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  • Malthusian Men and Demographic TransitionsA Case Study of Hegemonic Masculinity in Mid-Twentieth-Century Population Theory
  • Carole R. McCann (bio)

Discourses are not just “words”; they are material-semiotic practices through which objects of attention and knowing subjects are both constituted.

Donna Haraway1

Closer inspection reveals that the numbers work most effectively in a world they have collaborated in creating.

Theodore Porter2

In the 1950s, US demographers, the Malthusian Men of my title, established themselves as the scientific arbiters of population science. They staked their newfound social authority in sophisticated statistical analyses of population “dynamics.”3 As part of the postwar expansion of social sciences, US demographers were actively involved in the establishment of international standards of population surveys through the United Nations Population Division. Moreover, they provided expert advice to the new statistical bureaus set up by emerging nations of the Global South. By the 1970s, nearly a dozen institutions in the US had trained a generation of multinational demographers to staff UN and national statistical bureaus.4 Through its discursive and organizational practices, demography constructed a novel “procedure of reasoning about the relevant ideas”—fertility and mortality patterns, “too rapid” population growth, contraception, and the economic and ecological dangers of overpopulation—which underwrote midcentury international politics and social sciences.5 In these various locations, mid-twentieth century demography thus produced knowledge that mattered in contested Cold War Era reconfigurations of global (heteronormative) gender, race, and imperial relations. This paper analyzes demographic accounts of population dynamics to show how co-configured imperial, racialized, and (heteronormative) gender logics hold the Cold War population narrative together.6 [End Page 142]

The analysis begins with Thomas Malthus, whom mid-twentieth-century demographers proudly claimed as their founding father.7 I reread Malthus’s classic work, An Essay on the Principle of Population8 to bring into sharper relief gendered grammars by which its narrative is structured. Among other things, I argue, Malthus’s essay produced an Orientalist imperial scale that calibrated racialized (heteronormative) masculinities to population patterns. Malthus is instructive as well because, according to Mary Poovey, his Essay constitutes a “crux in the history of the modern fact.” In its many editions and the controversy surrounding them, Malthus “reworked the cultural connotations of numerical representation . . . that stressed their impartiality and methodological rigor.”9 Rereading Malthus illuminates a critical site in which mathematics, masculinity, and methodological rigor have been brought into association in modernist discourse. My goal throughout is to illuminate the intimate connection, if you will, between the numbers, masculinities, and modernity in the syntax of this foundational demographic text.

The analysis moves on to reexamine the mid-twentieth-century demographic theory, through readings of early versions of demographic transition theory. This theory, which represents demography’s primary contribution to midcentury social sciences, was developed by Frank Notestein between 1944 and 1951.10 Notestein played a significant role in the training of the first generation of demographers and in the production and dissemination of population research in the postwar period. Notestein was director of the Office of Population Research at Princeton University, which opened in 1936 and became a hub for population research in the 1950s. From 1944 to 1948, he also served as the first director of the United Nations Population Division and is credited with establishing its initial data collection standards.11 In 1958 Notestein became the president of the Population Council, which operated as a clearinghouse for linking foundation and foreign-aid dollars to population research and family planning programs.12 From its earliest days, the Population Council provided numerous fellowships to enable “indigenous” scholars from “Third-World” nations to complete training in demography in US universities and research centers.13 In this way, midcentury demographic knowledge and knowledge-building techniques were dispersed globally, effectively collaborating in creating the world in which, as Theodore Porter notes, “the numbers worked.”14

Through my rereading, I show that twentieth-century demographers relied on Malthus for more than his quantification practices. The demographic transition model, which grounds demographic explanations of population dynamics, employs Malthusian gendered logic as well. In laying claim to Malthus, demographic theory also laid claim to the white, bourgeois (heteronormative) [End Page 143] masculine subject...


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pp. 142-171
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