Academic journal article Demographic Research

What Kind of Theory for Anthropological Demography?

Academic journal article Demographic Research

What Kind of Theory for Anthropological Demography?

Article excerpt


This paper argues that anthropological demography has, for most part, imported rather than exported theory. However, the discipline has the potential to generate important rethinking of population, culture, and their interaction. After discussing the challenges that must be faced in developing new theoretical approaches in anthropological demography, the paper suggests a framework for research based on the related ideas of the "demographic conjuncture" and "construal."

1. Introduction

Anthropological demography is both an old discipline and a new one. It is old in the sense that our core intellectual project-that of integrative understanding of cultural practices and demographic rates-has been conducted in some form for nearly two centuries. Quetelet's analysis of marriage (1968 [1842]) or Durkheim's of suicide (1930) might rightly be called primeval exercises in anthropological demography, because they treat demographic phenomena as social facts with unique, social and cultural explanations. At the same time, our discipline is brand new. It was only in the 1990s that a series of monographs and edited volumes began to codify the emerging field (see especially Basu and Aaby 1998; Greenhalgh 1995; Kertzer and Fricke 1997), and a decade later, we anthropological demographers are still sufficiently rare to count ourselves among a vanguard of a sort. That is not to say that we have no intellectual history between Durkheim and the renaissance of the 1990s. Scholars including Blake (1961); Bledsoe (1980); Fortes (1970); Hammel (1990); Howell (1979); Kertzer (1993); Kreager (1982); Lee (1984); Lesthaeghe (1977); and Watkins (1990, 2000) continued to develop an integrative intellectual program. However, they remained relatively few. Today, by contrast, there is considerable interest in the intersection of cultural anthropology and demography. Papers and books published since the mid-1990s are dazzling in their number, diversity, and quality (examples include: Bledsoe 2002; Castle 1994, 2001; Clark et al. 1995; Delaunay 1994; Hill and Hurtado 1996; Lockwood 1995; Setel 1999; Schneider and Schneider 1996; Smith 2001, 2004). It is an exciting time to be an anthropological demographer.

Given this effervescence of research and writing, what kinds of theory should we look to? The differences in models, methods and epistemologies between contemporary demography and cultural anthropology could hardly be starker. Whereas contemporary anthropology focuses largely on ideology, power, and phenomenological experience, demography in the last ten years has been dominated by the statistical analysis of variation within western populations. Whereas the largest innovations in anthropology have been theoretical, the major advances in demography have been in the domains of data and method. The most widely cited papers in the major cultural anthropology journals in the past ten years address issues such as globalization (Ferguson and Gupta 2002; Tsing 2000), modernity and post-coloniality (Comaroff and Comaroff 1999; Mills 1997), citizenship (Ong 1996), and the politics of space (Escobar 1999; Moore 1998)2. In the major anglophone demography journals, by contrast, the most widely cited papers concern the welfare of American children (e.g. Bianchi 2000; Bumpass et al. 1995) changing rates of marriage, divorce and cohabitation (Bumpass and Lu 2000; Smock and Manning 1997); mortality differentials (Hummer et al. 1999; Smith and Kington 1997), fertility decline (Mason 1997; Bongaarts and Watkins 1996), and methodology (Bongaarts and Feeney 1998)3. In this sense, it would seem to be a very difficult moment to be an anthropological demographer, because the two fields are so distant from each other.

Despite the distance between the contemporary practice of cultural anthropology and demography, the possibilities for mutually productive intellectual exchange are enormous. Demographic rates are true "social facts," in the sense intended by Durkheim (1962), which offer a compelling way to think about the relationship between the individual and the collective, about agency and structure, intentional action and conscience collective. …

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