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Journal of Policy History 15.4 (2003) 417-448

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Demography as Policy Science in the British Empire, 1918-1969

Karl Ittmann

In 1944, Robert Kuczynski, a demographer working with the Colonial Office, wrote a memo discussing plans for a postwar census of the British Empire. He called for the creation of a Colonial Demographic Service, arguing that Colonial Office programs "offer no guarantee of a decisive improvement unless there is an expert on the spot to make an effective use of these means." 1 Kuczynski's firm belief in the need for expert knowledge matched the growing willingness of the Colonial Office to call upon experts in a variety of fields to assist in the reshaping of colonial government. This article examines why demography came to be seen as useful for colonial governance in the interwar years and how officials attempted to make use of demographers and demographic information in the final years of the British Empire. At present, this topic falls between several existing literatures. Works by Richard Soloway, Daniel Kelves, and others document the domestic history of demography in Great Britain, particularly its involvement in debates over hereditarian views of population. 2 At the international level, most recent studies deal with the United States and trace the origins of American support for programs of population control after 1945. 3 Still another body of literature chronicles the unique nature of policy formation in Britain and its relationship with social science in the twentieth century. This article seeks to connect these literatures by focusing on the colonial and international role of British demography from the end of World War I to the postcolonial era of the 1960s. 4

While this article argues for the distinctiveness of colonial demography, the line between domestic and colonial demography can be difficult to draw. The fields shared similar tools of analysis and a [End Page 417] number of demographers worked in both areas. In a larger sense, all of British demography functioned as an imperial science, one that understood population trends within Britain in relation to those of other nations and the Empire as a whole. At the same time, as recent studies of colonial social policy argue, trends within the metropole influenced how the new social sciences came to be deployed within the imperial system. In some cases, such projects faced fewer obstacles than at home, where well-established political interests limited the use of state power for social engineering. 5 What distinguished colonial demography was its explicit focus on the issues of race and racial difference. Colonial population studies sought to define and describe the nonwhite other for purposes of administrative and political power. 6 This focus on the other inevitably placed race at the center of colonial demography, for race constituted the dominant way of conceiving of differences between Europeans and non-Europeans for much of the twentieth century. The relationship between demography and an ideologically motivated group of population activists strengthened this emphasis on race. The people who pushed for the integration of demographic factors into colonial and international issues hoped to draw attention to what they viewed as unfavorable racial trends and, just as important, formulate a response that would lessen the perceived threat posed by the changing composition of the world's population.

The key to this story lies in the relationship between experts, activists, and officials who helped stimulate the use of demographic information in policymaking and contributed to the emergence of demography as a policy science. Beginning in the 1920s, British officials and population experts forged an alliance of mutual self-interest that grew out of the changing needs of the Empire and its rulers. This alliance lasted through World War II and into the postwar era, ending only with the independence of most of Britain's empire. After decolonization, demographers transferred their work into successor departments concerned with development and technical assistance. To understand how demography became part of Britain's colonial apparatus, I will examine the relationship between experts and policy in Britain, the development of demography as a discipline, the growth...


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