A Digital Reading of Twentieth-Century Demography

Sunday, January 4, 2015
2nd Floor Promenade (New York Hilton)
Emily Klancher Merchant, University of Michigan
Journal corpora play an important role in the history of ideas. As more journals are made available in digital form, it becomes possible to read them algorithmically to discover patterns in volumes of text and metadata that are too large to read closely. This poster presents the results of digital analyses of the first four English-language demography journals established in the twentieth century, from their beginnings through 2010: Population Index (established 1935), Population Studies (established 1947), Demography (established 1964), and Population and Development Review (1974). These analyses aim to answer important questions about the intellectual and political history of demography while exploring new methods in the history of the social sciences and the history of ideas more broadly.

Demography as it exists today – the quantitative and social analysis of population and its change – coalesced between the World Wars in response to anxieties of the professional middle classes in North America and Western Europe about changes in the size and composition of their countries' populations resulting from declines in mortality and fertility and from new immigration patterns. After World War II, the new profession focused its work on predicting and controlling population growth in the global south (the countries of primary production for industries in North America, Western Europe, and East Asia). Data produced by demographers became the denominators for various international measures of social and economic progress and input for economic and environmental models, while demographic theory informed U.S. and U.N. programs and policies aimed at reducing population growth worldwide. The analyses presented in this poster will trace the changing topical and geographical foci of demographic research over the twentieth century and examine whether and how demographic scholarship reflected the interests of its funders – mainly philanthropic organizations until the late 1960s, and then the U.S. government and the United Nations.

The proposed poster will present three types of digital analysis of the four major English-language demography journals. First, topic modeling will examine how the content of demographic research changed over time and varied by journal. Second, analysis of co-authorship networks will reveal the connections between demographers at various institutions and assess the influence of funding at the institutional level on scholarly production in demography. Third, mapping the geographical focus of journal articles over time will demonstrate how the attention of demographers and their funders shifted across the globe during this period, and will assess the links between the geographical focus of demographic scholarship, local family planning programs and population policies throughout the world, and international population control interventions by the Population Council, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the U.N. Fund for Population Activities. Together, these analyses will reveal the contours of the field of twentieth century demography that emerges from the algorithmic analysis of large volumes of text. The resulting poster will assess what new information digital analysis offers for the history of demography and consider the broader utility of digital analysis of journal corpora for the history of ideas.

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