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Teaching Historical Demography: Reconciling Disciplinary Approaches. A British Society for Population Studies/Economic History Society Workshop

03-09-2022 15:29

Researchers and students studying historical demography come from a wide range of disciplines including anthropology, demography, epidemiology, economics, economic history, family history, medical history, social history, geography and population data science. This multidisciplinarity makes the field vibrant, but it also means that students tend to learn about key historical demographic phenomena from a particular disciplinary background.

The approaches different disciplines use to consider key phenomena such as the fertility decline, epidemiologic transition, Malthusian population dynamics, the European Marriage Pattern and mass migration vary considerably. For example, when discussing, the reduction in mortality and shift from infectious to non-communicable causes of death since the nineteenth century, each discipline may emphasise different aspects of the transition in teaching. Epidemiologists might focus on quantitative aspects of Omran’s macro theory (1971) of epidemiologic transition. Demographers might emphasise calculating mortality rates and the pitfalls of cause of death registration. Economic historians might place mortality decline in the broader scope of changing living standards across the Industrial Revolution. Economists might concentrate on estimating the causal drivers of the transition. Geographers might address how spatial patterns of mortality changed over time. Historians might highlight the development of the sanitation and hygiene movement and changes in medical understandings of disease. The literature recommended and the methodologies used to explore these topics will often be discipline-specific. Intellectual standpoints too may differ: post-modernists and post-structuralists would, for example, question the concept of transition as a universal trajectory of “development”.

When studying from a particular disciplinary perspective, students are not always aware of the diverse approaches to historical demography. This means that students entering postgraduate studies in the subject often come with rather different training backgrounds and skill sets, and many do not feel confident engaging with or critically assessing work undertaken in other fields.


To promote greater understanding and collaboration across disciplines, we are organising a one-day workshop on Teaching Historical Demography, Reconciling Disciplinary Approaches. This is supported by both the Economic History Society and the British Society for Population Studies and will be held at LSE in late January 2023 (final dates and schedule TBC). We hope that the meeting will be predominantly in-person, but will plan to have an online element too. We intend to record the discussion and to make it available after the workshop.

The purpose of the workshop is to bring together people teaching and researching historical population studies in a wide range of disciplines to 1) identify the differences in the way each discipline approaches the teaching of and research in historical demography and 2) begin to build a consensus on the key concepts, methods and approaches that students of historical demography should be taught regardless of discipline. We wish to encourage those attending to discuss the way that their disciplines teach topics and approaches in historical demography; describe the research training and skills that they—or their discipline—believe students of historical demography need to acquire; and consider the benefits and challenges they have encountered when collaborating with colleagues trained in other disciplines.

To start this process, we would like to invite you to complete a short questionnaire, which can be found via the link: https://forms.gle/j59mihxaC9ojFs196. Please feel free to fill in the questionnaire even if you are not planning to attend the meeting, as this will help us to identify particular topics on which to focus at the workshop. By responding, you will signal your interest in the teaching of historical demography, and we will be very happy to send you further details of the workshop.

We would be grateful to receive responses by September 9th 2022.

We hope that greater exchange and mutual understanding will improve and widen the experience of students to whom historical demography is being taught.

All those teaching or researching historical population studies, in whatever form, are welcome to participate. 

If you have any questions or wish further information, please email Eilidh Garrett at: eilidh.garrett[at]btinternet.com.

Τhe organising team:
Neil Cummins (LSE), Eilidh Garrett (Edinburgh),
Eric Schneider (LSE), Nicola Shelton (UCL)
and Wendy Sigle (LSE)


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