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Event Review

The Future of Demography: How to Promote an “Interdiscipline"

Jun 08
  • Copyright: Population Europe  
  • Copyright: Population Europe  

Population Europe organised the session The Future of Demography. How to promote an “Interdiscipline” at the 2018 European Population Conference in Brussels. Chaired by Andreas Edel (Population Europe), the panellists were Agnieszka Chłoń-Domińczak (Warsaw School of Economics), Jane Falkingham (Centre for Population Change, University of Southampton), Wolfgang Lutz (Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital), Livia Oláh (Stockholm University, Department of Sociology), Lionel Thelen (European Research Council Executive Agency) and Emilio Zagheni (University of Washington / Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research).

The discussion was organised around three main questions. To begin, the panellists discussed the theoretical aspects of demography: Should demographers create their own corpus of theory? What would make us different from other fields of study? Lutz intervened by stating that theories must have predictive power: It is absolutely essential that a theory has predictive power. Otherwise, it would be a blind statistical extrapolation. Taking this requirement into account, he identified two big theories in the field of demography: 1 – the Demographic Transition Theory, and 2 – the Theory of Demographic Metabolism, introduced by Norman Ryder. Zagheni added the Stable Population Theory to the list. He also noted that more needs to be done at a theoretical level: Typically, we put all our energies into one specific question. Tomorrow, we should take some time to be a bit more abstract and reflect about the relation of what we’re doing with demographic theory, how can we learn from other disciplines, and reflect on what we’re doing.

Falkingham agreed with the previous statements: Yes, we do have theories and the key issue we have as a unique discipline is the cohort approach and how we look at changes in the life course. She also noted that one of the challenges that we might be facing in the future that cannot be predicted with existing theories is a potential reversal of mortality improvement. According to her, we may need new theories to understand new societal changes. Chłoń-Domińczak added to the argument by noting that we also need to combine the micro and macro perspectives better: Demography is the right place to combine the micro and macro. This is important to create theories and improve them. Oláh highlighted that we are moving towards a digital economy, and we do not need as many people in the workforce as before. In accordance, we also need to re-conceptualise standard notions like population replacement level, and to take environmental challenges into account.

The second discussion was about interdisciplinarity: should demographers put particular emphasis on the interdisciplinary character of demography? According to Thelen, the European Research Council (ERC) is not pushing for interdisciplinary proposals, but this is part of the spirit of the ERC: We are seeing an improvement in the interdisciplinary nature of project proposals and we want projects that can be understood by all disciplines. He also mentioned that the ERC has a brand-new grant programme called Synergy, where they accept proposals from 2-4 principal investigators from different disciplines: We want to push researchers from different disciplines to work together. In this scheme, we are assessing the synergy effect that could come out of the proposal in addition to its scientific excellence.

Falkingham began her response by stressing that we all start in different disciplines when looking at the demography community in Europe. For instance, Southampton is the only university in the UK with an undergraduate programme in population studies: In this sense, we can state that demography is intrinsically interdisciplinary and we should stay like this. Chłoń-Domińczak agreed with Falkingham and added that roots are very important, but broadening the perspective through interdisciplinary teams are a must if we want to develop our horizons: It’s important that our teams are from different departments and around the world. That is a strength of our discipline.  

Zagheni went further by affirming that interdisciplinarity is in the DNA of demographers: The questions that we address are interdisciplinary, so we need to use different disciplines to answer these questions. Oláh believes demographers should continue strengthening the interdisciplinarity and making sure other disciplines understand the importance of our field: They need to also learn from us, like we are learning from them. Lutz’s argument was centred on the many methodological advancements in demography, and the need for further specialisation in new methodologies, which coexist with an increasing need for a unified social science. According to Lutz, we need more collaboration with other disciplines to be able to comprehensively understand changes in the world and to progress together: Currently, each discipline comes with their own language and methodologies, and it is extremely non-friendly.

The third round of discussion focused on what would be the most policy-relevant topics related to population development that we should tackle in the coming years. According to Chłoń-Domińczak, there is a great potential to further support public authorities on local level and life-course issues. Lutz could not think of any policy measure where the change to the population structure does not matter: We demographers can tell them how the population will change in relevant characteristics. Demography is an extremely important topic. Zagheni agreed on the importance of changes in population structure for policymaking. For Oláh, concrete research has an enormous potential to support policymaking. For instance, the results from the EU-Project FamiliesAndSocieties indicate that it is impossible to define families: We have shown that there is a broad way to look at families and we want to make sure we are not discriminating against those that are not in traditional nuclear families. It should not matter for children what kind of family they are coming from. They should still have the same life chances. Falkingham believes we need to think further about improving our methods: Even when we have our complicated statistical models, we still don’t know what is causal. We can take lessons from other disciplines and use more mixed methods. Falkingham also stressed that demographers should promote more teaching activities to policymakers: We need to educate our policymakers around differentiation. The challenge for us is how do we get our discipline more embedded in the policy world. To conclude, Thelen added that he is seeing more proposals being submitted to the ERC schemes that include life experiments, and more work in this direction should be encouraged.

To conclude, Edel asked for a take-home message for all the session participants. For Falkingham, it is crucial to look deeper at the changing composition of the population and its impacts on societies. For Chłoń-Domińczak, the study of diversity is key for any research agenda. Zagheni suggested that researchers should move from the very focused approach towards broader questions, for example how can we learn from other disciplines, and what is the societal relevance of our research questions. For Lutz, we need to help develop more professionals with strong methodological skills. Finally, Oláh and Thelen believe demographers should continue working in an interdisciplinary way.