Activity 3: Can an Old Model Explain New Trends?


The classic Demographic Transition Model is based on the experience of Western Europe, in particular England and Wales. Critics of the model argue that "demographic transition" is a European phenomenon and not necessarily relevant to the experience of other regions, especially those regions referred to as "less developed" or "developing."

The underlying premise of the classic Demographic Transition Model is that all countries will eventually pass through all four stages of the transition, just as the countries of Europe did. Because the countries of Europe, as well as the United States, have achieved economic success and enjoy generally high standards of living, completion of the demographic transition has come to be associated with socioeconomic progress.

This raises several questions:

  • Can contemporary less developed countries hope to achieve either the demographic transition or the economic progress enjoyed by more developed countries that passed through the transition at a different time and under different circumstances?
  • Is the socioeconomic change experienced by industrialized countries a prerequisite or a consequence of demographic transition?

Part One: Does the Classic Demographic Transition Model Provide a Useful Framework for Evaluating Demographic Change in Contemporary Developing Countries?

Materials Needed

  • Reading: Transitions in World Population, p. 6 and pp. 7-11 (PDF: 320KB)
  • Handout 1. "Data Tables" (PDF: 11KB)
  • Graphing paper or graphing software such as MS Excel
  • Internet access for basic research


Assign the reading above before conducting this activity.

  1. Review the classic Demographic Transition Model. Discuss some criticisms of its relevance to countries only now experiencing demographic change.
  2. Ask students if the classic model has a place in contemporary population analysis, and explain that they will test the model in this activity.
  3. Divide the class into four (or more—see note below) groups. Assign each group one of the countries for which data is provided in Handout 1.
    • Have students construct a graph showing the trends in birth and death rates and population growth.
    • Direct students to use an Internet search engine to locate additional information about population trends in the assigned country.

    [Note: Data for additional countries can be found in the U.S. Census Bureau International Data Base, Table 008 "Vital Rates" at: Select a country and "all available years"; leave "year range" blank and "residence selection" as total; then "submit query." Total population is found in Table 001 on the same site.]

    Part Two: Is the Demographic Transition Model Useful as a Framework for Evaluating Demographic Change?

    Materials Needed

    • PowerPoint or overhead transparency of "A Model" (PPT: 39KB)


    1. When students have completed their graphs and research, have each group report back to the class.
    2. Take time to discuss the definition of "model."


      A model is …

      •  a representation of some phenomenon of the real world made in order to facilitate an understanding of its workings
      •  a simplified and generalized version of real events, from which the incidental detail has been removed

      Given this definition: does a model represent reality or is it a framework against which reality can be measured or evaluated?

    3. Now return to the original questions to discuss the classic Demographic Transition Model.
      • Is the Demographic Transition Model useful as a framework for evaluating demographic change in regions outside Europe and the United States?
      • Is it necessary that all countries share the experiences of Europe and the United States in order to pass through a demographic transition?
      • Is the socioeconomic change experienced by industrialized countries a prerequisite or a consequence of demographic transition?
      • Are there multiple ways to achieve a similar end?