Rethinking Population in an Age of Revolution

Rethinking Population in an Age of Revolution

Workshop: 23-24 June 2022

Organised by Dr Stephen Pascoe


In 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population was published, with its provocative thesis that population growth led inevitably to “checks” in the form of famine, pestilence, disease or warfare. Malthus’ Essay appeared at a time of profound global upheaval. The revolutionary moment of the 1770s and 1780s had remade conceptions of citizenship and subjecthood, and of populations and states, from North America to France to Haiti and beyond. By the late 1790s, revolutionary fervour continued in some parts of the world, while reactionary politics had emerged elsewhere. In the same year as the Essay’s first publication, French troops under the command of Napoleon invaded Egypt, triggering widespread local resistance and imperial reconsolidation in the Ottoman Empire. 1798 also saw rebellion against British rule in Ireland and the continuation of the Anglo-Mysore wars that culminated in the defeat of Tipu Sultan in 1799, while in the Ottoman Empire, the Wahhabi-Saudi revolt threatened the authority of Istanbul over the Hijaz.

How might we make sense of the revival of interest in the population question during the late revolutionary age against this backdrop of challenge to empires?

While intellectual histories of Malthus have long understood his demographic writings in the context of British anti-revolutionary politics, only recently have scholars begun to cast their vision beyond Britain, or continental Europe. In The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus Bashford and Chaplin have globalised Malthus within an Anglophone world, showing how Malthus’ account of population in North America and Australasia was structured by the clash of settler colonialism with indigenous sovereignty. However, more work remains to be done, looking to other geographies, regions and transimperial relationships.

Rethinking Population in an Age of Revolution invites scholars interested in this revolutionary moment of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to examine how emergent ideas of statecraft, population and empire took expression on both sides of the Mediterranean and across the globe.


The workshop invites reflections on the following set of questions:

  • How did the question of population shape the struggles over territories of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as other contested regions? How might we connect what Bashford calls “the permanent struggle for room and food” in Malthus’ writing with the struggles over land and territory in his lifetime?
  • What were the distinguishing features of Francophone and Anglophone political economy in this period, and how were whole-of-society analyses applied to specific regions and geographies?
  • What were the rival conceptions of population to Malthus in this moment? What were the fates of other conceptions of human society?
  • How were conceptions of the domain of the social reconfigured in this period? In what ways did new imaginaries of population shape the emergence of the modern episteme, with its intimate concern for the government of life?
  • In what senses did the increasing production/shaping of demography in colonial settings constitute a kind of laboratory of modernity? To what ends were revolutionary and postrevolutionary modes of governance applied?
  • How was population gendered and/or racialized in this period? In what ways did revolutionary and anti-revolutionary currents transform ways of thinking about gender, race, class, and religion when overlaid with “population” in the abstract?

This workshop will be held at the Laureate Centre for History and Population, University of New South Wales, 23–24 June 2022.
Please direct all inquiries to: stephen.pascoe@unsw.edu.au