Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


Demography is the study of human populations. It encompasses the study of the size, structure and distribution of populations, and how populations change over time due to births, deaths, migration and ageing. Demographic analysis can relate to whole societies or to groups defined by criteria such as education, nationality, religion and ethnicity.

Data and methods

Demography relies on the use of large amounts of data, including census returns and records of births, marriages and deaths. The earliest modern census was carried out in Great Britain in 1801. See also Demographic statistics.

In many countries, particularly in the third world, reliable demographic data are still difficult to obtain. For example, during the 1980s the population of Nigeria was widely estimated to be around 110 million, before it was established to be as little as 89 million (without adjustment for undercounting) in a census carried out in 1991.

Important concepts in demography include:

Note that the crude death rate as defined above and applied to a whole population can give a misleading impression. For example, the number of deaths per 1000 people can be higher for developed nations than in less-developed countries, despite standards of health being better in developed countries. This is because developed countries have relatively more older people, who are more likely to die in a given year, so that the overall mortality rate can be higher even if the mortality rate at any given age is lower. A more complete picture of mortality is given by a life table which summarises mortality separately at each age. A life table is necessary to give a good estimate of life expectancy.


Among the earliest contributions to demography were the works of Thomas Malthus. Malthus concluded that, if unchecked, populations would be subject to exponential growth. He feared that population growth would tend to outstrip growth in food production, leading to ever increasing famine and poverty (see malthusian catastrophe).

The Demographic Transition

Contrary to Malthus' predictions, natural population growth in most developed countries has diminished to close to zero, without being held in check by famine or lack of resources, as people in developed nations have shown a tendency to have fewer children. The fall in population growth has occurred despite large rises in life expectancy in these countries.

Similar trends are now becoming visible in ever more developing countries, so that far from spiralling out of control, world population growth is expected to slow markedly in the next century, coming to an eventual standstill. The change is likely to be accompanied by major shifts in the proportion of world population in particular regions.

This pattern of population growth, with slow growth in preindustrial societies, followed by fast growth as the society develops and industrialises, followed by slow growth again as it becomes more affluent, is known as the demographic transition.

The term demographics is ofen used erroneously for demography, but refers rather to selected population characteristics as used in marketing or opinion research.\n