Jubilee Fellow – 2015

John Caldwell

Emeritus Professor John Caldwell AO


Discipline: Demography

Year Elected: 1972

2015 Reflections

Building a demography program from 1970

Central to Australia’s history is European settlement and accordingly the important component of our demographic history has been population growth from both immigration and natural increase.  Accordingly, from its inception the Australian National University established a Department of Demography under the leadership of W D (“Mick”) Borrie.  The work the Department undertook on the role of immigration subsequently played a large role in the way Australia sees itself (such terms as “assimilation” and “multiculturalism”, formulated in their work, entered the Australian idiom).  Yet despite these achievements the department remained limited in size and objective and it was largely staffed by historians working on European migration to Australia.

However, through the fifties and sixties it was increasingly becoming apparent that the great challenge for the world lay outside Australia, in the Third World, and this challenge was of Malthusian proportions – it would shape the future of the planet.  At its core lay the need to understand global demographic dynamics.

When I took up the Chair in Demography in 1970, and membership of the Academy in the same year, it was with the objective of developing a comprehensive program of population studies.  This was to be based on an integrated program of developed research methodology, a range of area studies and a substantial teaching program, with particular concentration on Third World research.  This was made possible by a continuing rise in International interest, together with funding, for promoting fertility control programs.  New censuses and surveys were progressively confirming the trend towards an accelerating global population, leading to a not insignificant fear that the globe would not have the capacity to produce a matching growth in food production.

Suitable research instruments were developed from anthropological and sociological experience and from a specific concentration on direct field contacts between the researchers and those being researched.  A body of theory was built up under the general title of “wealth flows theory” which was able to provide the explanatory framework for most demographic research.  New research data confirmed that falling mortality rates were associated with rising educational levels.  This was so not only in old areas of ANU interest but also with the additional data being collected from research in Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia.  While Indonesia was a particular focus for the Department, Australia also remained a research priority.

The ANU Demography program played an important role in developing International responses to meet the challenges.  This research was made possible by the cooperation of a large number of persons from developing countries working and researching within the Department.

Those funding the Third World research were mostly First World governments interested in increasing fertility control in poor countries with high birth rates to avoid what they regarded as being a potential Malthusian crisis.  As birth rates fell quite widely, especially outside Africa, and as financial crises reduced budget provisions for aid, the money available for demography programs inevitably fell.  Nevertheless the training provided and the research experiences gained in the Demography program were well suited to meeting the demands of other specific issues.  Thus the ANU Demography Department led the world in the early study of behavioural factors during the 1970-75 Sub-Sahelian drought.  Its ability to spell out what was happening in such sensitive areas as sexuality meant that it played a leadership role in identifying the nature of the AIDs epidemic.  It also led to an important understanding of the role of marital sexual abstinence in controlling fertility.

Needless to say, Australian demography has continued to be of great importance in the work of such people as Peter McDonald, Lado Ruzicka, Christabel Young and Alan Lopez. In the future world of careful balance in population growth in richer countries this research capacity will continue to be important.

The Future

Australia will have to decide funding priorities towards our efforts in the Third World and also within Australia as well.  This is a battle from which the author has withdrawn as debilitating disease in the form of Parkinson’s has brought me to a halt.  Nevertheless the ideas we developed will continue to resonate though I do not.

From almost the beginning of demographic studies in Australia research on the Aboriginal population has been regarded as a necessity and the ANU’s demographers have continued that tradition.

The International importance of the ANU’s demographic research has been widely recognised in the form of International awards including the United Nations Population Award and two of only four awards given by the American Population Association that have gone to non-American citizens.

The Academy has proven to be a valuable source of contacts in a field where practitioners in Australia are spread thinly and far apart.