Academic journal article Demographic Research

Quantifying Paradigm Change in Demography

Academic journal article Demographic Research

Quantifying Paradigm Change in Demography

Article excerpt

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. This is considered to be the main source of the past successes of population studies, alongside the practical applications of research results in the public policy field (for a discussion, see e.g., Xie 2000, and Morgan and Lynch 2001). In addition, demographic works are also on average cited more frequently than those in other social science disciplines (van Dalen and Henkens 2001). Even though there is a gap between different publication venues (idem), and citation rates in population sciences as such do not allow for complacency, this can be seen as a sign of a healthy exchange of ideas. Given these dynamics, demography offers a quite unique testing ground for a quantitative analysis of the changes in its paradigms and theories.

In this paper we follow the previous examples of quantitative content analysis of demographic literature (e.g., Teachman, Paasch, and Carver 1993; Keyfitz 1993; van Dalen and Henkens 2001). The illustrations presented here are simple and mainly descriptive, being based on the frequencies of word groupings in different collections of books digitised so far by Google. The free Google Books Ngram Viewer tool (http://books. …

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