Demography is the study of the human population by statistical methods. Stated baldly like that, it might appear to be irrelevant to the genealogist. But, if there were no demographers then there would be precious little in the way of sources enabling the kind of genealogy research we are able to do in Britain and Ireland, and indeed throughout Europe. Demographers have been responsible for the census, for civil registration and even for the recording of people in parish registers. John Rickman who was the architect of the five census returns from 1801 – 1841, was one of the most important from a genealogy point of view, and his work deserves to be better known. Thomas Malthus who published in 1798 the Essay on the Principle of Population as it affects the future improvement of Society, is much more famous for his theoretical work, but it was Rickman who enabled the British government to find out whether the population was rising or falling, and who started the process of statistical analysis of the people.
One of the best websites as an introduction to population statistics for Britain and Ireland is Histpop, where you can find useful essays on the census returns and learn more about the organization of the General Register Office.
One of the most potentially useful aspects of the work of more current academic demographers is their published work on the accuracy (or not) of our vital records. How many times have you wondered how complete the parish registers are, or what exactly is the known under-representation in the civil registration of births? Existing work on these subjects should be in every genealogy help or text book, but authors usually prefer to describe records, rather than try and produce useful new works of synthesis by applying what is known by the demographers to help us with genealogy puzzles. Even if the genealogy world generally ignores demography and anything statistical, that doesn’t mean that work on the accuracy of the records we use isn’t available (see the works of D V Glass, E A Wrigley and R S Schofield among others).
Free PDF back issues of Local Population Studies journal up to 2008 can be downloaded, many of these contain extremely useful articles to genealogists and local historians:
Current academic work on population is headed up by The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure. They are publishing results online using mapping tools, on such interesting topics as: mapping the economic geography of England in 1851; mapping population growth by hundred 1761 – 1841; mapping turnpike roads and waterways with their dates; and the demography of early modern London, among other items of great interest. All of these projects could help you visualize the world of your ancestors and work out how or why movement from place to place happened. Their work is freely available on the website and deserves to be accorded a special place in the heart of any serious genealogist. The visual appeal of the maps certainly takes the pain out of any dry statistical analysis.
Why wouldn’t we want to study this work? Demography, bring it on!