50 years of a Research Group: What is population geography?

Sophie Cranston and David McCollum

Approximately 50 years ago, a group of academics identifying themselves as population geographers officially formed a study group as part of the Institute of British Geographers (IBG). This was one of the first study groups to be formed, and now constitutes one of 32 ‘research or working groups’ of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) with the IBG.

In this blog, the first of a series marking the 50th birthday of the group, we examine the heritage of population geography, as defined by its relationship to RGS-IBG journals (Area, the Geographical Journal, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers). This is written in conjunction with the Virtual Issue in the RGS-IBG journals (https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/toc/10.1111/(ISSN)9999-0017.50yrs-pop-geography)  and associated editorial (https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/area.12753?campaign=wolacceptedarticle).

Through the Virtual Issue the 2020-21 Population Geography Research Group Committee had the opportunity to question: what is population geography? How is population geography defined in its relationship to the wider discipline of geography?

At its core, what distinguishes population geography is its study of distinct groups within populations. Research on population geography can loosely be examined through three themes: the spatio-demographic characteristics of population, the movement of populations and the characteristics of places. The following points give a flavour of some of the contributions of geographical research on population to the wider discipline, however, to try and capture it all is an impossible task.

In relation to the first theme, a rich tradition of research within population geography has explored the spatial aspects of classic demographic phenomena: births, ageing and mobility.  However, population geography examines more than this: it researches different population groups and their spatial-temporal encounters across the lifecourse. The study of population engages with and contribute to conceptual advances within life transitions theory, lifecourse theory and broader philosophical approaches that reflect the complexity and unpredictability of people’s lives.

A second research tradition within population geography is that of human movement through the lens of migration. Population geography spans quantitative analysis of flows and characteristics of migrants; but also, a curiosity for the different meanings attached to movement – motivations, experiences and outcomes of migration and mobility. This leads to dynamic approaches and terms in the literature on movement.

The third theme of focus within population geography is the relationship between populations and spaces, and how together these make places. Understanding the constitutive interactions between people and the places they define is at the heart of much of the work of population geographers. Who resides in a place? How do their experiences and values matter for that place? And in turn, how does this matter for outcomes of that place, or of people in that place? These are questions that research on populations shares.

However, what is perhaps most evident from a reflection of the heritage of population geography in RGS-IBG journals is the plurality of approaches to the study of population. In the 1970s, population geography, like geography more broadly was characterised by positivist, quantitative approaches. Population geographers have developed the analysis and modelling of populations through the 50 years of the research group, leading developments in quantitative methodologies in the wider discipline. Key within these developments has been the census as a source of data.

While population geography has a reputation for quantitative methods, the contemporary study of populations is just as dominated by qualitative approaches. Research on population in geography makes important contributions to theorisations of the diversity of experiences within and between populations, utilising and developing a sweep of ethnographic methods. This research captures the lived experiences of populations, providing in-depth analysis of the relationships between different groups and place, particularly within the past 30 years.

Yet, while there is a plurality of approaches within population geography, this is not matched by a diversity of practice within the sub-discipline itself. The question of what is population geography is shaped by the question of who are population geographers. The heritage of population geography in the RGS-IBG journals is one that is regrettably akin to geography as a discipline—largely masculine, white and anglo-centric. While there has been an increase in quantity of female voices within the sub-discipline over the past 50 years more generally researchers on population do not reflect the population itself.

50 years on from the founding of the study group, we find ourselves in a different academic, intellectual and societal context from that of the early 1970s. There is a plurality of approaches in geography, which the heritage of population geography reflects. There are more women working in geography which population geography also reflects. While the heritage of the intellectual contribution of population geography is something to be celebrated, there is still work to be done. Calls to decolonise the academy have resulted in questions of the structures through which we work—for population geography this means thinking further about the diversity of voices and theories. This is a challenge for us all going forward.

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