Sunday, May 14, 2006

Modernisation and the Demographic Transition

Economic Development, Formation of Human Capital and the Demographic Transition: Southern Sweden 1750 – 1900. Tommy Bengtsson & Patrick Svensson.

Modernisation caused a demographic transition from high mortality to low mortality and, later from high fertility, to low fertility. Short-term variations in mortality and fertility meanwhile diminished. The delay in the fertility decline was due to the fact that the social norms influencing fertility only change slowly. This is the way the theory of the demographic transition was formulated in the 1950s by Davis and Notestein. For some time, it was considered as a cornerstone of social science but was later questioned both from theoretical and empirical points of view. Still the concept ‘demographic transition’ is widely used to describe the change from high to low rates of mortality and fertility.

Bengtsson and Ohlsson (1994), in their reformation of the theory, argue that while the causal mechanisms are correct, the dating of the theory is wrong. They argue that the start of the mortality decline did not mark the beginning of the demographic transition. The initial decline, which shows great similarity throughout Europe despite various stages of economic development, was instead spontaneous (Fridlizius 1984, Perrenoud 1984, Schofield 1984) and similar changes have taken place many times in the past. But instead of a rebound to high mortality, which had been the pattern of the past, mortality continued to decline. This marks the start of the demographic transition and this was the result of modernisation. In this way redefining the time for the onset of the demographic transition, to the mid-nineteenth century or shortly before, the lag between modernisation and the fertility decline is also narrowed down to a couple of decades and supersedes the assumption of slowly changing social norms in regulating family size.

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