A study of the structure and characteristics of population is an important aspect of the study of population.
As pointed out earlier, the study of population, among other things, attempts to answer the question: What kind of people is found in any given population and how do those in one group differ from those in another?
The study of the structure and characteristics of population, which is also known as the study of the composition of population, covers this aspect of population studies, which embraces the following basic personal, social and economic characteristics or attributes of any population: age, sex, race, nationality, religion, language, marital status, household and family composition, literacy and educational attainment, employment status, occupation, income, etc.
A population may be distributed into sub-groups, according to each of the foregoing characteristics. For instance, when sex is considered, the entire population may be classified into two groups: males or females; when religion is considered, the entire population may be divided into different religious groups.
The study of population structure and characteristics thus relate to the distribution of one or more of these characteristics or attributes within a population. Several interesting questions may be answered as a result of this type of analysis.
For example: What is the proportional distribution of males and females in a given population? How are children, young adults, and elderly persons distributed in a population? What percentage of a population is illiterate?
Such a study also aims at finding out and measuring changes if any, in these characteristics over a period of time.
For instance, according to the 1961 Indian Census, while the population of children (young dependents) was 41.08 per cent, this percentage was 42.10 in 1971 and 39.55 in 1981.
This indicates that, during a period from 1961-71, there had been an increase in the proportion of children by 1.02 points or 2.5 per cent and during 1971-81, there had been a decline in the child population by 2.55 points or 6.06 per cent.
To take another example; in 1961, 24.02 per cent of the total population was literate, while in 1971, this percentage was 29.46, an increase of 22.6 per cent, and in 1981 this percentage was 36.17 (excluding the population of Assam and Jammu and Kashmir).
In addition to studying the changes in population characteristics or attributes over a period of time, a study of population structure and its composition also takes into consideration the distribution of these attributes and their comparisons at a point of time.
For instance, in India and the United States, around 1970, population distribution according to age indicated that the United States had a lower proportion of persons under the age of 15 (28.50 per cent) than India (42.10 per cent).
It is, of course, not enough only to study the structure and characteristics of any population. It is necessary to seek explanations for any changes which may have occurred and visualise the consequences of these changes.
If it is observed, for instance, that the population of children below the age of 15 has decreased in a certain population, any student of population studies would definitely want to investigate the reasons for this change. At the same time, he would ponder over its demographic, social and economic consequences.
Several uses of the study of population structure and characteristic may be identified:
(1) It helps in an elaborate study of any population and thus makes comparisons possible.
(2) The data on population structure and characteristics are useful in the preparation of inventories of human resources, so necessary for effective developmental planning.
(3) When reliable information on births and deaths is not available from the civil registration system, it may be obtained by utilising the data on the age-sex distribution of the population available from a census.
(4) Data on the distribution of population attributes provide material for the study of the social and economic structure of the population and the changes in this structure, if any.
Characteristics or attributes, which are included in the study of the structure and characteristics of the population, are sometimes classified into two groups: ascribed characteristics and achieved characteristics.
Ascribed characteristics may be considered to be biologically or culturally assigned and the individual cannot exercise his own choice.
These include such characteristics as age, sex, race and mother tongue. Such characteristics as nationality, religion (and caste) may, of course, be later changed by an exercise of an individual’s choice, though he/she is born with them, and in that sense may be considered to be ascribed characteristics.
The achieved characteristics, on the other hand, are those which are normally open to the individual’s choice. Examples of such achieved characteristics are those which relate to marital status, educational attainment, labour force status, occupation, industry, etc.
This chapter is devoted mainly to a discussion of the population structure as it relates to biological attributes, such as sex and age, and achieved attributes such as marital status, and educational attainment.
Religion as a population characteristic will also be included. Labour force status and rural-urban distribution of populations will be discussed separately.