Ruptures and fractures

Demographic discourses and policies in their local and global contexts

Date: 1 September 2017, 09:00–03:30

Venue: Corvinus University, Fővám tér 8, room 305


Please note that there is a break from 12 pm - 1.30 pm.


The interest in a comparative history of demographic discourses and policies really took off in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This was due, in the main, to a shift toward new forms of writing the specific demographic policies of repressive regimes, particularly in East-Central Europe. From the 1990s onwards this scholarly interest extended to other state socialist countries (such as China and Cuba) while prompting excellent work on gender inequality, anti-abortion policies and various other forms of repression and social control. We can safely claim that at the moment a transnational and global history of demographic policies and discourses is well established. Up till the early 2000s comparative histories of population policies revealed how demography was as a method of social engineering and how it contributed massively but in varying ways to the selective control of the population in and outside Europe, and how it was embedded into global and national ideological and geopolitical debates.  Importantly, there was an increasing interest in the global history of population conferences, international societies, all revealing the global interactions facilitated by them. Moreover, there were pioneering attempts to discuss popular beliefs and attitudes concerning population policies, ideas of demographic change versus social development, among elite and non-elite groups and in various regions and countries. For instance, histories of population and eugenic policies and discourses in East-Central Europe have revealed the massive interaction between scholars and policy makers following international developments before World War II, during state socialism and after 1989. It has also been argued that despite certain continuities, state socialism interpreted somewhat differently its view on population policies. In order to avoid mechanic national and ideological comparisons the panel combines pioneering attempts to write a transnational history of demographic thinking concerning state socialist and capitalist countries in East-Central and Southeastern Europe (Romania, Hungary, Turkey, etc.) between the 1950s and 1990s using methods, sources and interpretative frameworks adequate for a global history. These include systematic comparative analysis of demographic thinking in terms of producing, transferring and discussing knowledge within the context of discursively constructed global and local hierarchies. Special attention will be paid to types of links between state-society-economy versus intellectuals and professionals and to the ways in which science became a part of global debates over population management. The panel will also pay attention to what conflicts and tensions emerged during this period, and how internal and external pressures have been handled and managed, by certain countries. Finally, we will also analyze how various professionals maneuvered among these ideational and structural conditions to propose new demographic discourses and policies.


Marius Turda (Brookes University Oxford)

Attila Melegh (Corvinus University Budapest / Demographic Research Institute Budapest)


Marius Turda (Brookes University Oxford)


Calin Cotoi (N. Iorga Institute, University of Bucharest)


Attila Melegh (Corvinus University Budapest / Demographic Research Institute Budapest)

Marius Turda (Brookes University Oxford)

Arjan Gjonça (London School of Economics) / Arland Thornton (University of Michigan)

Tamás Kiss (Romanian Insitute for Research on Minority Issues)

Dragana Avramov (Population and Social Policy Consultants Brussels) / Robert Cliquet (Ghent University / Population and Family Study Centre Brussels)

Heinrich Hartmann (University of Basel)



Attila Melegh: Regime changes, scientists and population management in Hungary between 1930 and 1990s

The paper analyzes how discursive changes were related to changes in political regimes  between the 1930s and 1990s. The paper will argue that there are linkages on discursive and institutional level, but the continuities and discontinuities in discourses follow a somewhat autonomous historical logic. Even it seems far more important that discursive changes actually can legitimize change in political regimes if other conditions of such a change are present. The paper uses comparative perspectives in South Eastern Europe, but at the same time it will dwell on the global and local interplay, namely on how global changes and local developments interacted in discursive topics and institutional links. The paper will show that early state socialism did not completely isolate scientists as supposed in history writing generally concerning this period.  Even the paper will demonstrate that globally one of the most open periods were the 1960s in Hungary, which openness actually later lost momentum and thematic and institutional linkages narrowed down toward the “West” in the 1970s. I will also demonstrate that prewar discourses were partially rebuilt by the 1980s and I will show it was related to local interactions and strategies of assuring local and global scientific status and played an important role in making key organizations open for a coming regime change.

Tamás Kiss: Demographers and development: Changing narratives on population processes in Romania and Hungary since the 1960s

I would make a comparative analysis of the demographic macro-narratives (demographic transition, historical demographic narratives etc.) in Romania and Hungary since the 1960s. It would cover both state -socialist and post-socialist periods. The 1960s were important because - in my interpretation - this was the period of institutionalization of the demography (as a consolidated academic discipline interconnected with population management) both in Hungary and Romania. The main focus would be on the changing concept of development (modernization, societal transition etc.) as it appears in these demographic narratives. It is also of key importance how demographers perceived the role of different national and supra-national actors in shaping societal and demographic change. I think that both the state-socialist vs. post-socialist and the Hungarian vs. Romanian comparisons would be interesting. According to my hypothesis, national level population management and the role of demographers in it took different pathways in Romania and Hungary not only during but also following state-socialism.

Marius Turda: Population policies in Hungary and Romania during the 1930s and 1940s

In this paper I discus various population policies which emerged in Hungary and Romania during the late 1930s and the early 1940s. At the time, many Hungarian and Romanian demographers adopted and championed projects of ethnic engineering and population transfers. Morevoer, Hungarian and Romanian governments promoted a population science (népesedéspolitika; politica de populaţie) designed both to ensure scientific remedies to the alleged decline of population, and to provide a defensive biological strategy for a particular social and ethnic group within the nation. Prompted by the need to generate a powerful sense of cohesion and shared identity in the wake of profound socio-political changes, population experts used a wide range of arguments in order to justify their vision of national development. The nation’s identity was determined by biological, social and cultural boundaries separating those who belonged to the community from those who did not, who were viewed as ‘foreigners’ or as potential enemies. This, in turn, created a system of ‘internal cleansing’ according to which those members of society deemed “unhealthy,” “diseased” and “anti-social”, alongside the ethnic minorities were separated from the majority. These individuals and groups were often segregated, and, in some cases, like with the ethnic minorities, subjected to radical measures, including physical displacement and, the case of the Jews and the Roma, elimination.

Dragana Avramov / Robert Cliquet: The use of research evidence in the production of policy documents: The example of the UN world population conferences of 1974, 1984 and 1994

World population policies have been considerably boosted by the activities of the United Nations, and in particularly by the UN Commission on Population and Development, the UN Population Population Division, and the United Nations Population fund (UNFPA). In this paper, we will concentrate on the role, of the UN World Population Conferences of Bucharest 1974, Mexico City 1984 and Cairo 1994, and evaluate their strenghts and weaknesses

Heinrich Hartmann: Discovering ‘hidden unemployment’: The career of an Eastern European concept in Turkey

Turkish censuses were from their very early stage, starting in1927, part of a national project of modernization, but at the same time highly influenced by international experts. International statisticians helped to establish new routines of counting the Turkish population and to build up a permanent infrastructure to organize this nation-wide counting every five years. However, these experts soon not only were integrated into a statistical dispositive, but also were part of the interpretative framework of the statistical data. Above all, this was the case in the political context of the later 1940s and 1950s, when new forms of state interventionism were established in the context of economic planning and reconstruction policies. Turkish population here was reinterpreted neither in the form of the former pro-natalist ideas of Mustafa Kemal, nor as a threat to an increasing World population (as often stated in the later 1960s), but primarily as a problem of the right distribution of land and people. These discourses were heavily influenced by European and International economists, such as Kurt Mandelbaum and his work on “The Industrialisation of Backward Areas” – a seminal analysis of Southeastern European agricultural areas and their problems after the war. The concept of Mandelbaums hidden unemployment (in Turkish gizli işsizlik) encountered an important success among economists. Scholars like the Turkish statistician Haluk Cillov applied the concept to Turkish rural populations. This paper seeks to analyze how politics towards rural Turkey were framed by these economic paradigms. They not only defined amounts of work and productivity per capita, but gave rise to new governmental programs. This is prominently the case for the first attempts for a land reform in Turkey, starting in 1946, that were an omnipresent claim in Turkish political discourse for the next three decades. By taking up this perspective, the paper tries to bring together a transnational perspective on the history of statistics and demography and the idiosyncrasies of Turkish Post War history.

Arjan Gjonça / Arland Thornton: Can the development idealism framework help us understand the mortality transition in both Western European societies and today’s low and middle income countries?

It has long been argued that as societies move from high levels of mortality to low levels of mortality – through the so-called mortality transition (as part of demographic transition theory) (Kirk, D. 1996, Notestein, F. 1945, Thompson, WS. 1929, Davis, K. 1945), this is associated (or caused) with/by changes in the level of development as well as changes in the wellbeing of the population. A number of factors affecting this massive change have been put forward in explaining this transition in western societies (Preston, S. 1975) such as improvements in nutritional standards, starting with the agricultural revolution (Fogel, RM, 1986, 1997, 2004), improvements in the standard of living through the effect of industrial revolution (McKewon, 1979, 1988, 2014), improvements in public health measures (Szreter, 1988) as well as improvements in medical technology. Similar deterministic factors has been argued in non-western countries too, with factors such as globalisation of health, medical and technological advancement (Wagstaff, A. 2000, 2002), universal access to health services (Halstead, et al. 1985, Caldwell, J. 19986), economic development (Preston, S. 1980), improvements in nutritional standards (Popkin, B.M. 1999, 2002), investment in the social agenda (Caldwell, J. 1986, 1992), and many more. The authors of the current paper argue and present evidence that these mortality and epidemiological changes have been driven in many ways by ideas operating at international, national, and local levels. This has happened as the ideas reflected in both public and private discourse influenced the economic and social changes that, in turn, influenced health and mortality change. The authors present evidence for the influences of ideas and policy on major changes associated with agricultural revolution, industrial revolution as well as the technological revolution that drove the epidemiological and mortality changes. They also argue that the causality in these changes can better be explained by the framework of development idealism (Thornton, A. 2001, Thornton, A. 2005, Thornton, A. et al, 2015). The authors analyse the effects of ideas in the historical changes in mortality and epidemiology in different types of countries —for example, western, non-western, and former state-socialist countries.

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