Non-Fiction Reviews

A Very Short Introduction by Susan Harper

(2018) , Oxford University Press, £7.99 / US$11.95, pbk, xix + 132pp, ISBN 978-0-198-72573-2


This is another in the largely useful 'A Very short Introduction…' series from OUP.  This particular edition looks at demography: 'demography' being the specialism as to how human (my emphasis) populations size changes with time along with its constituent numbers in its age class and the factors driving these.

This short volume begins with a brief (understandably for this book's size) chapter outlining the ground the book will cover.  The next chapter covers global population development from around 1.2 million years ago to its size of 7 billion (which took place between 2010 and 2011, something the author omits).  Chapter 3 takes us through some of the key pioneering figures in the development of demography as a discipline, from its founder John Graunt, through William Petty and the likes of Edmund Halley (yes, he the astronomer, but he also laid the ground work for what would become life insurance actuaries) and Richard Price, through to Thomas Malthus, to whom Susan Harper rightly devotes three whole pages).

We then go up a gear with chapter 4 and some of the maths used by demographers to model populations. Here, fear not, the maths is all junior school level algebra.  Chapter 5 looks at the drivers of population change including reproduction rate, mortality and migration.  Chapter 6 is deceptively short yet important looking, as it does, at the demographic transition which in essence is the transition of a population from a less-developed nation-like state of high infant mortality to a more developed nation-like state of low younger cohort mortality, and general greater longevity.

Chapter 7 examines some of the key tools demographers use including: those that measure the key drivers of population change; life tables (how I hated those when an undergraduate on our ecology modules) and 'total fertility rate' (which I'll return to later).  Chapter 8 looks at population pyramids (those studying geography at school will remember these).  Then 9 takes us on a whistle-stop tour of some of demography's more specialist areas such as economic demography and historical demography.  Finally, chapter 10 looks at some of the classic population policies including China's one-child policy (1980) and Romania's Cold War period policies. Before finally, very briefly indeed, looking at some demographic concerns such as how to feed the global population expected ant this 21st century's end.

Susan Harper has given those studying demographics a useful book as an aid to revision. However, I have two areas of concern. The first relates to a general blind-spot problem that many demographers seem to have and here Susan Harper is far from being alone.

Demography books – in my old curmudgeonly way – should come with a giant, on-pain-of-death health warning!  Many demographers come to the subject through the social sciences, however some – more usefully I contend – come from biology and the life sciences (which includes ecology).  Biologists have to look at population issues more closely and in a more nuanced way. This is because often they are not just concerned with the population of a single species in a forest, or on an island, whatever, but the populations of a number of species that interact with each other. Here it is impossible to get away with the (almost laughably) simplistic approach some demographers from the social sciences exhibit.

My principal concern is with the term demographers use 'fertility'.  To a humanities-based demographer, 'fertility' relates to the number of offspring an individual or couple engender; to a biologist it relates to the 'potential ability' of an individual to engender offspring.  To a life scientist, be they an ecologist or whatever, the number of offspring arising is due to an individual or couple is due to 'fecundity': fecundity and fertility are not synonymous!  (And if you do not believe me then check out the definitions for both these terms in The Oxford Dictionary of Science (2017) which is also published by OUP. (And you can also see how these differ from the definitions of both these terms in non-science dictionaries intended for day-to-day lay usage.)  Back in the late 1980s the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Institute of Biology (now rebranded as the Royal Society of Biology) independently (but not unknowingly to each other) set about clarifying chemical and biological nomenclature as taught in secondary schools (for 12 to 18 years of age) so as to sort out confusing matters: get it right at the school level and the way postgraduates use terms will inevitably follow.  As IoB Publications Manager at the time, I recall the sometimes vociferous debate over questions such as should it be 'foetal' or 'fetal'?  (Since you asked it's 'fetal': it's a Latin vs.  Greek roots thing and small vs.  smelly, cf. 'foetid'.)  If demographers do only one thing in the next half-decade then they are unlikely to be better served than to sort out their nomenclature and bring it up to the higher standards where found in other disciplines. They will undoubtedly find this a challenge, but eminently rewarding.

And if you think I am being pedantic over my citing the need for clarity in the way the term 'fertility' is used, then consider someone writing a paper on, say, the current decline of sperm counts in many western countries against the context of population growth: it is impossible to do if one conflates 'fertility' with 'fecundity'!

Alas, this 'fertility' nomenclature misnomer by demographers is so historic and ingrained that I have one piece of advice to any undergraduate studying demographics from within the social sciences.  Walk out of that humanities department right now and go across to the life-science building and sit in on the population and population dynamics modules taught in ecology courses.  They'll set you up for life and you will have a far more developed sense of demographics than many rooted in the social sciences when you return to the humanities department!

Let's put this bugbear to one side and return to how does Harper's Demography compare with the utility of other titles in the rather useful 'A Very Short Introduction…' series?

The best ones in this series provide a solid, albeit brief, introduction to their topic. Alas, in a number of places Demography... A Very Short Introduction fails to do this. The short explanations for things like Leslie matrices or the Lewis diagram left me confused: key explanatory information was missing. For example, the text explaining the diagram for the latter said that the slopes were at 45° but in the diagram some were not! And I still have no clue as to what a city's 'rank' is.

Now, in this day and age of the one-click or one-line search string, it is easy to look up such things and students can and will do this. But I'm not sure that that is an excuse for a lack of writing clarity. The science copy editor should have picked such instances of these up and asked the author to re-write these areas of concern.  What this last does mean is that more casual readers are likely to get lost and/or skip such sections of the book.  This is would be a shame as the national demographic change many nations now face, not to mention global demographic change, is at the heart of many of the most serious issues we currently face.  Nonetheless, this book is interesting and has its uses.

Jonathan Cowie

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