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Epistemology of population doctrines and theories

Yves Charbit, Université de Paris V, Sorbonne

Ideas on population are generally assumed to be part of an harmonious advancement of scientific knowledge, while ignoring the wider historical context in which demographic thought was conceived and developed. Taking the mercantilists, Quesnay and the physiocrats, Malthus and Marx as examples, this paper proposes a methodological and epistemological discussion, centred on a central view point : ideas on population are the product of their context. Two issues are considered : the contextualisation (time and space scales) and the internal coherence of the ideas. The epistemological criticism elaborated by G. Canguhilhem that looking for precursors is «the most evident symptom of the incapability of epistemological criticism» is finally tested in the case of the theory of demographic transition. The paper concludes that the basic epistemological problem is that of the relationships between demography and political economy

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Presented in Session 131: Epistemology in demography and sociology