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demography (dĭmŏgˈrəfē), science of human population. Demography represents a fundamental approach to the understanding of human society. Its primary tasks are to ascertain the number of people in a given area, to determine what change that number represents from a previous census, to explain the change, and to estimate the future trends of population changes. The demographer also traces the origins of population changes and studies their impact. Demographers compile and analyze data that are useful for understanding various social systems and for establishing public policy in such areas as housing, education, and unemployment.


See K. Davis, ed., Demography Series (20 vol., 1976).

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From the Greek demos, people. The statistical study of human populations with regard to their size and structure, i.e. their compositions by sex, age, marital status and ethnic origin, and to the changes to these populations, i.e. changes in their BIRTH RATES, DEATH RATES and MIGRATION. Philosophers and politicians have often been interested in the nature and size of populations. Plato, for example, recommended a static population for his ideal city. Politicians have been particularly concerned with over-and underpopulation. Laws were passed in Ancient Rome, for example, which sought to prevent population decline.

Most commentators agree that the systematic collection and study of population statistics originated with the publication of Natural and Political Observations on the Bills of Mortality by John Graunt in 1662. From 1629 onwards, the weekly ‘Bills of Mortality’ gave some indication of the causes of death within a population. Graunt used these bulletins to determine the biological and socioeconomic factors of mortality. He was one of the first people, therefore, to identify statistical regularities in human populations.

In the 17th and 18th centuries the collection of medical statistics developed in the study of health, disease and death. In 19th-century Europe, census taking improved and more reliable statistics became available for analysis. In the UK, the recording of death, then birth and marriage, rates was introduced after 1834 as the state came to recognize that population change was an actual phenomenon. These OFFICIAL STATISTICS were known as vital statistics. The legal requirement to collect statistics made them more reliable, thus enabling demographers to apply more rigorous mathematical methods and facilitating their ability to forecast future population changes and developments. FORECASTING relies on assumptions made by the forecaster about populations; any forecast, therefore, is only as good as the assumptions that underlie it.

In the UK, population projections are made every two years in order to provide an estimate of the future population as an aid to planning. Based on the assumptions that mortality rates will continue to decline, that fertility rates will remain below replacement level, and that migration is negligible, it was expected that the population of the UK would total 57.5 million in 1991, rising to 60.0 million in the year 2025. The structure of the British population has changed; it is now getting older: 11% of the population were over the age of 65 in 1951, in 1986 that proportion had risen to 15%, and it is estimated to rise to nearly 19% by the year 2025.

There is a wide variety of reliable statistics available for demographic analysis in Britain; the ten-yearly CENSUS of Population (which is updated annually), the GENERAL HOUSEHOLD SURVEY, the FAMILY EXPENDITURE SURVEY, as well as the statistics compiled by government departments such as the Home Office and the Department of Social Security More recently, demographers have become interested in the study of populations in societies where there are few reliable statistics, and they have developed simple mathematical methods to analyse these. There has also been the development of HISTORICAL DEMOGRAPHY which similarly attempts to draw valid inferences from a limited range of available statistics such as local PARISH REGISTERS. These new developments contribute to the enduring discussion of the relationship between DEMOGRAPHIC TRANSITION and social change. See also BIRTH RATE, STANDARDIZED MORTALITY RATIO, FERTILITY, LIFE CHANCES, LIFE EXPECTANCY, EUGENICS.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the study of population and the laws of its development in a sociohistorical context (this condition making demography one of the social sciences).

The study of the reproduction of population—that is, the replacement of certain groups of people by others—occupies a central place in demography. The reproduction of population proceeds, first of all, through the natural succession of generations—that is, through birth and death, or the so-called natural movement of population. The population of a given territory also changes as a result of the arrival of people from other areas (immigration) and their departure for other areas (emigration), which together constitute migration, or the mechanical movement of population. Finally, population also changes through movement of individuals from one status to another (from one group to another) as age, family situation, or number of children change (demographic mobility), or through changes in level of education, profession, or social position (social mobility). Thus, broadly interpreted, population reproduction consists in changes in the size, composition, and distribution of the population under the influence of demographic processes—the natural movements, migration, and mobility of the population. The formation, development, and disintegration of families is of independent importance in demography.

In demography, changes in the population and its parts are viewed qualitatively as well as quantitatively. For example, demography examines not only increases in the number of specialists and the associated change in the professional make-up of the population, but also the rise in level of their training; not only changes in the number of people of a given age but also changes in their physical development. Various attributes serve in demography both to characterize the entire population and to separate concrete component groups as independent subjects of investigation.

Although all processes of population change are composed of events in the lives of individuals, demography studies them as mass processes, embracing the total number of births, deaths, or shifts of status.

In studying the interrelations of various demographic processes, their dependence on socioeconomic phenomena, and the socioeconomic consequences of population development, demography uncovers the laws and patterns of population movement. The reproduction of population proceeds in a concrete social milieu and is determined by the socioeconomic conditions of the society. “The conditions of human reproduction,” wrote V. I. Lenin, “are directly dependent on the structure of different social organisms” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 1, p. 476). Demography does not lose sight of the biological nature of people themselves and the interaction of a population with its natural environment; however, the chief concern of demography is the interaction of population and social development. This results, in the first place, from the decisive significance of socio-economic factors—of those events in human life that make up demographic processes; and in the second place, from the role of the population in the development of society (particularly of the population capable of work, whose knowledge and skills are the chief productive forces). At the same time, the population is the subject of all economic and other social phenomena; the satisfaction of its needs is the ultimate purpose of production. Consequently, the law that illuminates the correlation between the development of the productive forces in a given social form and the population as the main element of those productive forces both becomes part of the system of economic laws and is simultaneously the basic law of demography: the phenomena and processes studied by demography proceed under its influence. The economic law of population and the demographic processes that it determines must be viewed as linked inseparably to the entire system of general sociological and economic laws of a given social formation. In studying the process of population reproduction, Marxist demography proceeds dialectically from the fact that the process is influenced by both base and superstructure, the base exerting the decisive influence. Demography establishes a number of regular patterns relative to the interdependence of population reproduction and population structure—in particular, changes in birth and death rates as a function of age structure and changes in agesex structure as a function of the nature of reproduction and other demographic processes. Of particular importance in the clarification of the nature of the influence of the complex of socioeconomic, political, cultural, legal, religious, and domestic factors on population reproduction, as well as the influence of these factors on migration and social mobility. Analysis of the psychosocial factors of marriage and fertility is also developing.

Demography studies not only the influence of the law of population and of socioeconomic processes in general on population reproduction but also the inverse influence of population growth on the development of society. Thorough analysis of the composition and movement of labor resources and the study of population as a mass of consumers are particularly important in this regard. This approach to research is sometimes considered separately as economic demography.

Since demographic processes influence socioeconomic development—in particular, the development of the economy—the task of determining the most advantageous (optimal) course for these processes is a legitimate one. The narrower conception of a demographic optimum implies a certain optimal population size or age-sex composition or, sometimes, its most advantageous rate of growth. This elucidation of the optimal limits of demographic processes should not be identified with the bourgeois theory of “optimal population,” which attempts to explain social inequality and poverty by a surplus or lack of people.

One of the tasks of demography is to work out a demographic, or population, policy on the basis of the study of the patterns of population reproduction—that is, systems of measures aimed at bringing the trend of demographic processes as close as possible to the optimum. In the broad sense of the word, population policy must influence not only changes in the size of the population but in fact all demographic processes. This influence may be direct (restricting migration through legislation, encouraging marriage or child-bearing, planning the training of specialists) or indirect (improving the standard of living in those places where it is necessary to attract population, creating conditions to increase the number of children in the family, popularization of one occupation or another). In order to ground population policy properly, it is important not only that the laws of the demographic processes that it is to influence be known but also that the possible effects of various measures and their consequences be appraised.

Demographic processes are determined by the particular relations—first of all, the social relations—in human life. In its study of population, therefore, demography is closely linked with a number of other sciences, including political economy, medicine, and ethnology. However, it neither replaces these sciences nor dissolves into them, since its interests are unalterably concentrated on the study of groups of people entering into various relations and the laws by which these groups change. Political economy examines human relations in the process of production—an increase in the size of the proletariat, for example, as a consequence and important feature of the development of capitalism—while demography regards this process as a characteristic of the reproduction of the social structure of the population. National relations and the patterns of formation of ethnic communities are part of the study of ethnology, and the sphere of demography includes the ethnic structure of the population and its reproduction and the demographic processes in an ethnic cross section. Thus, demography deals with the relations indicated previously to the extent that they influence the reproduction of the population or various of its groups. The characterization of the groups themselves—their structure and the distinctive features of their reproduction—becomes the specialty of demography, which operates in this regard completely within its own territory. Dialectical and historical materialism and Marxist-Leninist political economy serve as the general foundation for the Marxist-Leninist methodology of discovering the laws of population reproduction. The Marxist dialectical method presupposes the consideration of demographic processes as inseparable from the general laws of development of nature and society in their interrelation, movement, and development. At the same time, demography also employs its own methods. Insofar as demographic processes are mass phenomena, the quantitative methods of study of mass phenomena acquire paramount importance in demography—that is, statistical methods are used in the collection, processing, and analysis of population data. There are various points of view concerning the question of the correlation of demography and demographic statistics. Sometimes demography is identified incorrectly with demographic statistics. Like other branches of statistics in their respective sciences, demographic statistics plays a role as one of the methods of demography. V. I. Lenin called statistics as a whole “one of the most powerful tools of social information.” Demographic statistics supplies the facts upon which demography bases its analyses.

The description of the structure, distribution, and movement of population on the basis of statistical data is sometimes called descriptive demography.

Mathematical methods are of great importance in demography. It was in fact in application to the tasks of demography that mathematical methods of studying groups that reproduce themselves were first developed, and only subsequently were they applied to other fields (mass production of equipment, dependability theory, mass services theory). In demography, mathematical models have been worked out that make it possible to deduce the characteristics of population reproduction (actual or limital) from given conditions related to its so-called regime of reproduction: systems of age-group indexes of fertility and mortality, of probabilities of shifts from one status to another, and so forth. In particular, these models are employed for population forecasting and long-term estimates. The mathematical methods employed for the study of population reproduction are sometimes distinguished as mathematical demography. Contemporary computer technology has opened broad vistas for the application of mathematics to demography.

The specific character of demographic processes—in particular, the natural movement of population—has led to the development of a number of specific demographic methods of research, such as the hypothetical generation, which reflects the patterns of reproduction at a given moment with a set of age indexes for individuals of different generations; the cohort method, or analysis of the reproduction of an actual generation; and potential demography, which operates with the numbers not of individuals but of man-years of life in the future. Along with enumerative methods, demography not only permits but even requires the use of the abstract-analytical method in general and the combination of induction and deduction. In demography, as in other areas of science, it is necessary to formulate hypotheses, verify them with facts, and achieve scientific generalizations on this basis. Thus, the methodology of demographic analysis presupposes the unity of theoretical analysis, statistical measurements, scientific prognosis, and the determination of practical policy.

The English scholar John Graunt (1620-74) is considered the father of the science of demography. On the basis of death records in London over a number of years, he attempted to construct, for the first time, a “lifespan line”—the basis of mortality tables—and to formulate certain regularities in the pattern of population movement. The problems of population and its interrelation with the economy were examined by W. Petty and H. King (Great Britain) and later by A. Deparcieux (France) and others. In the 18th century these analyses were developed with the use of mathematical methods by W. Kersseboom (Holland), P. V. Wargentin (Sweden), and L. Euler (Russia). A vital advance in the very statement of the problem of studying the laws of the natural movement of population, independent of theological interpretation, was made by J. P. Süssmilch (Germany). At the turn of the 19th century, with the intensification of the class struggle, vulgar bourgeois apologist theories developed. The Essay on the Principle of Population by T. R. Malthus (Great Britain) appeared on the heels of a number of other works (J. Townsend in Great Britain, B. Franklin in the United States). The essence of his views became known as Malthusianism, a theory based on the false idea that the cause of the misery of the masses in a society based on exploitation was not the social system but rather the alleged excessive growth of population.

The regular registration of population became established everywhere in the 19th century, and the possibilities for analysis of actual population data expanded. Through the works of statisticians (A. Quételet in Belgium, J. Bertillon in France, W. Farr in Great Britain, W. Lexis and G. F. Knapp in Germany, and many others) methods were developed for the quantitative measurement and analysis of demographic processes. The term “demography” appeared in 1855 in the title of a work by the French scholar A. Guillard: he defined it as the “natural and social history of the human race.” At the end of the 19th century, along with the conceptions of population within the framework of economic theory, bourgeois theories of population development appeared (H. Spencer in Great Britain, W. Sombart in Germany); later demographic theories per se appeared that explained the causes of demographic changes from biological standpoints (A. Du-mont in France, R. Pearl in the United States). A mathematical theory of population reproduction was developed; important contributions were made by L. Bortkiewicz (Germany), R. Kuczynski (Germany), and A. Lotka (USA).

In Russia, the first demographic work on mortality and marriage was done by D. Bernoulli. M. V. Lomonosov expressed profound ideas concerning the laws of population development and population policy. In the 18th century and at the beginning of the 19th, demographic research based on native material was conducted at the Academy of Sciences (I. F. German). In the 19th century the study of population was carried out in the developing area of statistics and was connected primarily with mortality research (K. F. German, V. I. Grebenshchikov). The works of V. la. Buniakovskii occupy a prominent place in Russian demography.

The Marxists A. Bebel and G. V. Plekhanov devoted much attention to questions of population theory. The works of V. I. Lenin—in particular, the characterization of agrarian overpopulation, the critique of the law of the diminishing fertility of soil, and the critique of the Malthusianism and neo-Malthusianism of the late 19th and early 20th century and the exposure of its petit bourgeois essence—were especially important for the development of the Marxist theory of population. Under Soviet power the development of demography has been characterized by profound studies of demographic processes, the development of methods of analysis of population reproduction, and the critique of reactionary theories of population. The works of M. V. Ptukha, S. A. Novosel’skii, V. V. Paevskii, and lu. A. Korchak-Chepurkovskii occupy prominent places in demographic research.

The development of the science of demography is important ideologically, politically, and practically. The present stage of demographic research is characterized by the sharp conflict between bourgeois and Marxist approaches-particularly in connection with the acceleration since World War II (1939-45) of the growth of the population of the developing countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (which has been called the demographic explosion). This phenomenon, which has given rise throughout the world to a wave of Malthusian and neo-Malthusian attitudes, poses an important ideological task for Marxist demography. In exposing and denouncing bourgeois views, Marxist demography proceeds from the fact that the backwardness of these countries and the difficulties in their economic development are produced not by population growth but by the onerous legacy of colonialism, economic backwardness, and the preservation of feudal and prefeudal features in their economies. Economic and social development is retarded in these countries primarily by obsolete forms of social structure. The task of exposing bourgeois-reactionary attempts to justify wars and the arms race from a demographic standpoint also remains important.

The study of population, its composition, distribution, and laws of reproduction and the prediction of the course of demographic processes are particularly important in the socialist countries, where the growing needs of the individual are the center of society’s attention. Demographic research is therefore of great practical importance in the planning of the national economy.


Marx, K. Kapital, vol. 1. K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 23, ch. 23.
Marx, K. “Teorii pribavochnoi stoimosti” (vol. 4 of Kapital). Ibid., vol. 26, part 2, ch. 9.
Marx, K. Pis’mo Kugel’manu ot 27 iiunia 1870 g. (Letter.) Ibid., vol. 32.
Engels, F. Polozhenie rabochego klassa v Anglii. Ibid., vol. 1.
Engels, F. Pis’mo K. Kautskomu ot 1 fevralia 1881 g. (Letter.) Ibid., vol. 35.
Lenin, V. I. Razvitie kapitalizma v Rossii. Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 3., ch. 3, sections 1-10; ch. 7, section 2.
Lenin, V. I. “K kharakteristike ekonomicheskogo romantizma.” Ibid., vol. 2, ch. 1, sections 3, 9.
Lenin, V. I. “Rabochii klass i neomal’tuzianstvo.” Ibid., vol. 23.
Programma KPSS. Moscow, 1971. Part 1, sections 2, 6, 7; part 2, introduction, sections 1, 2, 3.
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Valentei, D. I. Teoriia i politika narodonaseleniia. Moscow, 1967.
Kurs demografii. Edited by A. la. Boiarskii. Moscow, 1967.
Korostelev, G. M. Rost narodonaseleniia i obshchestvennyi progress. Sverdlovsk, 1968.
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Korchak-Chepurkovskii, Iu. A. Izbrannye demograficheskie issledovaniia. Moscow, 1970.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


The statistical study of populations with reference to natality, mortality, migratory movements, age, and sex, among other social, ethnic, and economic factors.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


the scientific study of human populations, esp with reference to their size, structure, and distribution
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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