Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Who's a demographer?

I tend to find religious fundamentalists, whatever the religion, hard to listen to. One of the habits I find objectionable is the tendency for fundamentalists of a religion to argue that others who practice the same religion differently aren't really practitioners of that religion at all. This tendency has recently been popping up in the news as Christian fundamentalists in the US argue that because Mitt Romney is a Mormon, he isn't really a Christian. I have no fondness for Mitt Romney, and frankly suspect he would claim to be a Pastafarian if he thought it would get him elected. That said, the Mormons declare themselves to be Christians (they do talk about Christ a lot), and I can't see as anyone has the authority to tell them they aren't. It is just hubris to go around telling people that you can describe their religious beliefs better than they can.

This is all a roundabout way of getting to the question of who is a demographer. Ask a demographer what is the largest annual scientific meeting for demographers, and she will probably say The Population Association of America (PAA). I consider myself a demographer as well as a biologist, but I think most PAA members would say the stuff I do isn't demography. This is for the simple reason that I mostly study non-human populations, and the PAA defines demography as the study of human population processes. Studying the same processes in non-humans is, by this definition, not demography. Last year they had a session on evolutionary demography, but all the accepted papers were on humans. This year they don't even have such a session. I think that inserting the word 'human' into the definition of demography is roughly akin to saying that anyone who doesn't follow the teachings of a particular Rabii isn't really Jewish, so I call myself a demographer.

I was recently surprised to find myself in a conversation in which the tables were turned. A colleague was arguing that most PAA members are not really demographers, but sociologists. His argument was that many human-focused hard-core demographers feel out of place at the PAA. After their meetings this spring several colleagues complained that most talks at PAA meetings are really quantitative sociology rather than demography. The distinction is a fine one, but basically classical demography has a core set of questions and methods, and these have certainly been supplanted to a considerable degree by questions coming out of sociology, mostly approached with methods that don't require the quantitative machinery of formal demography. My colleague told me, "All the talks are full of regression tables, and most of the regressions aren't even done well."

So is it fair to say that my colleagues and I, who apply classical demographic methods to non-humans are more demographery than the quantitative sociologists at the PAA? I'm afraid not. We can no more revoke their demographer label than they can revoke ours. However, since the social demographers who control the PAA aren't interested in evolutionary demography, and most of their presentations frankly aren't that interesting to us (there really are a ridiculous number of regression tables, mostly demonstrating the relationship between fertility and female education for yet another population), I'm going to let my membership lapse. I'm thinking I'll join the British Ecological Society instead. They have lots of evolutionary demography at their meetings. I don't even feel the need to call myself an ecologist.

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