How did you come to choose your research topic?
In the summer of 2016, after 25 years working with the United Nations in several locations, I was appointed to the Eastern Europe and Central Asia Regional Office. It wasn’t long before I understood just how much the region’s changing demography was a top governmental concern. Although I knew that fears about shrinking populations, particularly in Eastern Europe, were not new, this new wave of demographic panic around below-replacement birth rates and population decline was making the news regularly. From Zagreb to Moscow, dystopian visions of Eastern Europe’s population dynamics were pointing to a region facing a “demographic emergency” and a demographic winter, or even a “demographic catastrophe”.
I was also introduced to a concept I had not been familiar with: demographic security – a notion that couches changes in the size, age structure, geographic distribution, or ethnic composition of populations within the realm of national security and national stability. I was concerned that demographic security programmes might be linked to the growing backlash on women’s and reproductive rights, and alarmed to see how¨ narratives related to population numbers and state power were intertwined with those around women’s roles, a perceived “collapse” of the traditional family and ethnonationalism. I felt the need to bring an anthropological perspective to policymaking both to enrich the work of the international organisation I work for and to understand how excessive claims and crisis narratives on demographic decline were impacting public policy. Against this backdrop, and after several discussions with my visionary thesis supervisor, Dr Aditya Bharadwaj, and the then Head of Department, Dr Shalini Randeria, I set off to answer a number of questions, which resulted in the writing of my dissertation.
How did you formulate these questions? And how did you proceed in terms of methodology?
Because my research addressed both internal and external policy environments, I had to work through several research questions. First, at a global level, why did the global multilateral community pay little attention to concerns around so-called underpopulation and the potential reproductive rights abuses that have taken place in countries with pronatalist population policies despite the rich academic literature on its widespread prevalence? Second, with respect to Eastern Europe, what were the assumptions behind the moral panic and fixation on population numbers that were leading to the formulation of demographic security programmes? Third, how had the shift to security justifications for pronatalism affected law and policy in the region? And finally, how could an international organisation use anthropological perspectives to enhance its ability to defend human rights – women’s rights, reproductive rights and the rights of ethnic minorities – in an era of rapid demographic change.
I was in search of a methodological platform within which I could understand and engage with demographic security policies from an action-oriented, “insider-outsider” perspective. I found it in an action research approach, with the social science research modality called para-ethnography. Gazi Islam (2014) argues that para-ethnography relies on the ability of internal actors to position themselves as theorists of their own cultures and gives the researcher the possibility of critical distance from their organisational roles. One of the elements I most appreciated about this methodology is that it enables relationships of complicity and the simultaneous pursuit of shared analytic interests. In doing so, para-ethnography offers “new possibilities for creating anthropological knowledge” (Holmes and Marcus 2008, 596) with those who are already in the scene of fieldwork.
What are your major findings?
I would point to three. First, the dissertation offers a perspective on why the international multilateral system has paid little attention to countries with concerns about low fertility and population decline. A brief genealogy of the global population and family planning movement and the intellectual traditions upon which it is based demonstrates how one stream of thinking managed to appropriate the global population agenda, resulting in a marginalisation of states’ concerns around low fertility/underpopulation. The asymmetrical concerns of the population movement, focused on population growth primarily in the Global South, meant that the concerns of countries with falling birth rates were marginalised within multilateral population debates. The invisibility of these concerns provides an environment conducive to population policies based on targets rather than human rights to flourish in low fertility contexts, including in Eastern Europe.
Second, with respect to Eastern Europe specifically, I put forth the concept of demographic imaginaries, suggesting that imagination and ideology, not purely technical considerations around demographic data, are central to the creation and construction of the so-called population crisis. My research submits that the region’s demographic imaginaries share common elements that taken together actively fuel the construction of an imperiled imagined community. These themes expand and contract, shrink and amplify depending on the context and they profoundly shape the logic underscoring policy enactment in the region which tends towards obsession with population numbers and total fertility rates. Related to the above, I argue that the framing of population decline in Eastern Europe as a security threat has led to misaligned public policy responses and national investments. Deconstructing demographic security in the region helped elucidate the tensions between demographic imaginaries, demographic data, and demographic policy.
And third, the research tackled some of the cynicism related to the work of the UN system, often criticised for being overly bureaucratic. It attempted to show that, through action research and being engaged in the field, the UN can support more robust policymaking. The strength of the anthropological approach and the knowledge gained through this research resulted in the cocreation of a regional demographic resilience programme to support UN member states in framing and addressing their perceived population problems differently, from a vision of threat and crisis to a vision of opportunity and innovation. As far as I am aware, this programme is really the first large-scale UN programme to directly tackle the theme of perceived underpopulation.
What are you doing now?
I continue to work for the United Nations with even greater commitment to the critical role of academic engagement, particularly anthropological engagement, in multilateral policymaking. I am really grateful to the Geneva Graduate Institute for the opportunity to learn from the best and believe that it has a huge role to play in building bridges between academia and the work of intergovernmental organisations. When academic knowledge, critical approaches and policy worlds come together, more sophisticated responses to today’s challenges emerge, ultimately improving people’s lives and wellbeing.
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Alanna Armitage defended her PhD thesis in Anthropology and Sociology of Development in October 2021. Professor Shalini Randeria, President of the Central European University, presided the committee, which included Professor Aditya Bharadwaj and Professor Marcia Inhorn, Department of Anthropology, Yale University.
Citation of the PhD thesis:
Armitage, Alanna. “From Demographic Security to Demographic Resilience: Towards an Anthropology of Multilateral Policymaking in Eastern Europe.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2021.
For access, please contact Dr Alanna Armitage at email@example.com.
Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from an illustration by Lightspring/Shutterstock.com.