Our Research

Why Population?

As the planet approaches 8 billion, international debate on population will be ignited again. Population is an urgent and sensitive global concern in a climate-crisis era, from net growth, to ageing, to low fertility.

Population has long been a 360-degree problem. It invites expertise on soil fertility and human fertility; economy and ecology; space, growth and limits; food security, energy and waste. Reproductive politics, health politics, and geopolitics all bear on population policy making. State, familial and individual governance have affected consumption, production and reproduction in the past and into the the climate-changed present.

The Laureate Centre for History & Population approaches the multi-dimensional challenge of population through four linked fields of inquiry. Biopolitics, Geopolitics, Ecopolitics, and Cosmopolitics.

Centre Themes

The Laureate Centre for History & Population researches how population policies emerged over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and what their present legacies are, especially in a climate-changed world. We consider the significance of population for modern world history, economic history, environmental history, and the history of ideas, each of which were and are gendered and raced.

The separations and inter-relations of Biopolitics, Geopolitics, Ecopolitics, and Cosmopolitics drive our enquiries and guide our individual and collective historical work. Our ambition is to place population matters squarely into the multiple modernities of world history.

The Laureate Centre interrogates population history through four core lines of inquiry:

1. Energies: How do we think about population and history in a climate-changed world?

How is population history connected to environmental history, to limits, and to circular economies? How do we add eco-politics (ecology, economy) to population histories’ conventional domain of biopolitics?

Any inquiry into the modern history of population invariably confronts the question of energy. Not only has modern world history been characterised by new energy transitions, flows, and accumulations at the planetary level, but the concept has stark relevance across multiple scales. Human bodies organise, store, and dispense energy through consumption, planning, labour, and most importantly for the history of population, reproduction. The theme of ‘energies’ helps us move between and cut across these scales and analyse the social, economic, and environmental dynamics of population politics. It invites consideration, for example, of the science of ecology through the lens of population, connecting the Greek concept of oikos/household to early twentieth century energetics, to ‘biological economics’, and to late twentieth century world systems modelling.

‘Energies’ refers to the operative metaphors and materials of population history in a climate-changed world, aligning the resources that fuelled globalization with the politics of reproduction. Given its controversial history, where does population policy best stand in the 21st century, in a new era of climate crisis, with ageing and low fertility the new problems, and within the recognised imperative of sustainable growth?

2. Depopulation and repopulation: What are the geopolitics and biopolitics of population decline in modern world history?

Population growth has conventionally been both problematised and analysed over the last century, yet modernity has also been marked by episodes of population and fertility decline. These have been of different orders of volition and violence, some desired and sought, some forced, even genocidal. The multiple histories of depopulation are also complex histories of ‘freedom’ and ‘rights’, of obligations and injunctions that unfolded on intimate, local, national, regional and world scales. How can we best write the world history of depopulation and repopulation together? Some historical episodes are primarily spatial and geopolitical: displacement and (re)settlement, forced migrations and population transfers. Others are primarily biopolitical: the spread of novel diseases affecting mortality, and sexually transmitted diseases affecting fertility, for example. But how were they linked? How, for example, is the colonial history of alienation of land linked to fertility decline in different regions of the world? Theories about “degeneration” and “dying races” highlight the need to reckon imperial histories alongside the emergence of demographically interested nation-states. Not a few twentieth-century nation-states emerged from multi-ethnic and multi-lingual polities, searching for an imagined purity. What is the gendered and raced history of that reproduced nationalism? 

Through all this, fertility decline has proceeded across the world, as women and men decide to have smaller families, and as women across the world have born children later. This is one of the great convergences of modern world history. And so, far from population growth being problematised, many polities (and individuals) now prioritise planning for ultra-low fertility. What is the linked geopolitics and biopolitics of this global trend, and how as historians do we connect it to an earlier generation’s focus on accelerating population growth?

3. Multiple Modernities: Where is population in histories of the modern world that decentre Europe?

Modern world historians have strongly engaged with historical sociology on ‘multiple modernities,’ which discards the idea that modernisation and westernisation are the same process. Different states, peoples and regions forged distinctive pathways into the present. Yet where are population histories in this field, and where is gender? What might thinking about population via multiple modernities yield? Consider, for example, the implications of reproduction and its gendered regulation for Eisenstadt’s (2000) original description of global modernities: the idea of emancipation from traditional authority; personal and institutional freedom; a mastery of nature, including of human nature; and a struggle over the realm of the political.

Does the interrogation of population history radically extend the conceptual, evidentiary and substantive basis of scholarship on multiple modernities? We ask this broad question not least since the very ideas of ‘modernisation’ and then ‘development’ arose from the demographic field. How have highly diverse kinds of states – liberal democratic, socialist, communist, colonial, and religious polities – brought economic planning and demographic planning together?  How is this part of a global history of convergence or divergence? We aim to compare highly diverse polities and regions, to build a more geopolitically complex and thus more globally representative world history of population. 

4. Global Malthus: How was world population conceptualised in early political economy?

How were Malthusian ideas taken up, transformed, or rejected by political leaders and ideas leaders in the multiple modernities of the 19th and 20th centuries? The Centre for History & Population explores Malthus’s own Asia-Pacific opus, his ideas on what he called Indostan, China, Siberia, Japan, and Tibet. And with colleagues across the world, we examine Malthusian and anti-Malthusian texts and policies in China, India, and Japan, as well as Australia and New Zealand. How did India and China figure in 18th and 19th century classical political economy? How did Malthus rework or sustain Adam Smith’s view of China and its population? We follow a French imperial history too, contemporaneous with Malthus’s own life and work: what are the links between Francophone expansion under Napoleon into Egypt, for example, and Malthus’s pronouncements on the Ottomans and on ‘Turkestan’?

In the context of Global Intellectual History, reconsidering ‘population’ across these geographies requires a fresh consideration of gender. The comparative study of what we now call ‘gender’ is a commonplace in most early political economy. Economies, cultures and policies of reproduction, agriculture, and food production, as well as migration, war, infanticide and familial constitution all required consideration of male and female activities, differentially and comparatively across multiple polities. Yet global intellectual history and histories of classical political economy often sidestep this core business, misrepresenting the early canon itself, simply at an empirical level. The Laureate Centre for History and Population offers a fresh understanding of political economy from Smith through to Keynes as an always-gendered enterprise.