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The demographic transition theory began as a description of the demographic changes that had taken place over time in the advanced nations: The transition from high birth and death rates to low birth and death rates, with an interstitial spurt in growth rates leading to a larger population at the end of the transition than there had been at the start. The idea emerged from work done by Warren Thompson (1929). In 1945, following the end of World War II, there was a growing concern about population growth and Frank Notestein (1945) and Kingsley Davis (1945) separately picked up the threads of Thompson’s thesis and named the process ”the demographic transition.”
Modernization theory allowed the demographic transition to move from a mere description of events to a demographic perspective. Death rates declined as the standard of living improved, and birth rates almost always declined a few decades later, eventually dropping to low levels, although rarely as low as the death rate. It was argued that the decline in the birth rate typically lagged behind the decline in the death rate because it takes time for a population to adjust to the fact that mortality really is lower, and because the social and economic institutions that favored high fertility require time to adjust to new norms of lower fertility that are more consistent with the lower levels of mortality. Since most people value the prolongation of life, it is not hard to lower mortality, but the reduction of fertility is contrary to the established norms of societies that have required high birth rates to keep pace with high death rates. Such norms are not easily changed, even in the face of poverty. Birth rates eventually declined, it was argued, as the importance of family life was diminished by industrial and urban life, thus weakening the pressure for large families.
Over time it has become obvious that the demographic transition is too complex to be explained by simple reference to the modernization theory. The work of the European Fertility Project focused on explaining regional differences in fertility declines
and gave rise to theories of the diffusion of the innovation of fertility control. This was a very important theoretical development, but not a comprehensive one because it only partially dealt with a central issue of the demographic transition theory: How (and under what conditions) can a mortality decline lead to a fertility decline? To answer that question, Kingsley Davis (1963) asked what happens to individuals when mortality declines. The answer, which came to be known as the theory of demographic change and response, is that more children survive through adulthood, putting greater pressure on family resources, and people have to reorganize their lives in an attempt to relieve that pressure; that is, people respond to the demographic change.
A shortcoming of all of the explanations of the demographic transition has been that they have focused largely on the causes of the mortality and fertility declines, without paying close attention to the other changes that are predictably put into motion as the rate of natural increase changes in a society. Interaction between population change and societal change is, in fact, at the heart of the realization that the demographic transition is really a whole set of transitions, rather than simply being one big transition. These transitions include the health and mortality (also known as the epidemiological) transition, the fertility transition, the age transition, the migration transition, the urban transition, and the family and household transition.
- Davis, K. (1945) The world demographic transition. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 237 (January): 1—11.
- Davis, K. (1963) The theory of change and response in modern demographic history. Population Index 29 (4): 345—66.
- Notestein, F. W. (1945) Population: the long view. In: Schultz, T. W. (ed.), Food for the World. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
- Thompson, W. (1929) Population. American Journal of Sociology 34 (6): 959—75.