Academic journal article Demographic Research

Quantifying Paradigm Change in Demography

Academic journal article Demographic Research

Quantifying Paradigm Change in Demography

Article excerpt



Demography is a uniquely empirical research area amongst the social sciences. We posit that the same principle of empiricism should be applied to studies of the population sciences as a discipline, contributing to greater self-awareness amongst its practitioners.


The paper aims to include measurable data in the study of changes in selected demographic paradigms and perspectives.


The presented analysis is descriptive and is based on a series of simple measures obtained from the free online tool Google Books Ngram Viewer, which includes frequencies of word groupings (n-grams) in different collections of books digitised by Google.


The tentative findings corroborate the shifts in the demographic paradigms identified in the literature - from cross-sectional, through longitudinal, to event-history and multilevel approaches.


These findings identify a promising area of enquiry into the development of demography as a social science discipline. We postulate that more detailed enquiries in this area in the future could lead to establishing History of Population Thought as a new sub-discipline within population sciences.

1. Introduction

The year 2012 marked the 350th anniversary of the publication of John Graunt's Bills of Mortality and - arguably - the birth of demography as a formal discipline of scientific enquiry. In accordance with the long-standing empirical tradition of demography as a standalone research area within social sciences (Morgan and Lynch 2001; Courgeau 2012), this paper aims to include measurable data in the studies of the changes in demographic paradigms and theories. After Courgeau and Franck (2007), and following the original suggestions of Granger (1994), we interpret paradigms as studies of different "scientific objects'. To study their dynamics, we propose using the free online tool, Google Books Ngram Viewer.

This paper is entirely devoted to presenting and interpreting selected descriptive findings from the paradigmatic quest mentioned above, and is therefore structured as follows. After this Introduction, we illustrate our argument in Section 2 by using examples related to the demographic nomenclature, studies of different components of demographic dynamics, and to theoretical and paradigmatic change in demography. Section 3 contains a discussion of selected findings, followed by a brief evaluation of some of the potential benefits and limitations of the application of the proposed method. We conclude by proposing an open challenge for the demographic community in Section 4, related to establishing the History of Population Thought as a fully formed sub-discipline of population sciences.

2. Demographic paradigms and n-gram analysis: Principles and illustrations

As proposed by Courgeau and Franck (2007: 44), the successive paradigms of demography "describe the various types of relationship between the phenomena observed and the scientific object", whereby the object of scientific interest is the change of human populations. The four paradigms proposed by Courgeau and Franck (2007) - cross-sectional, longitudinal, event-history, and multilevel - are thus related to the changing and mutually complementary perspectives through which the relationships between population parameters, and between individuals and populations, are being examined. Still, even 350 years after its inception, demography is thought to be a "science in the making" in need of a more solid grounding through axiomatisation (idem). Potential further developments also include theory building - something that is seen as one of the key challenges of contemporary population sciences (see e.g., the discussion in Xie 2000 and Burch 2003). The analysis of changes in existing paradigms and the development of new ones can bring demography closer to achieving these aims.

On the other hand, demography is renowned amongst social science disciplines for being, for the most part, a thoroughly empirical area of enquiry. …

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