This evening I found myself sitting at the LSE Library reading a chapter about ways to quantify and compare fertility rates in different pre-industrial societies. I was surprised by how much fun I was having. Just an hour before, I had spoken to fellow students while waiting for class to start, and one of them had said: “I’m sure there are many lovely people who find demographics interesting, but I am not one of them.”
Well, I am. In fact, I find population growth rates, changes in life expectancy and statistics like “median age of married women at the birth of their last child” more interesting than say, descriptions of history’s great military battles and political intrigues. When I think about societies from other time periods, I like knowing how old the old people were, when (and how and why) people got married, how many children they had and whether the children went to school, and for how long, and what they learned there. And I like knowing how people decided where to live, and how to live and who moved where.
I’ve always preferred the social sciences over natural sciences because I am interested in people. I think the reason I eventually ended up in economic history, is less to do with an interest in money and more to do with an interest in the importance of the general population – their wealth, education, opinions and general patterns of behavior – and what that all means in the long run.
Military history and political history is – at least when separated from socio-economic history – the study of a few people’s major, singular decisions: Should I give the order to go to war? Do I want to run for president? Should I veto this, approve that? Economic history is the study of the aggregated choices of ordinary people over time.
When you decide to move to the suburbs, or use birth control, or get a student loan, or buy a house, or not get married, or spend more rather than save more when you get a pay raise, you are changing history. How can you not find that interesting?
Related: For Norwegian readers, a previous post on brain drain within the health sector, one of many things within the realm of population studies that I find interesting.