The last day of the 48. Deutscher Historikertag at Humboldt University in Berlin in 2010 saw members of the Jacobs University Bremen and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science present their new approaches to analyse the global transfer of techniques of population control in the 20th century to a small academic audience. The interdisciplinary method – in this case, demography, history, history of science, biology, and sociology – was stimulating and inspiring.
By Julia Naßutt
The panel was introduced by Dr. Veronika Lipphardt (Berlin) and Dr. Corinna R. Unger (Bremen), who also chaired the discussion.
* Interational picture language by Otto Neurath
The panel’s aim was to approach the topic with “voices from below” instead of taking a “view from the top”. Researchers had interviewed individuals in order to gain qualitative data on their attitudes and motives towards birth control and contraceptive methods.
Field work done by the method of oral history in a post-colonial context was presented by Dr. Alexandra Widmer (Berlin). She interviewed local women on Vanuatu, an island nation located in the South Pacific Ocean, in order to gain an insight into the social and demographic change of the population.
Another case study was carried out by Dr. Jesse Olszynko-Gryn (Cambridge). He analysed the globalisation of tubal ligation in the 1970s. Tubal ligation “was a risky in-patient procedure performed under general anesthesia in a hospital setting”, which involved expertise knowledge of the doctor.
His examination of medical techniques to control population growth was an interesting historical research to show how the “new” method coming from Maryland, USA, to developing countries such as India.
A third and final discourse was given by Dr. Sybilla Nikolow (Bielefeld) on Otto Neurath’s representation of population. Otto Neurath (1882-1945), an Austrian philosopher of science, sociologist, and political economist, who worked on graphic design, created so called isotypes. These symbolic ways represent, e.g. demographic facts, and were able to inform a mass audience about certain groups of people or population movements. Demographic data was symbolised by easily interpretable icons, for example, certain colours denoted “skin colours” or distinct headdresses ethnic groups.
In this case study one was able to detect how Neurath’s pictorial statistics visualise population changes at the end of the 20th century.
Final commentary remarks were added by Prof. Dr. Patrick Wagner (Halle). He emphasised the fact that “in order to transform a population into an imaginary society one needs expert knowledge” to do so. Wagner also pointed out further fields of research; power and ideology, on a local, national, and international level, have to be taken into consideration.