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Counting people

by Phil Bartle, PhD

Training Handout

From the prophet of doom

Demography is about population size and its changes. Strictly speaking, these are not social variables, because they are about people rather than symbols.  Population size, however, like the physical environment, is an important factor that independently affects social variables, and is also a dependent variable affected by social variables. Along with the six cultural dimensions of a community, an ethnographer is urged to observe and report on those two non sociological variables, population size and the physical environment.

Perhaps Thomas Malthus was the first demographer. He calculated that human population was increasing at a geometric rate while the food supply was increasing at only an arithmetic rate, and that the world population was on a collision course with over population, starvation and pestilence.  Many demographers today believe that a similar disaster is in our future.

Social scientists point out that world starvation is the product of poor distribution rather than any absolute lack of food for the human population.

A useful graphic tool is the age pyramid, where the size of population is laid out in ranges, youngest at the bottom, oldest at the top, females on the left, males on the right.  See Age Pyramid and Dependency Ratio. In least developed countries, where birth rates are high and mortality rates high, there are many children and few seniors, relative to the whole population, making the age pyramid short and wide. In developed countries, where mortality rates are low, as in Nordic countries, there are many elderly people and few children, relative to the whole population, and age pyramids are tall and slim.

Populations of communities and countries get larger for two main reasons, births and immigration. They get smaller for other reasons, death and emigration.  Canada is increasingly looking like the Nordic countries, and is not reproducing its population because of low birth rates.  To fill the jobs needed, Canada will have to increasingly depend upon immigration.  Meanwhile poor countries go to much expense of training skilled professionals, and their loss contributes to the “brain drain” of those countries.

HIV/AIDS affects people of sexually active ages, which are also those in the economically most active ages. The death of large parts of a population of those ages results in fewer professionals, fewer workers of those ages, an increased burden on grandparents to raise children when they themselves need assistance.  This is particularly acute in Africa. See the mobiliser training page about AIDS.

It is important to recognize is that a high birth rate does not cause poverty, but that poverty causes a high birth rate.

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