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Population, the state, and national grandeur

Demography as political science in modern France


Paul-André Rosental

Only in France is demography essentially the population science: it is taught at school, newspapers feature the evolution of fertility rates in their headlines and the subject sparks ideological debates in the media. How did demography become a national identity issue?

The French exception is attributable to a political history that reached fulcrums during the Second World War under the racist Vichy regime and then after the Liberation, with the development of population policies and the creation of the French National Institute for Demographic Studies (INED). The book is the first to retrace its controversial genesis and analyze its ramifications for the following decades. It shows how theories, institutions and demographic policies developed simultaneously in France. Its reflection on the links between ideologies, science and the state offers a model that could be applied to the history of many other scientific disciplines.

Paul-André Rosental’s indispensable study examines the emergence of demography as an autonomous discipline and its association with the state in mid-twentieth-century France. Demography’s success in the immediate post-war years came in part from its dual concern with both "science" and "action," which allowed policy makers to claim both knowledge and expertise in addressing social problems. Rosental’s measured tone hides a provocative argument that should serve as both a model and a foil for others working in the history of the human sciences.

Joshua Cole, University of Michigan.


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Chapter 9: The second birth of demography. A transatlantic history



“Confusing demography with statistics, as so many people still do, is a bit like confusing meteorology with measurements of temperature, pressure and winds”. Alfred Sauvy, L’INED a 24 ans, 1970.

Pure demography, it is fair to say, was born before our eyes. While its foundations are now solidly established, its construction is far from complete Adolphe Landry, Rôle et place de la démographie pure dans la théorie démographique, Journal de la Société Statistique de Paris, 1942, p. 39.

When INED came into being, the scope of its demography department’s theoretical reflection was new. Its researchers worked within the framework of “analytical demography” that Alfred James Lotka (1880-1949) had founded in the 1920s and 1930s in the United States. Lotka’s approach formed a real “cognitive model”, in the sense that it precisely defined problems and methods, clearly delineating the subject of “population”. At the same time, it guided the empirical and theoretical studies of the first INED’s young demographers. The latter related the “fundamental” innovations of analytical demography to the practical requests addressed to the institute.

Of relevance here is not so much the history of this model as understanding how it was received in France. The model appeared at the exact same time as the aforementioned politico-institutional developments were unfolding. Known to some French experts since the beginning of the 1930s, Lotka’s approach truly imposed itself in 1937, when Paris hosted the International Congress on Population....

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