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A Global History of Historical Demography

Half a Century of Interdisciplinarity

Edited By Antoinette Fauve-Chamoux, Ioan Bolovan and Sølvi Sogner

At the XXIst World Congress of the International Committee of Historical Sciences (ICHS/CISH) in 2010 in Amsterdam, the International Commission for Historical Demography (ICHD) decided to write an overview of its own history. Fifty years had gone by since the CISH XIst World Congress in Stockholm 1960, when historians took the first tentative initiatives to create a wholly new interdisciplinary commission for historical demography, a meeting place for a budding discipline where researchers in letters and science could meet, exchange ideas, cultivate and develop a new field. This book is the outcome of that decision.

Demography, past, present and future is a common concern for all inhabitants of this planet. The variation is great, however, with regard to sources, social and political conditions, state of the art, technological development, national and local initiatives. In the course of half a century many changes take place. Keeping abreast of the gigantic streams of information and innovation in the field is demanding, even more so for a discipline with global dimensions and ambitions. The book makes fascinating reading, and preparing it has been a rewarding and thought provoking experience. The thirty-seven articles in the book represent as many different stories.

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14. The French School of Historical Demography (1950−2000): Strengths and Weaknesses


The French School of Historical Demography (1950–2000): Strengths and Weaknesses

Isabelle SÉGUY1

To the memory of Pierre Goubert and Marcel Lachiver,

and warm acknowledgements to Jean-Noël Biraben,

path-breaking masters who opened a large field to me.


Historical demography stands by definition at the crossroads of two disciplines, demography and history.2 As early as 1945, France set up a research institute exclusively devoted to population sciences (INED), while historical aspects of demography were considered by historians, mainly those of the Annales School (created in 1947). What may be called the “French school of historical demography” corresponds to a particular phase in the development of historical demography in France, whose main feature was the predominant influence of demographic techniques. In the years immediately following the Second World War, demographers made attempts to analyse old statistical series. Pierre Goubert, historian, and Louis Henry, a polytechnicien,3 began, separately, to exploit a new source that had so far only been used by genealogists: the parish registers.

The demographer realized that, like the historian, he would have to construct his own database from historical documents that were not really demographic sources, rather than from statistical series already compiled. And the historian realized that the size and quality of his sources were such that they required the development and use of analytical techniques unfamiliar to him. It took a decade or two of scholarly quarrels between historians and...

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