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II. Patterns of Composition: Age, Sex, Race, and Ethnicity

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This is an edited version of an essay by Martha Sharma, Cathedral School, Washington, D.C. For the complete article see the Journal of Geography, May-August 2000, Vol. 99, No. 3/4.

Patterns can also be observed in characteristics that define human populations such as age, sex, race, ethnicity, and rural/urban distribution. The composition of a population affords insight not only into present conditions within the population, but also into the potential for change in the future. For example, analysis of the age-sex distribution within a given population reveals a demographic story -- past, present, and future -- about the place in question.

The age-sex composition of a population can be represented graphically through a population pyramid that shows the percent of total population in each age and sex cohort. Pyramids are commonly used to illustrate the populations of countries at different stages of both economic and demographic development. For example, the broad base of Ethiopia's true pyramid reflects the country's high total fertility rate of 7.0, and a young age structure that includes 46 percent of the population below the age of 15 years. Inferences can be made about future growth potential due to population momentum and economic conditions associated with a high dependency ratio resulting from the large population under the age of 15 years. In contrast, the almost column-like pyramid of Spain reflects this country's more stable demographic situation.

Pyramids also reflect the demographic history of a country. For example, a series of pyramids for the United States from the mid-1950s to the present would reveal the progress of the baby-boom generation toward middle age, as well as the "echo" generation following in its wake. A pyramid for Germany would reveal the ravages of two world wars, as well as that country's post-war baby boom.

At a different scale, comparison of pyramids for various states, Florida and Utah for example, reveals graphically just how diverse the U.S. population really is. Florida's median age of 37.6 years becomes quickly apparent when the state's pyramid is compared to that of Utah, where the median age is only 26.8 years. On an even more local scale, pyramids tell an interesting story. For example, pyramids representing a transect from the central city into the distant rural-fringe suburbs traces the changing demographics of a metropolitan area. What decision processes lie behind such very different demographic profiles in different locations within one metropolitan area? Examination of demographic patterns in local areas allows students to explore questions such as those raised above. Population pyramids are valuable tools for demographic analysis as long as students use them as a basis for inference, and not for absolute interpretation.

Web Sites
To view the following Web sites, please go to "See also" below.

The Teachers' Corner contains links to suggested Web sites. The College Board neither endorses, controls the content of, nor reviews the external Web sites included here. Please note that following links to external Web sites will open a new browser window. If you discover a link that does not work, please let us know by sending an e-mail to apctechsupport@collegeboard.org.

Circulation and Hindu Pilgrimage
This is a paper on circulation and how it relates to the Hindu pilgrimage. The two paragraphs on "Circulation in the Context of Geography" are definitely worth reading.

Comparative Soviet Nationalities
This site features a 1979 map, which uses a legend and pie charts to show the percentages of nationalities of the old U.S.S.R.

This is an essay that provides a succinct definition of ethnicity and connections amongst nations and states, as well as a discussion of ethnicity as identity. It also provides examples of the ethnic conflicts raging in the world today, with clearly enunciated questions about the actual meaning and implication of what an ethnic group means, and its bearing on the issue of nationalism.

Ethnicity and Race by Countries
Table with country and ethnic mix by percent of population.

Russian Ethnic Groups
Large color map depicting ethnic distribution in Russia with a legend.

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