Fifty years of change in population studies

By Susan Rosegrant

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Fifty years ago, when the ISR Population Studies Center was founded, the burning issues in population studies looked starkly different from today. Rising birth rates—coupled with increased longevity—were raising widespread fears that the world’s resources would be overwhelmed. The Population Bomb was still seven years away; in it, biologist author Paul Ehrlich would famously declare that “hundreds of millions of people will starve to death” by the 1970s. But researchers, policymakers, and foundations were already searching for ways to avert what many feared would be a broad humanitarian disaster. The worry wasn’t just that poor countries would be unable to feed their people; it was that growing populations would mire those countries in perpetual crisis and poverty.

Spurred by these concerns, the Ford Foundation approached Michigan demographer Ronald Freedman in 1961 about setting up a population studies center—one of a series of university-based centers that the foundation would fund nationwide. The main goals: to train international students, develop demographic expertise around the world, study birth rates in developing countries, and study and evaluate family planning programs. In the years that followed, Michigan’s Population Studies Center (PSC) helped lead the charge in all those areas. “Fifty years ago, the main topic in demography was fertility,” says George Alter, demographer and acting director of the ISR Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), which is also celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. (See here for details on the two celebrations.)

world graphicFertility work accelerated through the 1970s. The National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD), founded in 1962 to investigate human development throughout life, began funding research on fertility, marriage, and the family, and also began providing grants to population studies centers for infrastructure, operations, and training, leading to a greater influx of American students.

Then something surprising happened. By the early 1980s, it became clear that birth rates in most countries were dropping. In part, this was due to government actions, like family planning programs, maternal and child health services, and even coercion in some places. Shifts in family norms and expectations also played an important role.

Alter recalls Ron Freedman returning from a trip to Indonesia and talking about the importance of blue jeans and motorbikes. Parents told Freedman they were recalculating the expense of raising a large family now that their kids wanted trendy new clothing and expensive toys. “Ron saw those growing demands for consumer goods as one of the things that would lead to falling fertility,” Alter says.

The drop in birth rates directed new demographic attention from the beginning of life to the end. “The world changed,” says sociologist and former PSC Director Albert Hermalin. “Fertility dropped, people were worried about aging populations, and the demographic community responded.” As censuses and surveys revealed the profound shift taking place, research funding priorities also shifted. Fertility research didn’t stop, but the National Institute on Aging (NIA) drove the push to understand more about the nature and challenges of aging, leading to the launch of ISR’s Health and Retirement Study in 1992, as well as many other studies.

That a main preoccupation of population studies could change so suddenly might seem jarring. But PSC researchers say the transition from Population Bomb to the Graying of the World just shows how dynamic and responsive the field is. At its core, demography is the study of the three ways populations change: fertility, mortality, and migration. Although the focus of research has shifted in response to world events—and funding—those three areas have remained central to the field. What has changed over the last five decades is the breadth, depth, and sophistication of the research; the technology and methods used; and the degree of research collaboration required.

demography chartThat deepening has taken population studies beyond just fertility, mortality, and immigration, says PSC Director Pamela Smock. “The broader definition now is that we study the social and economic causes and consequences of all these things and how they intersect,” she says. Adds Hermalin: “If you’re looking at causes and consequences of demographic factors, you can pretty much study anything you want!”

Take aging, for example. What began as an effort to understand issues of health, economic stability, and wellbeing during the post-retirement years gradually expanded to include a broad interest in health across generations. “Once you started studying aging, you were interested in people’s level of abilities, and chronic diseases, and the factors that make different people well or ill,” Hermalin says.

“If I have arthritis, is that related to anything that happened to me when I was 20 years old? So then you start to incorporate a life course perspective.” In this broader context, the research goals of NIA and NICHD often were not so different.

Other areas of research—from families and marriage to inequality—deepened and evolved. Alter cites immigration studies as an example. Back in the 1960s, American researchers studying Mexican immigration to the United States never left the country; now such studies would not be considered valid without corresponding research in Mexico. The cross-border work, Alter says, led researchers to understand that migration streams have a strong circular pattern, and that some government policies designed to deter immigrants actually stop people from returning to their countries of origin.

bar chartIn all areas of demography, research has become better at reflecting the world as it really is. A 1955 fertility study by Freedman looked only at married white women; the predecessor study to the National Survey of Family Growth soon expanded to include Black women and single mothers, and has become increasingly inclusive in the decades that followed. Many of the larger demographic surveys now use oversampling to study populations neglected in the past.

International work also is more important than ever, and U.S. researchers routinely collaborate with counterparts overseas. In fact, collaboration has become a hallmark of the field.“The diversity of populations we’re looking at and changes in society itself make demography look different now and will continue to change it in the future,” says Smock. “The questions have stayed rather consistent, but how we examine these questions has become much more complicated.”

As a result, a center that was already interdisciplinary—comfortably incorporating sociology and economics almost from the start—now includes researchers from more than a dozen academic disciplines, including anthropology, public health, and social work. The collaborations have made possible entirely new projects, particularly in the areas of medicine and biology. Demographers are working with epidemiologists to learn more about neighborhood factors in disease, joining forces with doctors to study the effects of diabetes on mortality, and collaborating with geneticists to understand the interactions among environment and inherited traits.

This increased sophistication and complexity is apparent in the datasets used by demographers. Those downloaded most tend to be larger longitudinal surveys—like ISR’s Health and Retirement Study and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which are archived at ICPSR—that scholars can adapt to many areas of research. “Demographers once worked from census counts and disease classifications, but are now asking much more sophisticated questions about the biology of diseases,” Alter says. “The richness of the data is totally different.” Another striking example of the field’s expansion: The program for the Population Association of America’s annual meeting has mushroomed from 10 pages in 1965 to 457 in 2010.

In the decades ahead, the broadening and deepening that has characterized the last 50 years is bound to continue, researchers agree. Alter expects to see new kinds of collaborations between demographers and geneticists—particularly since the mapping of the genome has raised as many questions as it has answered. “Genes express themselves differently in different environments,” Alter says, “so there are likely to be a number of studies coming out of a new partnership between social science and genetics as we try to untangle what seems to be a lot more complicated than people expected.”

Smock says agencies like NICHD appear to be shifting their funding priorities to favor surveys that show a direct relevance to public health outcomes—a change that could move at least some research projects from the theoretical to the applied. “There’s going to be more and more interest in actual interventions, which makes sense given our increasing focus on health,” Smock says.

Of course, the exact shape population studies will take in the future must remain a calculated guess. After all, the Population Bomb predicted back in the 1960s never came to pass—at least in the manner foreseen. “The one thing demographers are always wrong about is projections,” says Hermalin with a laugh.

Where the field of population studies shines, he says, is in responding to the world’s changes. “It can react because it has the tools and the techniques and the point of view that enables it to move and work with other sciences,” Hermalin says. “What we can predict is that it will be responsive. What it will have to respond to, we don’t know.”

Fifty years of change in population studies