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Malthusian Theory and Demographic Transition Theory

Malthusian Theory and Demographic Transition Theory

Author: Zach Lamb

Identify the main ideas comprising theories of population growth.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. Welcome to Sociological Studies. I hope you're doing well. Thanks for tuning in. In this lesson, we're going to discuss the ideas of Thomas Malthus on population and we're also going to discuss demographic transition theory.

For starters, Thomas Malthus was a very famous and influential British thinker living in the late 1700s and early 1800s. So right about the time of enlightenment. Malthus was writing in a time when thinkers were taken with the idea of progress. They believed that human society and the human species could be perfected and that we were marching on a path towards perfection, towards the final evolution of human society. This idea really underpinned the notions of the Enlightenment in Europe.

Against this backdrop and this time period, here comes old curmudgeonly nay-saying Thomas Malthus. He argues that, you know what guys? We're in trouble. We're not going to progress like you think we are. We're not going to be able to perfect our society like you all claim because we have a problem with food production and population growth. He says that nature limits our ability as a human group to expand because nature puts natural limits on the expansion of population because we need to produce food for everyone.

We've got people, we've got rapidly multiplying people, but we also have plants, we also have vegetables, that we need to produce. Malthus argued that we can only produce so much subsistence and that will then limit our ability to expand. Malthus was writing right as capitalism was about to industrialize. And with industrialization, technology and technological advancement gave us more food. It opened up new ways to get more crops and to produce food more efficiently. So we had more food.

And so Malthus was forgotten. We thought, well, sure, we've overcome this, they said. We've industrialized to such an extent. It's raised living standards and increased food production, so we don't need to worry about this. However, though, fast forward to today and we now have 7 billion people, many of whom are in want of food, living in abject poverty, and food prices are at an all time high in developed countries. Some scholars are arguing that we're in the midst, or beginning, of a food crisis. So in the long run, Malthus may be correct. We just haven't hit his limits yet.

We care about now Malthus and he's interesting. We still bring him up because he hit on a very important idea in society. That's the relationship between technology, between our ability to wield technology to produce subsistence, and its relationship to population growth. We have a relationship. And that relationship is at the core of what we'll turn to next-- demographic transition theory.

Now let's discuss the demographic transition theory, which is the theory that relates birth rates to levels of technology and the overall population to levels of technology. And I have the graph on the board behind me here. It's a little complex so we'll walk through it. Down here at the bottom, we have different levels of technology here. We have pre-industrial, early industrial, mature industrial-- and now what we're in-- post-industrial.

We also have rates of population growth here. We have slow rates of population growth in pre-industrial societies and right as we start to industrialize, we have rapid rates of population growth. This is because industrialization increases living standards and increases productivity and it enables us to then expand and have more people then devote to medicine, things like that. Whereas, we had slow population growth in pre-industrial societies so the birth rate was very high because we didn't have contraceptives and children were economically valued to contribute to the society.

But yet, we also had a very high death rate because we didn't have medicine. We didn't have things to treat the diseases and their outbreaks and famine occurred. Although we had high birth rates here, we also had high death rates. Here birth rates remain high, but the death rate, in black, begins to lessen, because we had those advances I just mentioned. But we still have the high birth rates. And then as industrialization matures, we have the two beginning to come together. They're slowing.

Finally, post-industrial society where we're at now. We've reach such a level that education is much more widespread, careers for men and women are both abundant, and people choose to marry less, they choose to marry later, they're more educated. Children become very expensive. They're not as economically valued so they're choosing to have fewer children. So we start to see the two converge. That is demographic transition theory in this graph.

I'd like to wrap up and finish by discussing another way to graphically represent demographics. Another way to graphically described the overall population in society. And it's a population pyramid. A population pyramid is a graphical representation of population broken down by age and sex. This here is males. So let's suppose, zero to nine. These are males, ages 10 to 20. 20 to 30. 30 to 40. 40 to 50. 50 and on and on and on. So we have age going up. And here we have share of the total population as a percentage.

So we have more young people in society and it gets smaller. It takes a pyramid shape. Population pyramids are great for describing and it enables us to ascertain a sex ratio, which is the ratio of males to females in society. Looking at this, what can we infer about the population? You can infer that there's a lot more young people in this society than they're are old people. So what's happening that's preventing all of these people from reaching old age? Something must be happening.

So if we look at the United States' population pyramid, it might look a little different. United States' population pyramid looks more like that. It's a little more square. There's less of the tails on the outside. We have a more equal distribution of the population in our society. By looking at the different makeup of population pyramids, we can make inferences about the nature of demographics in that particular society. And that's why they're a useful tool for demographers.

This has been an introduction to population, to demographic transition theory, and to Thomas Malthus. Hope you enjoyed it. Have a great rest of your day.

Terms to Know
Demographic Transition Theory

A theory of population growth that argues that population growth varies as society progresses technologically.

Malthusian Theory

A theory of population growth that argues that rapid population growth increases would outpace food production leading to social chaos.

Population Pyramid

This pyramid graphically represents a population broken down by age and sex.


A way to express the number of males relative to the number of females in a population.