HSD: Spatiotemporal Dimensions of Population Change in the Northern Orkney Islands from About 1735 to 2000

Project: Research project

Project Details


Studies of long-term demographic change in the modern period have been dominated by the use of demographic transition theory (DTT), which contents that there is a unidirectional transition from a preindustrial agricultural regime of high fertility and high mortality to a modern industrial regime of low fertility and low mortality. Despite early descriptive evidence supporting DTT, it is now acknowledged that many localized trajectories of demographic change deviate from its narrow predictions. Moreover, DTT is not really a theory at all, because it does little to explain the mechanisms underlying demographic change. The research project is designed to address not only why fertility and mortality declined in the industrial regime but also to identify how a preindustrial demographic regime was dismantled and what new regime took its place. Recognizing that demographic regimes have both temporal and spatial dimensions, this project will use an interdisciplinary approach, incorporating the methods of historical demography, ethnography, landscape archaeology, and spatial analysis. This project will focus on the changes occurring in the northern Orkney Islands from roughly AD 1735 to 2000. The islands are an ideal location to study these topics for several reasons: (1) The Orkneys have been continuously settled from at least AD 850. (2) Detailed records allow for demographic reconstruction and reconstruction of the material conditions going back to the 1730s. (3) The islands have experienced significant economic and demographic changes during the last 275 years, with a peak population of 6,062 persons recorded in the 1861 census, while only about 1,300 persons reside there today. During the three-year term of the project, the investigators will collect and code all relevant demographic records, conduct field survey of farms and households, compile relevant environmental and economic data using remote sensing and historic maps, and conduct open-ended interviews with community members over the age of 60. These data will be combined within a single GIS system to understand the processes of 'demographic transition' that have occurred in Orkney over the past two-and-a-half centuries.

This project brings to bear an innovative combination of models and methods from several fields on the study of demographic and economic 'modernization.' Historical demography has not previously been conducted in conjunction with historical archaeology, and the combination of the two will allows the investigators to understand demographic change within its larger environmental and spatial context. Ethnographic work with living informants will permit the investigators to tap rich family histories and personal memories of change. New theoretical models and statistical procedures have been developed to support the analysis, interpretation, and generalization of the field data, and these models and procedures can be applied to data from other parts of the world. The research will have positive impacts on undergraduate and graduate education and training, because the project is being conducted in association with an undergraduate field school supported through an NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates site award. Several doctoral dissertations will result from graduate student participation in the project. The project also will have an important economic impact on the local community, because the investigators are working closely with community organizations to set up a genealogical database to support heritage tourism. Because the work will be widely published in professional journals and made available to the general public on a project website, advances in the scientific understanding of the modern demographic transition will be disseminated to a wide audience. An award resulting from the FY 2005 NSF-wide competition on Human and Social Dynamics (HSD) supports this project. All NSF directorates and offices are involved in the coordinated management of the HSD competition and the portfolio of HSD awards.

Effective start/end date9/1/052/28/11


  • National Science Foundation: $526,000.00


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