Historical Social Research

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Simon Szreter, Theories and Heuristics: How Best to Approach the Study of Historic Fertility Declines? [Abstract]

This paper argues that a move away from a unifying but teleological framework for studying fertility declines can only been intellectually emancipating and is a necessary precondition for scientific advance. The study of change in human reproduction is an immensely complex and multi-faceted problem which requires the combination of both quantitative and qualitative forms of evidence and their respective methodologies of enquiry. The theoretical challenge is to construct an intellectually facilitating heuristic framework for synthesis of comparative, multi-disciplinary study of the multiple fertility declines that have occurred, not to seek a replacement ‘general narrative’ for discredited demographic transition and modernisation theories. Quantitative historical demography can only gain in its explanatory power by engaging with studies which also incorporate research into such qualitative aspects of gender as sex and power and which address a more historicist understanding of the role of culture by exploring its relationship with institutions, ideology and politics. It is argued that a number of recent, contextualized local and comparative studies of fertility declines are demonstrating how productively to combine quantitative and qualitative methods to explore rigorously these aspects of the history of fertility declines. Within the heuristic framework envisaged here, priorities for further research in the future would include exploring comparatively the relationship between reproductive change and communication communities with respect to the ideologically and politically-mediated issues of sex, religion, health, disease and education.