‘Population the long view’

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‘Population – the long view’

16th – 17th September

The Barn, Kendrew Quad, St John’s College, Oxford

Programme and abstracts


Welcome 3

Background 4

Programme 7

Abstracts 10


Welcome to this special workshop entitled ‘Population – the long view’. The goal of this workshop, as elucidated in the ‘Background’ section below, is to ‘to explore large-scale, long-term, interdisciplinary, fundamental population problems from the viewpoint of demographic and related sciences. In short, ‘the meeting aims to explore how ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ processes in demography interact with each other, and to put the ‘population’ back into population studies.

This workshop has received generous financial support from the British Society for Population Studies and the St. John’s College Research Centre for which we are extremely grateful. A contribution has also been made from ESRC Grant ES/J015032/1. We are also grateful for administrative support from the Department of Sociology and the Department of Social Policy and Intervention, University of Oxford.

We are delighted that you have been able to join us in Oxford for this workshop and we hope you enjoy the event.

Stuart Basten

Francesco Billari

David Coleman

Chris Wilson


This meeting aims to explore large-scale, long-term, interdisciplinary, fundamental population problems from the viewpoint of demographic and related sciences. The organisers believe that the ‘population’ dimension has become relatively neglected in recent demographic research, which has focused more on small-scale phenomena such as individual decision-making in childbearing and the factors influencing it. The meeting will discuss the ways in which human populations behave in the long term and the large scale, and what future structures may emerge. We need to know more about how population in the aggregate influences individual behaviour and how the effects of aggregated effects of individual responses will generate and alter those structures. As the demographic transition comes to an end, we need to ask more about the factors which may serve to stabilise human population size, composition and living arrangements or, instead, whether a less constrained demographic diversity and randomness lies ahead. In short, the meeting aims to explore how ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ processes in demography interact with each other, and to put the ‘population’ back into population studies.

Background – micro and macro approaches in demography

Public and political concern on demographic matters is principally focused upon population change on the large scale: rapid growth in poorer countries, population ageing in the more developed realm and elsewhere, population decline in some countries and in prospect for many more, and all of these interacting with climate change. Yet for some years, the most striking scientific progress in demography, and most contributions to recent scientific conferences, have been concerned with micro-scale demographic processes.

Substantial improvements in the availability of individual-level data, especially from longitudinal studies, record linkage and uniform, multinational surveys have created the potential for much more refined statistical analysis, with rigorous approaches to causal inference and the scope for international comparability. That potential has been realised through important innovations and concepts in analytical technique, such as advanced regression analysis, latent variables, event-history analysis and multi-level modelling. Invocation of these and other approaches has become almost de rigeur in demographic contributions to conferences.

Some of these techniques explicitly reach up to higher-level variables, although almost always (of necessity) at a sub-population level. Few connect with the whole population and its behaviour. The concerns of modern welfare states naturally tend to reinforce this smaller scale focus through the political need to understand, and if possible moderate such phenomena as child poverty, the problems of the elderly or the drivers of ill-health. The emphasis on policy-relevance for research funding influences this trend.

Through this rich and fruitful analytical environment, an unprecedented understanding has emerged of micro-level behaviour. However, this cannot on its own provide a complete picture. These small scale processes, working together, drive whole population behaviour, but the links between the micro-level analysis and the macro-level contextual systems receive less attention that is their due. And reciprocal connections between the effect of population-level change and demographic behaviour at the level of the family and the individual, are even more neglected. In short, the ‘population’ as such has become a relatively secondary consideration in a subject area increasingly dedicated to the explication of micro-level phenomena.

Scope for the meeting

This meeting and the proposed subsequent published volume aspires to put the ‘population’ back into ‘population studies’. In the past, admittedly when data were often poor, the influence of population size and change on individual behaviour was an active interest and was believed to be important. Malthus placed feedbacks between population and vital events, operating in a homoeostatic or density-dependent fashion, at the centre of his model of population; the causes of poverty and the means for its amelioration. Homoeostatic mechanisms also held centre stage in models of the natural regulation of animal populations and to a considerable extent still do. The ancestry of such ideas, and related notions in evolution and population genetics were indeed influenced by Malthusian thinking, a rare example of argument from man to animal. That has been brought into a more scientific demographic context by the seminal work of Tony Wrigley and Roger Schofield, Ron Lee and others.

But for the contemporary world such models are generally thought to have little or no relevance. Population is rarely considered in explanatory models of modern fertility and mortality behaviour: macro-level changes appear to have all too frequently become detached from micro consequences in the demographic literature. A partial exception to this may be seen in relation to migration, where population ageing and population decline is thought by some to promote larger inflows of immigrants. And more generally, such adverse demographic trends in low-fertility countries have provoked numerous calls for public pro-natalist, or at least ‘family friendly’ policies to raise the birth rate. However effectual or otherwise, that may be regarded as a kind of feedback mechanism, although of an indirect and politically-mediated kind.

The meeting will examine if any meaningful connection can be re-established between population-level phenomena and individual responses, and if homoeostatic mechanisms can have any place in modern demographic thinking. For example, might the lower population density eventually arising from population decline facilitate a recovery of the birth rate? What other factors, if any, might bring to an end the population decline into which an increasing number of populations are projected to fall?

The meeting will also consider a broad range of questions on the large scale which arise from the (supposed) end of the demographic transition. That end remains ill defined, but the achievement of birth rates of replacement level or lower, and the near-abolition of mortality in reproductive age, are surely important benchmarks. As we emerge from the turmoil of the transition, what happens next? Attention must surely shift from trying to explain the decline of birth and death rates to the question of what, if anything, regulates them in what might be a post transitional steady state. Alternatively, might we face a future of semi-chaotic fertility fluctuations? Theory does not tell us, beyond a vague expectation of a return to the relative population stability of pre-transitional times. So far this has not happened. Instead the pattern in developed societies is one of diversity and divergence, not convergence.

Key questions

Will the transformation of the family and living arrangements so evident in some advanced countries become general as all populations and economies develop, as theory suggests, and with what consequences?

How can we ensure that micro and macro approaches are integrated when focusing on large-scale and long-term population change?

Do the ultra-low birth rates of Urban East Asia represent a new, divergent direction in reproduction, contradicting the expectations of the UN Population Division and the ‘norm’ of a desired family size of two children?

What other forms of demographic regime might become established in the post-transitional world?

Can evolutionary and anthropological concepts relating to the structuring of society, or the motivations to reproduce, offer insights into these questions, and can the natural world offer models of population relevant to the human condition?

Differences in timing of the demographic transition lead inevitably to the relative numerical marginalisation of the demographically pioneering ‘Western’ countries. Must that imply marginalisation in other respects, or could problematic demographic and other trajectories in the rest of the world point to a different future?

These are some of the questions which the workshop will address and, we hope, knit together into a prospectus for large-scale change in human populations.
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