Science in Christian Perspective



Russell Heddendorf, M.A.

Problem Areas of Sociology: Demography
Part I

From: JASA 13 (June 1961):

In the past, this column has stressed that area of sociology which would seem to be of the most general interest to the reading audience; the sociology of religion. In consideration of the more diverse and specialized interests, however, an attempt will be made in the next few issues of the journal to cover those problem areas in science and education with which sociology has also concerned itself. While looking forward to the coming annual convention and its emphasis on population growth, this issue will be concerned with the problem of demography. In the future, the problems of the sociology of education, science, medicine, and mental illness will be considered.*

Perhaps one of the indicators of a mature science is the fact that it becomes more interdisciplinarian in structure and attitude with development. This has certainly happened in the physical sciences where overlapping of subject matter has become well accepted and the specialist is one who ventures into the newly developed field. Such has been the more recent growth of the social sciences in which demography has been a prime example.

Demography did not start as a specialty within the larger field of sociology. Rather, it developed from statistical emphases in such diverse fields as economics and biology. Demography and sociology have grown closer together, however, as they have become aware of the mutual contributions which

*This series will be based on Sociology Today: Problems and Prospects, edited by Robert K. Merton, Leonard Broom, Leonard S. Cottrell, Jr., Basic Books, Inc., New York, 1959.

they have to make. Although there have been no major developments in population theory since Malthus, there have been a number of recent conceptualizations which have resulted from the closer co-operation of demography and sociology. The ones to be mentioned here are changes in fertility in industrial and underdeveloped countries as they are influenced by attitudes and social institutions, general population change resulting from social change, the use of population regarding the labor force, and the effect of demography on the family.

Original attempts by demographers to predict population change have not proven adequate. Several decades ago when population was not increasing at a rapid rate, predictions were made concerning the rate of increase which were far too conservative. At this time, it was realized that raw statistics were inadequate; there had to be an understanding of the motivation for childbearing. The major contribution made by sociology here was in the development of interview techniques which allowed for the study of women's attitudes on the desirable family size. It was found that in industrial societies, motivation for children fluctuated with unique circumstances such as conditions at time of birth, finances, sex of child, etc. Since then, it has been realized that mass media may have an influence on decisions concerning reproduction in industrial societies. The middle class family, subject to the pressure of conforming to class standards, has been typified as an institution which is interested in limiting family size. There are very definite functional reasons for such an attitude. Hence, our media of cultural exchange have created the image of the child not only as a vital part of family life but also as a liability in certain circumstances.

Demographers have also been wrong concerning the rapid rate of population growth in underdeveloped countries. The error here has been the inability to anticipate the significant decline in the death rate of these societies. Hence, there has been a conservative estimation of population growth in spite of the recognition that the birth rate would remain high. Although interview and survey techniques have also been used in underdeveloped societies, there has been a greater reliance on cultural analysis and awareness of the social structure. It has been found that attitudes toward fertility and reproduction are not merely individually or culturally controlled phenomena. In the real situation, the structure of social organizations has a modifying effect on what could be called the "ideal" attitudes toward reproduction. In particular, the organization of the family and economic institutions are of great importance. It has been shown, for instance, that family instability and reproductive behavior are correlated in certain circumstances.

One of the original problems in demography has been the possible effect which population growth would have on the economic progress of a nation. Again, there has been a need to go beyond raw migration, fertility, and mortality statistics. The demographer has realized that population change is usually one aspect of the total social change occurring in the society and that it must be interpreted in terms of its total social consequences. Such an analysis requires historical research and sensitivity to population structure, spatial distribution, group differentials, and other factors which the sociologist can best understand and appreciate.

The trend in demography has placed less emphasis on size of population and more on its nature and structure. Population has also been considered more in terms of its component parts as exemplified by the concept of labor force. Such a concern deals directly with the sociologist's interest in occupations and status-role theory.

One practical problem in this field is the proper use of women in the labor force. This is not just a cultural problem dealing with the social view of the status of'women but it also involves functional considerations. How can the full technical abilities of women be used without hindering the functioning of the family? The problem here is one of institutional priority; namely, whether the family or economic enterprise is of more importance to the society. Since Russia makes greater use of professional and skilled women, it would be assumed that less emphasis is placed on the importance of family functioning or that other techniques have been developed to resolve the difficulty. The need for interdisciplinarianism is obviously very strong in this case.

Possibly the strongest symbiotic relationship between sociologist and demographer exists in problems concerning the family. Probably more than in any other case, there is a need for the specialist who is equally at home in either area. Although the sociologist is using more statistical data in his research, he often duplicates readily accessible demographic material. It is just such duplication of work and misdirected effort which exemplifies the need for an interdisciplinarian approach.

Though the development of predictive statistics in sociology is of importance in demographic work, probably the greatest contribution to be made by the field is in the area of social change. In the future, greater understanding of the mechanisms which change an underdeveloped society into an industrial, associational society will go a long way in allowing for prediction of broad population trends. In particular, a clearer conceptualization of the middle-class family in its role of limiting family size will provide a stronger basis for control, as well as prediction, of population problems.