In the historical demography hall of fame there is but a single bust — that of Thomas Malthus. (I’m joking — there is no historical demography hall of fame.) Malthus is the theorist with the most enduring theories and hypotheses about population behavior across the world. Most central among his theories is a causal hypothesis about population change: different cultures embody significantly different mechanisms for adjusting population size to available resources. Malthus believed that Europe and Asia differed in exactly this way: the family norms of Western Europe controlled fertility according to the level of available resources, whereas the family norms of Asia controlled population size through excess mortality when resources were short. These were the preventive and positive checks that Malthus described in An Essay on the Principle of Population.
[Our study] is an international comparison of short-term mortality responses at the microlevel in past times…, designed to improve our understanding of the individual and family demographic responses to social and economic pressure. Its hallmarks are geographic breadth, temporal depth, and detailed longitudinal data. It examines not just one people, but a variety of micro-populations in West Europe and East Asia; not just one period, but a period of 80 to 150 years, largely from the nineteenth century; not just one community but one hundred communities with 2.5 million longitudinally linked individual-level records; and not just mortality, the subject of this book, but in later volumes of this series, the entire range of demographic behavior, including reproduction, nuptially, and migration. (4)
Contrary to the Malthusian claim that the positive check was more important in the East than in the West, we demonstrate that mortality responses at least to short-term economic pressure were just as great, indeed often greater, in the West as in the East. Contrary to the neo-Malthusian characterization of mortality as a function of ecology and human biology, we demonstrate the importance of human agency not just in the East, but in the West as well. (5)
Our focus on comparison of communities, not countries, represents a new approach to social science history. While we generalize about certain aspects of human behavior, we do so within the cultural, economic, and historical contexts of specific communities, not at the national level. In contrast with the dominant thrust in academic research, we ignore contemporary nation-state boundaries and standard historical chronologies. Thus while our results illuminate the behavior of specific Belgian, Chinese, Italian, Japanese, and Swedish populations identified in map 1.1 from the early eighteenth to the early twentieth century, we draw from them implications for the demography not of specific countries, but of social and economic systems. This strategy of comparing individual contexts rather than countries avoids the problem of representativeness normally inherent in community studies. (7)
James Lee, Cameron Campbell, and Wang Feng conclude their essay on comparative mortality patterns with this nuanced statement that highlights both variation and universality:
In spite of the popularity of convergence theory, human society remains divergent, a product of specific historical processes. This divergence transcends national boundaries between the northeast Asian and northwest European communities, respectively, but persists between continental boundaries. The irony, of course, is that while the Eurasian Project is an initial step to produce a non-national history based on individual data, not aggregate data, written at the community level, not the country level, our preliminary efforts to produce a social scientific history for the twenty-first century have to some extent also reconfirmed the meta-geography of the nineteenth century. (130)