Doomed to Compare
Population science is a fortunate discipline, methodologically speaking. As demographers, we enjoy a wealth of available data and our subjects—birth, partnership, death, movement—are fairly clear cut. They are also easily subjected to international comparisons, which offer insight into general and country-specific trends.
For example, while the prevalence of below-replacement fertility in Europe is undeniable, comparisons show the extent of decline can vary considerably from country to country. We find that no single institutional measure but the whole institutional package—i.e. family policies, childcare institutions, labour market regimes, and a society’s values—drives differences.
This conclusion may not be immediately helpful in a practical sense. So why bother with comparisons?
Comparative studies are indispensable, because they help us avoid developmental fatalism and ascribing all demographic accomplishments to policymaking. Europe is delightfully diverse. Institutions, traditions, and policies all affect each other, creating, when we’re lucky, natural experiments. Demography therefore stands to benefit from standardised life events data. But because of that very diversity, we are perhaps doomed to compare.
Zsolt Spéder, Hungarian Demographic Research Institute, Budapest