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Chapter 8: Global Stratification and Demography

8.4 Population

The study of population goes hand-in-hand with the examination of global stratification and social stratification, as population traits can be both a cause and reflection of the position of a group or society within a stratification system. Take for instance the state of Michigan. Michigan’s population is shrinking. This reality stems from the fact that the birth rate today is 21% lower than its 1990 rate, and we now have 22,500 fewer fifth graders than ninth graders. Another reason for the population decline is that for the past several decades many more people had been moving out of Michigan than moving in. Because many of those moving out are young, college-educated adults, they were taking with them hundreds of millions of dollars in paychecks that would have bolstered Michigan’s economy and tax revenue base. They were also leaving behind empty houses and apartments that are further depressing the state’s real estate market. The population decline has already forced some schools to close, with additional closings likely, and it is also increasing the percentage of Michigan residents in their older years who will need additional state services. The population decline has been especially severe in Detroit but has also been occurring in smaller cities and towns. (French & Wilkinson, 2009; Dzwonkowski, 2010)

image of vacant lots in Detroit neighborhood

Many neighborhoods in Detroit have been partially abandoned due to the migration of people out of Michigan. Wikimedia Commons – public domain

As this data from Michigan reminds us, population decline can have weighty consequences throughout a region. Among other consequences, Michigan’s population decline has affected its economy, educational system, and services for its older residents. The opposite is true in many low- and middle-income nations, where population growth is the dominant pattern, resulting in large child populations which stretch inadequate resources even further. At the global level, population decline occurring in one world region may coincide with population growth in another region, sparking previously unseen patterns of migration across international boundary lines. These few examples and all of the associated issues demonstrate the importance of the study of population in relation to stratification. The study of population is so significant that it occupies a special subfield within sociology called . To be more precise, demography is the study of changes in the size and composition of a population. It encompasses several concepts: fertility and birth rates, mortality and death rates, and migration (Weeks, 2012). Let’s look at each of these briefly.


Using Your Sociological Imagination

If you were a demographer, what factors would you look at to project what the U.S. population size will be in 50 years?

If you were a politician or economist, why would you want to know what the population size will be in the future?


Fertility and Birth Rates

refers to the number of live births. Demographers use several measures of fertility. One measure is the , or the number of live births for every 1,000 people in a population in a given year. To determine the crude birth rate, the number of live births in a year is divided by the population size, and this result is then multiplied by 1,000. For example, in 2020 the United States had a population of about 332 million and 3,605,201 births. Dividing the latter figure by the former figure gives us 0.0109 rounded off. We then multiply this quotient by 1,000 to yield a crude birth rate of 10.9 births per 1,000 in the population (Hamilton, 2021). We call this a “crude” birth rate because the denominator, population size, consists of the total population, not just the number of women or even the number of women of childbearing age (commonly considered ages 15–44 years).

Looking globally, what is typically found is that the crude birth rate is higher in low-income nations, in comparison to most middle- and high-income nations. For instance, the crude birth rate average for those five low-income nations with the lowest HDI values shown in Table 8.1 “Human Development Index Data” earlier in this chapter is 42.5, in comparison to the high-income high HDI value nations, which have an average crude birth rate of 9.7 (Population Reference Bureau, 2021).

Another measure is the , or the average number of children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime. This measure often appears in the news media and is more easily understood by the public than either of the first two measures. In 2020, the estimated U.S. total fertility rate was about 1.64, meaning that currently the average woman in the U.S. is expected to have 1.64 children in her lifetime (Hamilton, 2021). When a country’s total fertility rate is 2.1 children per woman, it is said to have reached . A replacement level fertility is the level of fertility at which a population exactly replaces itself from one generation to the next (e.g., 2 parents on average have 2 children, when the parents die, the children replace them, resulting in zero population growth). While there are other factors to consider (such as mortality and migration rates) when total fertility rates rise above 2.1, a population will naturally grow, and a total fertility rate below 2.1 indicates that a population overall will shrink.

image of infant with stuffed animal

Demographers use several measures of fertility. The general fertility rate refers to the number of live births per 1,000 women aged 15–44. The U.S. general fertility rate is currently about 60.2. Spencer SeloverPexels

As Figure 8.6 “U.S. Total Fertility Rate, 1920–2020” indicates, the U.S. total fertility rate has changed a lot over time. The rate in the early 1930’s at the beginning of the Great Depression was similar to the rate in the 1970’s. However, in the few decades after WWII (1950’s and 1960’s) the U.S. experienced a baby boom. The total fertility rate started to climb, reaching roughly 3.7 in the 1950’s, before it began to decline again in the mid-1970’s. You can see in 1990 and 2000, the U.S. total fertility rate stabilized at replacement level, but then dropped below replacement level in the wake of the Great Recession in 2010 and dropped again to its lowest level during the COVID-19 pandemic. Important questions asked by demographers, politicians and economists alike, is whether or not the U.S. total fertility rate will remain at this low level, drop even further like we see in many post-industrial societies or rebound and increase as we emerge from the global pandemic?

Figure 8.6 U.S. Total Fertility Rate, 1920 – 2020

Graph showing Total Fertility Rate, 1920 – 2020, ranging from a high of 3.7 in 1960 to a low of 1.6 in 2020.

Source: data from Taffel, Selma. Trends in Fertility in the United States. U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Sept. 1977. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_21/sr21_028.pdf; data from The World Bank Data Bank, Nov. 2021. Retrieved from https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.TFRT.IN?locations=US.


Think Like a Sociologist

In recent years the U.S. Total Fertility Rate has declined incrementally, from 1.77 in 2017, to 1.73 in 2018 and 1.71 in 2019. In 2020, the Total Fertility Rate dropped once again to 1.64, its lowest level yet. Due to this decline in fertility, along with a reduction in immigration and increased deaths (resulting in large part from our aging population), expansion of the U.S. population has slowed (Tavernise, 2021).

What do you think are the main underlying causes driving the decline in the U.S. fertility rate? Otherwise stated, why are women in the U.S. having fewer children?

What will be the consequences of slow population growth?


In addition to the fertility rate varying across time within a nation, it can also vary across groups. The variance reflects many different factors, including such things as the economic, educational and employment status of a group, in addition to other factors such as recency of immigration and subcultural attributes, such as the norm associated with age of marriage for women. As evidenced below in Figure 8.7 “Race, Ethnicity and U.S. Total Fertility rates, 2019,” there are some slight differences between total fertility rates for different racial-ethnic groups in the U.S., however, all the rates are currently below replacement level fertility.

Figure 8.7 Race, Ethnicity and U.S. Total Fertility rates, 2019

Bar chart showing Race, Ethnicity and U.S. Total Fertility rates, 2019, including 1.94 for Latinx Americans, 1.77 for African Americans, 1.65 for American Indians/Alaskan natives, 1.61 for White, Non Hispanics and 1.53 for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Source of Data: Hamilton, Brady, E. Total Fertility Rates, by Maternal Educational Attainment and Race and Hispanic Origin:United States, 2019. National Vital Statistics Reports, Volume 70, Number 5, May 12, 2021. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr70/nvsr70-05-508.pdf

Fertility rates also differ around the world and are especially high in low-income nations (see Figure 8.8 “Countries by Total Fertility Rate, 2020”). Demographers identify several reasons for these high rates (Weeks, 2012).

Figure 8.8 Countries by Total Fertility Rate, 2020

World map showing Countries by Total Fertility Rate, 2020, with highest fertility rates in sub-Saharan Africa, mid-range rates in south Asian and South America and low rates in North America, Europe, north and east Asia and Oceania.

Korakys – CC BY-SA 4.0 – Wikimedia Commons

First, low-income nations usually have large agricultural sectors. In agricultural societies, children are an important economic resource, as a family will be more productive if it has more children. This means that families will ordinarily try to have as many children as possible. Second, infant and child mortality rates are high in these nations. Because parents realize that one or more of their children may die before adulthood, they have more children to compensate for the anticipated deaths. A third reason is that many parents in low-income nations prefer sons to daughters, and, if a daughter is born, they may “try again” for a son. Fourth, traditional gender roles are often very strong in low-income nations, and these roles include the belief that women should be wives and mothers above all, thus status for women is associated with childbearing. Finally, contraception is often less accessible in low-income nations. Without contraception, many more pregnancies and births certainly occur. For all of these reasons, fertility is much higher in low-income nations compared to high-income nations.


Think Like a Sociologist

What are the consequences of having large child populations and rapid population growth for low-income Nations?

What resources will be needed to support these growing populations and what challenges will these countries face?


Mortality and Death Rates

is the flip side of fertility and refers to the number of deaths. Demographers measure it with the , the number of deaths for every 1,000 people in a population in a given year. To determine the crude death rate, the number of deaths is divided by the population size, and this result is then multiplied by 1,000. In 2020 the United States had an estimated crude death rate of 8.3 for every 1,000 persons (approximately 3.4 million deaths in 2020). We call this a “crude” death rate because the denominator, population size, consists of the total population and does not take its age distribution into account. All things equal, a society with a higher proportion of older people should have a higher crude death rate, however, because low-income nations have large child populations coupled with high infant and child mortality, the crude death rates of nations today fall within a narrow range. For instance, some countries in Western and Eastern Europe, such as Hungary, Romania and Germany, which have crude death rates of 14, 13 and 12, respectively, are statistically similar to low-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa. For instance, Sierra Leone, the Central African Republic, Chad and Lesotho have an average crude death rate of 11.3 (Population Reference Bureau, 2021).


Another demographic concept is , the movement of people into and out of specific regions. Since the dawn of human history, people have migrated in search of a better life, and many have been forced to migrate by ethnic conflict or the slave trade.

Several classifications of migration exist. When people move into a region, we call it ; when they move out of a region, we call it . The immigration rate is the number of people moving into a region for every 1,000 people in the region, while the emigration rate is the number of people moving from the region for every 1,000 people. The difference between the two is the (immigration minus emigration). Recalling the discussion about Michigan’s demographic trends earlier in this section, Michigan has had a net migration of less than zero, as its emigration rate has been greater than its immigration rate.


Think Like a Sociologist

People immigrate for a variety of reasons. There may be conditions in their home country that are so undesirable they compel people to leave. These are called push factors. At the opposite end of the spectrum are pull factors, which are desirable conditions that attract people to a country.

What push factors can you think of that might result in a person desiring to leave their country of birth?

What pull factors in a nation might be so compelling they would entice people to immigrate there?


Migration can also be either domestic or international in scope. happens within a country’s national borders, as when the great migration of African Americans from the South into northern cities occurred during the first half of the 20th century. happens across national borders. When international immigration is heavy, as it has been into the United States and Western Europe in the last few decades, the effect on population growth and other aspects of national life can be significant. Domestic migration can also have a large impact.

Test Yourself


Section 8.4 References

Dzwonkowski, R. (2010, September 19). New leaders can’t shrink from Michigan realities. Detroit Free Press, p. 2A.

French, R. and M. Wilkinson.  (2009, April 2). Leaving Michigan behind: Eight-year population exodus staggers state. The Detroit News. Retrieved from http://detnews.com/article/20090402/METRO/904020403/LeavingMichigan-Behind–Eight-year-population-exodus-staggers-state.

Hamilton, Bradley, Joyce A. Martin, and Michelle J. K. Osterman.  (2021, May).  Births:  Provisional Data for 2020.  Vital Statistics Rapid release. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/vsrr/vsrr012-508.pdf.

Population Reference Bureau.  (2021). PRB’s 2021 World Population Data Sheet. Population Reference Bureau. Retrieved from https://www.prb.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/letter-booklet-2021-world-population.pdf.

Taffel, Selma.  (1977, September).  Trends in fertility in the United States. U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.  Retrieved https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_21/sr21_028.pdf.

Tavernise, S. (2021, May 5). The U.S. birthrate has dropped again. The pandemic may be accelerating the decline. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/05/us/us-birthrate-falls-covid.html.

Weeks, J. R. (2012). Population: An introduction to concepts and issues (11th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

World Bank.  (2021, November).  Fertility rate, total (births per woman) – United States. Data. Retrieved from https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.TFRT.IN?locations=US.

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