertinence and hence its reliability.

1. The object of demography

Is the concern of demography "the behaviour of human populations, from individual to society level", as Tabutin's article states? If demography went down this road, it would end up embracing everything. There is a need, we feel, to resist the temptation to spread ourselves too thinly; we must strive, on the contrary, to focus our research on the specific object of demography.

This was defined long ago as the trio/ertility, mortality and migration. Yet by defining its specific object in this way the aim was not to restrict demography to the study of births, deaths and migratory movements, but rather to circumscribe the perspective adopted by demographers to study the transformations in a population. These transformations are many and varied, but they are partly the result of growth in that population, its decline, or stabilization. The specific perspective of demography is that population growth, decline and stabilization may ultimately be explained by a particular combination of fertility, mortality and migration.

This sort of explanation is not causal. It can be compared with Galileo's explanation of the acceleration of bodies in free fall: such acceleration may be explained, he maintained, by a particular combination of the distance covered and the time elapsed. Yet neither time nor space is the cause of the acceleration of a free-falling body. Nevertheless, it is the combination of these two which gives us the universal form of all natural acceleration. Space and time are the parameters(1) by which such acceleration may be explained.

The same holds true for the specific object of demography. Fertility, mortality and migration are the set of parameters by which we seek to understand the basic form of growth, decline or stabilization of any given population.

As for the empirical factors (or causes) influencing population growth, decline or stabilization, they are surely countless and extremely varied, at both individual and social levels (Courgeau, 2003). But rather than exploring them all, as Tabutin's article recommends, demographers ought to consider only those which are thought to have an impact on the combination of fertility, mortality and migration in this population; it is therefore the particular perspective of demography, its specific object, that directs the empirical investigations, laying down a clear pathway through the jungle of facts.

2. An outline programme

Having established the specific object of demography, or its particular perspective on population change, we can clearly see the two main tasks facing the discipline. The first - as we have just mentioned - is to determine the factors influencing the combination of fertility, mortality and migration in a given population at a certain point in time, in the hope of controlling its growth, decline or stabilization. The second, yet more ambitious, is to ascertain the general structure of the combination of fertility, mortality and migration, in other words the principle of all demographic growth and decline (just as the law of Galileo gives us the principle of all natural acceleration). As far back as 1760, Euler sought to establish the bases of such a principle, which were then generalized by Lotka in 1939, and subsequently by Preston and Coale in 1982. …

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