Asian Demographics and Demographers

Demographically, Asia is an extremely diverse continent and this has never been more apparent to me than at the recently-concluded annual meet of the Asian Population Association (APA) Conference. When the countries represented range from Mongolia to Australia (Oceania has been included in the APA for convenience), and from Iran to Japan, there is bound to be a tremendous amount of diversity. We are talking fertility rates ranging from less than 1 child in Hong Kong and about 1.32 in Japan to a little over 2.5 in India. In some sense, there are enough countries in Asia at different stages of development, fertility transition, social policy variants, and there is plenty of cross-country learning that can happen.

Conferences, when organized well and when participants participate actively, can be great to attend. Regional conferences also have the advantage that there are more people working on similar topics within one’s own region, and that can add much-needed depth to the quality of comments one receives. A key feature of this year’s conference was also the encouragement given to young researchers – students and post-docs in particular. Being able to present one’s work to a professional audience, sticking to the time limits, fielding questions and ‘networking’ afterwards are all key elements of an academic life and presentation of one’s work, and young scholars from India can certainly do with the experience. I also wonder that the task of conference organizers in putting papers together in one session couldn’t have been more challenging than at this conference, especially given the overwhelming majority of submissions from Indian academics. My favorite aspect of conferences is the opportunity it provides newbee participants like myself to become somewhat ‘known commodities’. Thankfully my presentations went well, but the encouragement I received from leading people in the field and the fact that they’re willing to see me as a colleague and a contributing member of the discipline is very comforting.

I was talking to some other conference participants between sessions about Iran, and the interesting case of rapid fertility decline that it represents. Between 1988 and 1996, the total fertility rate declined from 5.5 (!) to 2.8!! And by 2000, Iran was estimated to have reached below-replacement TFR.  In some ways, Iran appears to be a textbook case of a country experiencing a demographic transition from high mortality and fertility levels to low levels of both. Increase in access to drinking water and electricity, a decline in infant mortality, expansion of women’s education are common distal determinants, and a decline in age at first marriage and childbearing are the proximate determinants of fertility decline in Iran. The fact that all regions of Iran and age-groups experienced a decline are interesting features of Iran’s fertility transition. The introduction and expansion of a family planning program in Iran in the late 1980s/early 1990s are given a large share of the credit, with the idea being that an ‘unmet need’ for fertility control was met by the program. And contrary to what one may believe, fertility control methods were approved of by the religious leaders of the country. But scholars on Iran have argued that economic difficulties that families have faced due to war and conflict have added uncertainty to decision-making and young people have postponed marriage as well as childbearing as a result. An interesting case of government programs supplementing, complementing or perhaps even working independently of the everyday social/economic realities of people, but producing similar results.

–Abhjit Visaria

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