UPSC GS Study Notes


Theories of Population Growth – Malthus-Marx-Demographic Transition Model – UPSC Geography notes

  • 25 Sep,2023
  • Team ExamGuru


GS-I Human Geography Population Geography

Theories of Population Growth – Malthus-Marx-Demographic Transition Model – UPSC Geography notes

Human Geographers have long considered population concerns to be fundamental to understanding human relationships in Theories of Population Growth. Population studies, often known as social demography, investigate the broader causes and effects of population structure and change. Social demographers think that social processes and structures govern demographic processes.

Theories of Population Growth

Malthusian Theory

In 1798, Malthus gave a theory on population. This theory is based on the observation of the western European population and society. His theory supported the capitalist system of economics and deterministic approaches to geography. In his theory, he explained the way in which nature controlled the population and neglected the role of technology and medical advancement to control the population.

Some assumptions in Malthus's theory

  • Humans always needed some basic things for survival such as food, water, clothes, etc. 
  • Attractions between two opposite sex.



In his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) Malthus argued that because of the strong attraction of the two sexes, the population could increase by multiples, doubling every twenty-five years. He contended that the population would eventually grow so large that food production would be insufficient.

The human capacity for reproduction exceeded the rate at which subsistence from the land can be increased. Malthus further wrote ‘Population when unchecked increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsis­tence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.’

Malthus contended that the world’s population was growing more rapidly than the available food supply. He argued that the food supply increases in an arithmetic progression (1, 2, 3, 4, and so on), whereas the population expands by a geometric progression (1, 2, 4, 8, and so on).

According to him, the population could increase by multiples, doubling every twenty-five yearsHe said the gap between the food supply and population will continue to grow over time.

Even though the food supply will increase, it would be insufficient to meet the needs of the expanding population. Moreover, famine and other natural calamities cause widespread suffering and increase the death rate, which is nature’s check against the population.


What is the theory of population?

  • The population growth rate is higher than the growth of the resources. 
  • Population grow in geometric series: 1,2,4,8,16
  • Resources or food grow in arithmetic series: 1,2,3,4,5,6 
  • In 25 years the population would be two times. 
  • If population growth is not prevented by man-made checks then positive checks may be arises. 


Malthus referred to two classes of checks which kept population down:

1. Positive means:

He spoke of famine (hunger), disease or war, pestilence and vicious customs about women.

2. Negative means:

He explicitly demanded artificial means of birth control and suggested as an alternative that the birth rate be decreased through preventive measures such as late marriage (postponing marriage until later age), moral restraint, and chastity (abstinence).

He contended that without such restraints the world would face widespread hunger, poverty and misery.

The ‘positive’ and ‘preventive’ checks which occur in the human population to prevent excessive growth relate to practices affecting mortality and fertility respectively.

Malthus saw the tension between population and resources as a major cause of the misery of much of humanity. He was not, however, in favor of contraceptive methods, since their use did not generate the same drive to work hard as would a postponement of marriage.

Malthus argued that positive and preventive checks are inversely related to each other. In other words, where positive checks are very effective, the preventive checks are relatively less effective and vice versa.

However, in all societies, some of these checks are in constant operation although in the varying magnitude of effectiveness. Malthus believed that despite these checks, the inability of increased food supply to keep abreast of population increase always results in some kind of a situation of overpopulation.


Malthusian Trap

  • The Malthusian Trap is the theory that better levels of food production caused by more improved agricultural practices lead to higher population levels, which ultimately lead to food shortages since the bigger population requires more space to cultivate crops.
  • Even though technical improvement would generally lead to increases in per capita wealth, Malthus's theories that these advantages are not realized since the advancement simultaneously causes population expansion.
  • When the population surpasses the capacity of food supply, a Malthusian catastrophe with widespread starvation and illness is said to occur.
  • As a result, the population is reduced to prior levels.


Malthusian Theory - Criticism

  • The population of Western Europe was rapidly increasing. At the same time, technical advancements had expanded food supplies.
  • Food production has frequently expanded faster than population growth. In the United States, for example, the agriculture industry employs 2% of the overall population. Nonetheless, the overall GDP exceeds 14 trillion dollars.
  • According to the Malthusian hypothesis, one of the causes of the limited food supply is a lack of available land.



  • However, as a result of greater globalization, the amount of food supply in diverse nations has expanded.
  • Malthus did not offer estimates for the geometric and arithmetic increase of the population. It was said that the pace of increase contradicts the Malthusian hypothesis.
  • Malthus was also heavily chastised for disregarding the impact of evolving technology and the resulting changes in society's socioeconomic structure.
  • He underestimated the ability of modern agricultural technology and crop fertilization to maintain a big population.
  • Malthusians ' positive checks on hunger and sickness no longer exist, with the exception of the horrible disasters produced by Tsunami, Katrina, Rita, and floods or rainfall in desert locations like Banner and Jaisalmer in August 2006.
  • One of Malthus' main flaws was that he ignored the human factor in population rise. He was a pessimist who despised population growth. Cannan claims he forgot that "a newborn comes into the world not only with a mouth and a stomach but also with a pair of hands."
  • Malthus also failed to recognize biological constraints, such as the fact that a population cannot increase beyond a certain size.


Malthusian Theory - Applicability

  • Although the Malthusian philosophy is not relevant to Western Europe and England, its main instruments have been ingrained in the population of these nations.
  • If these places do not suffer from overpopulation and unhappiness, it is entirely owing to the dread and pessimism of Malthusian theory.
  • The fact that individuals adopt preventative measures on a large scale, such as late marriage and different contraception and birth control procedures, demonstrates the importance of the Malthusian rule.
  • The Malthusian philosophy may no longer be appropriate in its original location, yet its effect extends over two-thirds of the universe.
  • With the exception of Japan, it covers all of Asia, Africa, and South America.
  • India was one of the first countries to implement state-level family planning in order to manage population growth.
  • Positive checks, such as floods, wars, droughts, and epidemics, are in place. The birth and death rates are quite high.
  • The population is growing at a pace of roughly 2% each year.
  • The true goal of population policy, however, is not to avert starvation, but to reduce poverty in order to increase production per head at a faster pace.
  • As a result, the Malthusian hypothesis is perfectly relevant to developing nations such as India.
  • The Malthusian idea applies to all communities, regardless of race or location.
  • The Malthusian theory has remained unbroken, impenetrable in the face of all the dispute that has erupted around it.

Despite these weaknesses, the Malthusian doctrine contains much truth. The Malthusian doctrine may not be applicable to Western Europe and England but its principal tools have become the part and parcel of the people of these countries. If these lands do not face the problems of over-population and misery, it is all due to the bogey and pessimism of Malthusianism.

In fact, the people of Europe were made wiser by Malthus who forewarned them of the evils of over-population and they started adopting measures toward it off. The very fact that people use preventive checks, like late marriage and various contraceptives and birth control measures on an extensive scale proves the vitality of the Malthusian law.

Even famous economists like Marshall and Pigou and sociologists like Darwin were influenced by this principle when they incorporated it in their theories. And Keynes, initially overawed by the Malthusian fears of over-population, later wrote about “Some Economic Consequences of Declining Population.” Is it not the fear of Malthusianism which has created the problem of a declining population in France?

The Malthusian doctrine may not be applicable now to its place of origin, but its influence spreads over two-third of this universe. Excluding Japan, the whole of Asia, Africa, and South America come under its purview. India is one of the first countries to adopt family planning on the state level to control the population. Positive checks like floods, wars, droughts, diseases, etc. operate. The birth and death rates are high. The growth rate of the population is about 2 percent per annum.

The real aim of population policy is, however, not to avoid starvation but to eliminate poverty so as to raise output per head in an accelerated manner. Thus the Malthusian theory is fully applicable to underdeveloped countries like India. Walker was right when he wrote: “The Malthusian theory is applicable to all communities without any consideration of color and place. Malthusianism has stood un-shattered, impregnable amid all the controversy that has raged around it.”


Marxian Theory

  • Karl Marx (1818-1883) is often regarded as the "Father of Communism."
  • He did not provide a separate population theory, but his surplus population theory was derived from his communist theory.
  • Marx was a vocal opponent and critic of Malthusian population theory.
  • Karl Marx, who opposed capitalism, had a very different perspective on population growth.
  • According to Marx, these societal issues were the fault of the capitalist system, which exploited impoverished workers.
  • Marx established a scientific explanation for human history. He asserted that, just as there are scientific explanations for physical events, there are explanations for social phenomena as well.
  • He asserted that the essence of history is changed in modes of production in any civilization and that this change is continuous and gradual.
  • Karl Marx went much further, stating that starvation was caused by the unequal economic distribution and capitalist accumulation. It has nothing to do with the general public.
  • Economic and social organizations are vital to the well-being of the population.
  • As described by Malthus, the concerns of overpopulation and resource scarcity are inherent and inescapable elements of the capitalist production system.
  • When new technology began to give farmers far wider fields, Marx's argument that food production could not increase rapidly was also called into doubt.
  • The affluent were those who possessed productive resources and profited by exploiting the poor.
  • The poor, on the other hand, were those who sold their energy and readiness to work to these wealthy persons in exchange for payment.



The demographic transition theory examines the relationship between economic progress and population expansion. It analyses variations in the birth and death rates, as well as the population growth rate, in accordance with the process of growth and development. It is also used to characterize and forecast any area's future population. According to the hypothesis, as civilization evolves from rural agricultural and illiterate to urban industrial and literate, the population of any region shifts from high births and high deaths to low births and low deaths.



  • Demographic transition is a concept coined by Warren S. Thompson (1929) and later popularized by Frank W. Notestein (1945) to describe a historical process of change that explains trends in births, deaths, and population increase in today's industrialized civilizations, particularly European societies.
  • For the most part, this process of population transition began in the late 18th century.
  • The demographic transition should be viewed as a generic description of the evolutionary process rather than a 'rule of population expansion.'
  • In a nutshell, it is a theory that aims to explain universal principles that govern how human populations develop in size and structure as a result of industrialization.
  • It is widely acknowledged as a valuable technique for describing a country's demographic history.
  • When civilization advances from a mostly rural, agricultural, and illiterate culture to a dominating urban, industrial, literate, and modern society, the theory postulates a certain pattern of the demographic shift from high fertility and high mortality to low fertility and low mortality.
  • It is commonly seen as a three-stage process:
    • that the fall in fertility precedes the decline in immortality.
    • that fertility would eventually fall to equal mortality.
    • The socio-economic transformation of society occurs along with its demographic transformation.
  • The demographic transition hypothesis is distinguished by prominent transition stages.
  • The shift from high to low birth and mortality rates may be separated into three stages (other researchers, such as Haggett, 1975, divide it into four or five stages):
  • Pre-transition stage - High and erratic birth and mortality rates, with minimal population increase.
  • Stage I: Rapid population increase, high birth rates, and lowering mortality rates.
  • Stage II: Slow population increase due to low birth and death rates.
  • Stage III: Birth and mortality rates both fall significantly, resulting in zero population growth.
  • According to the idea, pre-industrial cultures were characterized by stable populations with a high mortality and birth rate. It makes a minor assumption and inhibits population growth.

Demographic transition theory is based on the observation of population growth in Europe and the American continent where demographic transition happened from an agricultural society to an industrial society. Originally, demographic transition theory had four stages but later the fifth stage was added.



There are five stages in demographic transition theory

The first stage ( agriculture society):

The following characteristics are in the first stage of the demographic transition theory.

  • High birth and high death rate. 
  • Low productivity
  • No technology advancement 
  • Little urbanization 
  • Lower life expectancy 
  • Generally Stable Population with very little effective growth of population. 

At present, some African countries like Somalia and Sudan are in the stage first of demographic transition. During the colonial era, India was in the first stage of the demographic transition theory.

Second stage: 

The following characteristics are in the second stage of demographic transition theory 

  • Industrialization started
  • Mechanized agriculture in some parts of regions.
  • Urbanization started in some regions
  • High birth rate and low death rate due to good health and hospital facilities; resulted in a high population increment. 

Some state of India is in the second stage, for example, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh
Third stage: In the third stage following are:

  • The birth rate starts declining and the stable death rate
  • Life expectancy increase
  • Preference for late marriage
  • People are not willing to support the large family
  • High population increment because of the large population base.
  • Some states in India such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu & Punjab are in the third stage. 
  • Most developing countries are in this stage

Fourth stage: In the fourth stage following are:

  • The decrease in the birth rate and a decrease in the death rate.
  • Stable population or decrease in population.
  • Very high technology advancement Late marriage Skill specialization
  • End of the conservative thinking
  • Most of the developed countries are in this stage such as Japan, Western European Countries, Australia, etc.

Fifth Stage:

In this stage, the birth rate gets lowered then the death rate, and the actual population starts to decline.


  • Although the idea of demographic transition has been extensively praised by demographers, it has also been severely questioned.
  • Some detractors have even gone so far as to suggest that it cannot be termed a theory.
  • Demographic transition stages are not necessarily shown in chronological order.
  • Due to the withdrawal of the social security system, former USSR nations other than Russia saw rises in mortality rates and entered the first stage of the demographic transition from the second and third stages of the demographic theory.
  • First and foremost, this hypothesis is founded only on factual data or the experiences of Europe, America, and Australia.
  • Second, it is not predictive, and its stages are segmented and unavoidable.
  • Third, the importance of man's technological discoveries, particularly in the field of medicine, cannot be overstated in terms of their ability to slow the rate of death.
  • Fourth, it neither provides a basic explanation for the process of fertility decrease nor identifies the critical variables involved.
  • Fifth, it does not provide a time range for a country to go from one level to the next.
  • Finally, it does not bode well for the world's emerging countries, which have lately witnessed exceptional population increase due to a dramatic drop in death rates.
  • Despite these critiques and flaws, the demographic transition theory does give an adequate depiction of the world's demographic history at the macro level of generalizations.
  • The transition process for every nation may be simply understood as an empirical generalization generated from studying the demographic trend in the West.


Theories of Population Growth - Significance

  • Population theory (population size and change) has been a topic of interest from time immemorial.
  • For example, Plato's contemporary Kautilya stated in his Arthashastra that "a big population is a source of the political, economic, and military power of a nation."
  • Similarly, Ibn Khaldin, a 14th-century Arab historian, believed in his theory of 'rise and fall' that the growth of a dense population is typically beneficial to the maintenance and expansion of imperial authority.
  • The Malthusian philosophy may no longer be appropriate in its original location, yet its effect extends over two-thirds of the universe.
  • With the exception of Japan, it covers all of Asia, Africa, and South America.
  • India was one of the first countries to implement state-level family planning in order to manage population growth.
  • The demographic transition theory examines the relationship between economic progress and population expansion.
  • It analyses variations in the birth and death rates, as well as the population growth rate, in accordance with the process of growth and development.
  • Marx established a scientific explanation for human history. He asserted that, just as there are scientific explanations for physical events, there are explanations for social phenomena as well.
  • The optimum population is the population that produces the best return or income per head when paired with the country's other available resources or techniques of production.