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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 10: The novelty of an old genre. Louis Henry and the founding of Historical Demography


“You may, no doubt, find it odd that to answer the two questions forming the core of our subject — ‘Where are we?’ and ‘Where are we headed?’ — we begin by answering a third: ‘Where were we yesterday and the day before?’. This reference to the past is, however, essential, for it alone can tell us about the day after.” Louis Henry, public lecture, 20 March 1950.

In the decades that followed the Second World War, France witnessed the birth of historical demography, which in a short period of time produced a massive body of knowledge on the populations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, reinvigorated whole areas of social history, and became a flagship discipline in the social sciences. Created by INED scholar Louis Henry, it was one of the most “cumulative” specialties ever to emerge in the historical sciences. Its at times revolutionary results, combined with its capacity to embody “scientific” history and to examine the anonymous masses dear to the pioneers of the École des Annales, made it emblematic of “New History” in the 1970s, and helped it earn the respect of historians all around the world1. For demographers, it yielded fundamental theoretical concepts, particularly in the area of fertility. But beyond its intrinsic scientific qualities, its success lay in the fact that it fuelled the ongoing debate over population policies in developing countries, where fertility behavior and its changes were a major issue. Demonstrating the links between the internal logic...

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