Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: population geography from The Dictionary of Human Geography

Scholarship on the geographical organization of, and connections between, groups. Between 1953 and the 1990s, population geography defined itself as the systematic study of ‘(1) the simple description of the location of population numbers and characteristics ... (2) the explanation of the spatial configuration of these numbers and characteristics ... (3) the geographic analysis of population phenemona (the inter-relations among areal differences in population with those in all or certain other elements within the geographic study area)’ (Zelinsky, 1966, pp. 5–6). Accordingly, the sub-discipline thought of populations as groups synonymous with political jurisdictions (e.g. urban residents, Australians), ethnic and national identities (e.g. latino/as), phenotype (e.g. white, black), and demographic events (e.g. migrants, the elderly, families, baby boomers, refugees). As links between classifications such as these (i.e. the construction of knowledge) and the circulation of power became acknowledged, views on how populations were made and maintained, and for what purposes, have greatly expanded. This enlarged reading of groups also takes into account the relations and connections between groups, as with work that examines the meanings of whiteness in the context of blackness, or the experiences of migrancy in relation to those of sedentarism. Scholarship similarly investigates more plural views of geographical organization that go beyond the one time focus upon areal differentiation in space to recover and rework ideas about place and environment. For some, the widening agenda threatens the integrity of the vision for the sub-discipline first proposed by Trewartha in 1953; for others, growing plurality signals strength and the relevance of the field to other branches of geography and to society more generally. The recent rebranding of the flagship journal to Population, Space and Place has occurred with the rise of critical accounts (see critical human geography), and at a time of increasing ‘post-disciplinarity’ (Conway, 2004).

Contributions to population geography have long been cross-disciplinary, not least because ‘geographical’ epistemologies (particularly those related to environment, place and space) have been variously developed as part of enlightenment thinking in different disciplines, including economics, sociology and demography. Classical economic thought – most notably the malthusian model – argued that population growth rates could lead to the demand for food (resources) exceeding the capacity of the environment to supply necessary inputs. Neo-Malthusian work has expanded the concept of carrying capacity to include social and cultural factors, and use has been made of large-scale simulations and models, including the limits to growth model. Neo-Marxist critiques and views of a population–environment–resource–ideology nexus have served to complicate ideas about overpopulation and drawn greater attention to political factors (see political ecology).

While accounts concerned with environment drew attention to the links between population, scarcity and production, approaches focused upon place saw important links between population, culture and production/consumption. Reflecting the still influential ideas of the French géographie humaine school, Beaujeu-Garnier (1956–8) believed that by studying the ‘ways of being’ of populations, the field could integrate livelihood (or environmental and economic possibilities for production) with a concern for norms, values and cultural change. This integrative account of population and naturesociety links resisted the compartmentalization of population issues as separate from economic or cultural concerns, took for granted who or what constituted a population and continues to prove difficult to apply (compare Bruhnes’ 1910 treatment of settlement geography with contemporary work on global cities).

After the Second World War, population geography became institutionalized as a sub-discipline concerned with empiricist and positivist statements about spatial variations in the distribution, composition and growth of populations. The call to arms had been issued by Trewartha (1953), who saw a synthetic geography that existed for, and began with, people (populations) and their geographical organization. Trewartha made his case as spatial science gained prominence, ensuring that a view of space as a container through which the order of population phenomena could be both described and, through the development of theory, explained and modified (see location theory) permeated the field. Inspired by new data and international collaborations, and drawing on the contributions of demography in general, and demographic transition and stable population theory more specifically, population geography contributed work on the diffusion of vital transitions (notably Zelinsky’s pioneering 1971 hypothesis of the mobility transition), spatial variations in the components of population change (fertility, mortality, migration) and composition (particularly on ageing), and the development of more accurate and sub-national population projections and life table methods (Jones, 1981; Woods, 1982). Interest grew in the disaggregated behaviour of individuals with, for example, rational choice theory and social physics frameworks extended to model migration decisions at residential and regional scales (see also behavioural geography; regional science). The growth of studies in medical geography on morbidity, mortality and geographical variations in accessibility to health care combined with the relative neglect of fertility to leave commentators both bemoaning the migration-centred foci of much work and debating the need for continued disciplinary border-crossing to rejuvenate the field. While links with demography remain strong, the consolidation of fields such as spatial demography and geodemographics (Woods, 1982; Wachter, 2005) have occurred alongside, but not to the exclusion of, alternative treatments of space (White and Jackson, 1995).

The well-known critiques of Enlightenment knowledge that had taken root in human geography in the 1980s impacted upon the field in at least two ways. In methodological terms, greater emphasis was placed upon qualitative methods and ‘mixed’ methods of approaching human subjects, and taking feelings, aspirations and discourses more seriously. life course frameworks extended life-cycle explanations of, for example, household formation, location and dissolution patterns to take account of interdependent spatial and temporal contexts, and better integrate accounts of structure and agency along structurationist lines (Van Wissen and Dykstra, 1999). The rapid development of microsimulation, agent-based modelling and geographic information science in general further exploited new data products, deepened the field’s already strong engagement with public policy and business planning, and further extended (some have argued, democratized) how population groups are defined, by whom, and for what purpose.

Indeed, the question of how knowledge about the geographical organization of population reflects and reinforces the circulation of power in society continues to shape the direction of the field. In particular, a number of commentators have questioned the categories used in the study of populations and, most poignantly, the question of how populations are classified, named and legitimized as objects of study and policy. post-structural views argue that populations are socially constructed institutions that both enable and counter inequality and oppression in society. Drawing on Michel Foucault, research has examined the use of political technology and discourse by states to create inferior others that legitimize political projects. Examples include the deployment of race-based classifications to underwrite ethnic cleansing and genocide, including the Nazi holocaust, and the exploitation of gender and sexuality norms against civilians and refugees in wars. post-colonial research has investigated the link between population classifications, census and registry systems, and the mapping of ethnic populations to further colonial ends, and the neo-colonial use of discourses of migrancy to legitimize development agendas including structural adjustment programmes (Kosiński, 1984; Lawson, 2000). Drawing on feminist geographies and social geography, the field has re-examined the meaning of concepts of demography, including age (literatures on children’s geographies and ageing), reproduction, disease, disability, death and dying (Pratt, 1999; Valentine, 2001; Kalipeni, Craddock, Oppong and Ghosh, 2004; Silvey, 2004).

The diverse readings of space, which increasingly call upon notions of environment and place, run through the field’s expanding engagement with the economic, cultural and, to a lesser extent, ecological dimensions of globalization and neo-liberalism. Research on global cities explores patterns of skilled migration, the diversification of families and households, and variations in experiences of settlement, incorporation, assimilation and social exclusion among immigrant communities (Clark, 1998; Beaverstock, 2002; Wong, Yeoh and Graham, 2003). Balancing production-centred accounts of family migration, an emphasis upon gendered migration has drawn attention to factors of social reproduction and institutional context among domestic workers and persons trafficked (Boyle, Halfacree and Robinson, 1998). The growing social and spatial plurality of household living arrangements has been linked to ageing and immigration, and has sparked new research on the demographic transition. Historically, low levels of fertility have been connected to the interplay of changes in concepts of self and a range of state policies, including housing supply and social support. Similarly, the variable ways in which states mediate transnational and diasporic communities, including border controls, remittance management and through discourses of long-distance nationalism, have witnessed a more explicitly integrative approach, combining economic, cultural and political readings (Samers, 1997; Jackson, Crang and Dwyer, 2004).

There are a number of key engagements within population geography that relate to the direction of travel and the broader influence of its scholarship. The simultaneous embrace of plurality, and the deepening methodological specialism of many approaches, ensure that time-honoured questions about intellectual coherence and vitality remain. While there is an implicit suggestion that moderation and balance (in approach, in topic and so forth) will best serve ongoing research needs and meet funding expedients, there is a tendency to define balance in terms of the long-standing demographic approach to the field. That is, migration is seen as exerting an overdue influence on research agendas, at the expense of work on fertility (and to a lesser extent mortality and composition, which are the subjects of other fields of enquiry within geography). Under post-structural and critical readings, however, this divide is artificial and problematic.

Similarly, spirited debates on methodological pluralism have supported the development of mixed methods approaches almost to the exclusion of single-method techniques, which are seen as the preserve of more specialized fields, including spatial demography. Methodological specialization has tended to exaggerate a divide between those using quantitative, qualitative and ethnographic tools at a time when many agendas require flexible and plural approaches. The growth in interest in participatory geographies represents another opportunity for reflection about the relationship between knowledge and power in the field.

Furthermore, it remains largely the case that analyses of risk remain absent from debates within the field, despite increased public attention to matters of securitization, broadly defined (see security). Given the profound implications of well-documented ecological and cultural transitions, to name two, for the geographical organization of populations and the structure of society, work is needed to understand the roles that groups play in affecting global futures.

Suggested reading

Full bibliography is available here.

Bailey (2005)

Findlay (2004)

Jones (1981)

Kalipeni, Craddock, Oppong and Ghosh (2004)

Plane and Rogerson (1994).

Adrian Bailey
Professor of Migration Studies
School of Geography, University of Leeds, UK
© 2009 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd except for editorial material and organization, © 2009 Derek Gregory, Ron Johnston, Geraldine Pratt, Michael J. Watts, and Sarah Whatmore

Related Credo Articles

Full text Article Population Geography
International Encyclopedia of Human Geography

Population geography describes, analyses, and reflects upon the organisation and growth of human populations in their environmental and social...

Full text Article Geography: Distribution of Population
Encyclopedia of the U.S. Census: From the Constitution to the American Community Survey

Keywords Census Basics and Controversies Geography and Housing U.S. Population Demographics Analyzing the spatial distribution of a...

Full text Article Population, Geography of
Encyclopedia of Human Geography

Population geography examines population growth and change and the demographic characteristics of large and small areas on the earth's surface....

See more from Credo