A World of Populations

Twentieth-Century Demographic Discourses and Practices in Global Perspective


Workshop at the GHI, May 29-30, 2009.
Conveners: Corinna R. Unger (GHI Washington) and Heinrich Hartmann (Free University of Berlin/University of Cologne). Made possible with support of the Fritz-Thyssen-Stiftung.

Essays from this conference have been publish in Bevölkerungswissenschaften im 20. Jahrhundert: Diskurse und Praktiken in transnationaler Perspektive as a special issue of Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte. You can access the articles here (paid access only).

Participants: Per Axelsson (Umeå University), Uta Balbier (GHI Washington), Annika Berg (Uppsala University), Sandrine Bertaux (Marmara University, Istanbul), Matthew Connelly (Columbia University), Patricia Deuser (University of Leipzig), Josef Ehmer (University of Vienna), Marc Frey (Jacobs University, Bremen), Larry Frohman (SUNY Stony Brook), Young-sun Hong (SUNY Stony Brook), Ian Innerhofer (University of Vienna), Eric Limbach (Michigan State University), Raul Necochea (McGill University, Montreal), Jesse Olszynko-Gryn (McGill University, Montreal), Thomas Robertson (Worcester Polytechnic Institute), Eric Ross (George Washington University), Paul Schor (University Paris, Diderot), Thomas Schulte-Umberg (University of Münster), Patrick Sharma (UCLA), Eva-Maria Silies (University of Hamburg), Oscar Edoror Ubhenin (Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma), Susan Watkins (UCLA), Richard F. Wetzell (GHI Washington), Peter Xenos (University of Hawaii, Manoa).

The conveners inaugurated this workshop with the observation that the history of demography has been revitalized by recent scholarship, especially Matthew Connelly’s exciting book Fatal Misconception (2008). Scholars on both sides of the Atlantic are increasingly engaged with the historical roles of demographers and the legacies of colonialism. Although the politicization of population is well documented, the aim of this workshop was not to demonize the experts or unmask a hegemonic conspiracy. Rather, the task at hand was to confront the messy realities of population policies and programs in action “from international conference rooms to remote villages.”

The first panel, “Discourses and Perspectives,” began with Thomas Schulte-Umberg’s paper on the case of Hermann Muckermann (1877-1962), a Catholic priest, scientist, and influential proponent of eugenics in Germany. Schulte-Umberg discussed Muckermann’s curious relationship to hereditary biology, eugenic sterilization, and German Catholicism after the papal encyclical “Casti connubii,” and presented Muckermann as an example of Catholics’ attempts to come to terms with modernity. Ian Innerhofer discussed the concept of “agricultural overpopulation” in Southeastern Europe in the 1930s. Innerhofer argued that, in the context of the quasi-colonial German-led modernization of Balkan agriculture, demographic experts made themselves indispensable by reducing all issues to population. “Agricultural overpopulation” thereby “misnamed” a variety of grievances and inequities. Eric Limbach discussed public policy debates in 1950s West Germany on the migration of refugees from the “underpopulated” East to the “overcrowded” West. He focused on the influential roles of Eugene Kulischer (1891-1956) and Gunther Beijer (1904-1983) on postwar migration studies. Joseph Ehmer provided helpful comments on the “peculiarities” of German historiography on demography, wherein a sophisticated discourse about demography grew out of an interest in the politics of population under National Socialism. Newer research is increasingly international in scope, as the panel reflected. Ehmer suggested that an explicitly biographical approach might be usefully applied to individual experts. The discussion turned to the applicability of Ludwik Fleck’s concepts of a Denkkollektiv (thought collective) to the international network of demographers and the transfer of their ideas across national borders. The complementary approaches to individuals and their social networks remained a leitmotif throughout the workshop.

The panel continued with Sandrine Bertaux’s paper on Alfred Sauvy (1898-1990) and the unexpected origins of the “Third World” concept. Sauvy coined the iconic term in 1952, but it rapidly escaped his control. Bertaux argued that in contrast to its Cold War reception, the origins of the concept of the “Third World” were closely linked to French fascism. Population, poverty, and the fraught relationship between Algeria and the rest of France were all bound up in Sauvy’s conception of the “Third World.” Patricia Deuser discussed the colonial roots of the concept of “Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights” (SRHR) in German development programs. She explored the genealogy of ideas about women’s health from liberal colonial reforms in the wake of the Herero massacres to crypto-Malthusianism after the Cairo consensus (1994) and Peruvian sterilization programs (1999). Using Michel Foucault’s concept of “biopolitics,” Deuser argued that the liberal reform agenda tied human rights to the logic of economic optimization. Peter Xenos’s paper on the longue durée of demographic change in Southeast Asia provided a critical view from within historical demography and area studies. Xenos described the changing realities and representations of Southeast Asian social structure from the myth of emptiness to feedback mechanisms. He argued that, aside from a short, sharp fertility transition, migration was the key regulatory force driving population dynamics in Southeast Asia. Commenting on this panel, Marc Frey identified the unifying theme of long-term continuity. The ensuing discussion dealt with some of the methodological issues raised by the alleged continuities of such overarching concepts as colonialism, fascism, and even the very idea of “Southeast Asia.”

The second panel, “Methods and Institutions,” covered the fraught category of race in the context of census-taking in Peru and Sweden. Focusing on the Peruvian demographer and politician Alberto Arca Parró (1901-1976), Raul Necochea described how “demographic optimism” was built into Peru’s national census of 1940. Necochea applied Benedict Anderson’s concept of the “imagined community” to the political project of forging a sense of national unity out of the technical category of mestizo. To this day, Peruvian politicians bank on their “racial impurity” as a matter of “self-presentation.” Per Axelsson discussed the curiously “abandoned construction” of ethnic categories in Swedish population statistics. He described the strange case of the “Sami category,” which dates back to the Tabellverket (national population statistics) of the early nineteenth century but was dropped after the Second World War in the name of “equality.” The upshot is that systematic information about Sami health and welfare is no longer being generated, a situation the UN has recently criticized. Based on his own research on the U.S. census, Paul Schor’s comments focused on the interplay between statistical categories for “minorities” and state building. The discussion turned to the “Big Question of Race,” social constructivism versus positivism vis-à-vis counting people, and the slippery term “indigenous.”

The workshop reconvened the next day to continue with the second half of the panel, beginning with Oscar Ubhenin’s paper on “demographic experiments” in post-independence Nigeria. Enumerating and categorizing Nigerians has been a politically contentious task ever since the first national census of 1963. Although race and ethnicity were dropped from the most recent national census, counting people in Nigeria remains as politicized as ever, as evinced by the fact that Lagos conducted its own parallel census in 2006. Patrick Sharma discussed the lifecycle of population control at Robert McNamara’s World Bank. Sharma was struck by the failure of a population program to take root at the bank, despite McNamara’s evident demographic zeal. Although McNamara wielded considerable political clout, he was effectively resisted by the bank. Sharma’s study highlighted the need for more institutional histories. Heinrich Hartmann’s comments were informed by his own research on demography’s prominence in the modern welfare-state apparatus. He observed that most of the conference papers where not explicitly postcolonial and reiterated the importance of dealing with demographic expertise at both the individual and institutional level.

The third panel, “Demography in Practice,” began with Annika Berg’s paper on a Swedish family-planning project in Travancore-Cochin in the 1950s, focusing on the work of a prominent husband-and-wife team, Axel and Signe Höjer. She traced Swedish state interference in the intimate lives of individuals at home and abroad through technologies of birth control from the rhythm method to mass sterilization. She warned, however, of diagnosing continuities too readily: “The history behind the sterilization campaigns is complex” and cannot be reduced to “the West” imposing technology on “the rest.” Thomas Robertson discussed population programs in Nepal in the 1960s and 1970s. His project, which involves interview-based fieldwork, situates population programs at the village level in the broader environmental history of Nepal. Robertson, who wants to get at population practices on the ground, has so far come away with the preliminary impression that population control was a “mixed bag”; programs brought in services, but they also led to coercion and unintended consequences. Eva-Maria Silies presented her paper on the birth-control pill and “overpopulation” in 1960s West Germany. She described how organizations such as “Pro Familia” appropriated the birth control pill (Antibabypille) differently in Western Europe and in the “Third World.” In West Germany, medical experts debated the contested social function of the pill at home and its utility for population control overseas.

Eric Ross and Corinna Unger jointly commented on this panel. Ross formulated a broad critique of the workshop based on what he diagnosed as a theoretical gap in the population literature that, in his opinion, has widened since the appearance of Mahmood Mamdani’s classic case study, The Myth of Population Control (1972). In particular, Ross expressed concern that in-depth studies focusing on “technical” aspects like the transfer of knowledge and individual actors obscure the “big picture.” He argued that India should be situated in the context of the perennial resurgence of Malthusianism whenever capitalism is in crisis, and that population policies in India were, along with the Green Revolution, primarily aimed at “liquidating the peasantry.” Corinna Unger offered a contrasting evaluation informed by different schools of historiography. Reexamining the “big picture,” Unger observed that the newly prominent global perspective could help us reevaluate the role of the Cold War and move beyond the conflict’s rhetoric in studying population politics. As scholars have been paying more attention to activities in such “peripheral” places as Sweden and Nepal, they have been finding out that experts, like their projects, are a “mixed bag,” and that it is difficult to measure the intended and unintended consequences of their ideas and actions “in the field.” In the lively debate that followed, Matthew Connelly observed that, when it comes to digging around in the so-called population archive, no single theory is sufficient.

The workshop closed with some final comments by Matthew Connelly, Susan Watkins, and Josef Ehmer. Connelly confessed that when he first started working on population, he found it to be rather “depressing.” However, in light of recent scholarship, population is rapidly turning into an “exciting” field with lots of potential. In his estimation, the raison d’être of the workshop was that “we think this history matters,” and one of the participants’ main objectives should be to go beyond population-planning success stories and recover the “less-than-usable past.” In turn, Watkins observed that the stories about Nepal and Nigeria are very similar to the experiences of other developing countries between the 1960s and 1980s. She suggested that scholars familiarize themselves with the “standard choreography” of population planning and then try to find out what is distinctive about individual cases. Watkins was struck by the “hubris” of  the idea that sex in the “Third World” could be planned “from a tall building in the center of New York.” She emphatically agreed with Connelly that there is “enormous potential” for scholars to historicize key individuals, institutions, and social networks. Watkins left the participants with the  message  that there are striking parallels between the choreographies of the population and the AIDS movement, which will soon be history. Last but not least, Ehmer’s assessment of the workshop was that it had taken a big step towards painting a more differentiated picture of population. He identified a master narrative with a discriminatory agenda, on the one hand, and discriminating practices and technologies, on the other. These two different layers involve different sets of actors, spaces, elites, and targets. In terms of moving beyond the elites, Ehmer suggested that scholars pay more attention to the schoolteachers and journalists who popularized population in textbooks and newspapers. Returning to the peculiarities of German historiography, he pointed out that recent studies on National Socialist population pedagogy are a good place to start. Finally, Ehmer called attention to the analytical potential of “business cycles” in the population discourse. Did demographers lead or follow the ebb and flow of population in the public sphere? Ehmer surely spoke for all participants when he highlighted the value of having people from diverse parts of the world participate in this workshop. It was truly a global workshop in more than one way.

Jesse Olszynko-Gryn (McGill University)

  • Call for Papers

    In recent years, discourses about population and "overpopulation" have begun to receive growing attention within the historical profession. Whereas earlier studies tried to reconstruct historical demographic data and methods, current interest focuses on the political meaning of demography as a tool of modern governing, the construction of population as a means of consolidating political power and addressing trends like globalization, and the underlying social and cultural assumptions associated with thinking about population growth in specific areas of the world, especially in the colonies. Demography also counts as one of the most fruitful areas in which to observe the multifaceted relationship between expert knowledge, the public sphere, and politics. This is linked to the belief that population studies never were, and never could be, "apolitical," since they always imply a hierarchy in the discourses and practices between the subjects (experts, institutions, media, etc.) and their demographic objects (social groups, ethnic minorities, colonies, etc.)

    In short, demography is regarded as a field that mirrors many of Western societies' perceptions of self and other, their efforts to deal with increasingly complex (both bureaucratic and spatial) requirements of governing and administrating at home and abroad, and their coming to terms with the challenges of accelerated globalization and, finally, the international order's post-1945 changes.

    Discourses about population growth gained urgency when the Cold War and decolonization coincided with and influenced each other, transcending traditional boundaries and creating new, transnational expert discourses. Under the umbrella of the postwar era's geopolitical reconfigurations, the concepts of population and population growth gained global strategic relevance. "Population control" became a prominent element in the development programs propagated by Third World governments, First and Second World aid regimes, and international organizations. Simultaneously, the "organic" link between population and environment received increased attention when the environmental movement managed to imprint its influence on popular and academic discourses alike, encouraging a rediscovery of Malthusian thought.

    In the proposed conference, we would like to discuss the following questions: 1. Can one speak of distinct national demographic cultures in the 20th century? If so, what were their characteristics, and how did different nations' histories shape those cultures? Which impact did the colonial experience have in this regard? 2. Was there such a thing as a transatlantic demographic discourse in the twentieth century? If so, how did it develop and what did it look like? And what influence did it have on population politics? 3. How did the environmental movement, decolonization, development aid, and the Cold War influence the development of Western demographic thinking and research? Was there a direct continuity between colonial and postcolonial demographic research and practice, and in which ways did decolonization pose a challenge to traditional demography and its implications? These and related questions shall be discussed in three panels:

    I. Demography in Historical Context: Origins, Methodology, Institutions
    II. Demographic Discourses: Malthusianism, Transition Theory, "Overpopulation"
    III. Applied Demography: Population Policies and Politics, Population Control

    Scholars interested in participating in the conference are asked to send an abstract (200 to 400 words, in English) and a short curriculum vitae to Bärbel Thomas before October 31, 2008.

    The conference will take place May 29 to 30, 2009, at the German Historical Institute Washington. The GHI will cover travel and accomodation expenses. The workshop will be held in English.

    In order to facilitate scholarly interchange, participants will circulate their papers before the conference, and will give only very brief oral summaries. Final papers (12 to 15 pages, fully footnoted) are due April 27, 2009, and will be available to conference participants only.
    Inquiries can be made to both conveners, Heinrich Hartmann and Corinna Unger.