- Twentieth Century Population Thinking: A Critical Reader of Primary Sources eds. by The Population Knowledge Network
The title of this volume in the Advances in Sociology series edited by the Population Knowledge Network, a European collective of historians founded in 2011, is somewhat misleading: the book's subject is in fact the scientific, social and political history of population in the twentieth century. In French academic study, history of "knowledge" and history of "doctrines and policies" are kept relatively separate, whereas here they are closely linked. The aim is to expose the "circumstances under which scientific knowledge about 'population' was produced, how demography evolved as a discipline, and how demographic developments were interpreted and discussed in different political and cultural settings" (blurb). To this end, the book goes well beyond presenting annotated primary sources. In addition to the general introduction, there are eight highly informed essays, complete with historiographical clarifications and selected bibliographies for further reading.
By opting to problematize the readings, and skilfully engaging dialogue between the sources and the critical essays, the authors have avoided presenting a flat series of monothematic sections. And readers can use the index fairly easily to find more detailed information on the various areas discussed, which include demography, eugenics, migration, urbanization, social and economic policies, family planning movements, contraceptive technologies, colonial policies followed by development policies, and environmental protection movements. The sources are of very different types – scholarly writings, statistical documents, press articles, publicity campaign material, political or activist speeches, and even excerpts from oral history interviews – and in many cases their eloquence makes them well adapted for teaching purposes, though the quality of some iconographic reproductions is poor.
In addition to being a textbook, the book endorses a number of strong positions, the first of which is that "population" in the sense we understand it today is essentially a twentieth-century construct whose emblematic event was the 1928 founding of the International Union for the Scientific Investigation of Population Problems. The introduction, written under the auspices as it were of the British historian Eric Hobsbawm and the French philosopher Michel Foucault, lays down a two-part context: the "age of extremes" and the emergence of renewed "governmentality" based on self-discipline and norm interiorization. Each of the contributions then illustrates in its own way the continuing vigour of this vast research field and helps us to get our bearings in the great proliferation of writings.
To their credit, the authors do not present essentialized monsters such as eugenics, colonization, or demography itself, but rather a kind of choral history, swarming with actors – individuals, groups, states, national and transnational organizations – a history in which spontaneous perceptions and objectified [End Page 160] knowledge, ideological blindness and the need to work scientifically combine in constantly changing ways. The authors' constructionist approach to population, their concern to take into account the often uncontrolled effects of "demographic engineering" on individuals and societies, does not lead them to ignore morphological realities (particularly the population explosion). However, their strongly externalist bias may submerge "demographic thinking" somewhat in the (largely transnational) political meanders of how that thinking was produced and used, at the cost of effacing the scholarly activity itself (cf. the little attention given to such authors as Landry, Lotka, Henry, Hajnal and others). While it is entirely justified to focus the study on the twentieth century, the number of references to Malthus clearly shows that the authors had a longer-term history of knowledge in mind. The book therefore does not fully cover the question, but does provide enough material and "thought" to be of great value, particularly in training students. [End Page 161]