Remembering Social Demographer, Demographic Historian John Knodel

March 11, 2024

John Knodel, who extended the boundaries of population science, died, at 83, on January 10, in Ann Arbor. The Professor Emeritus in the Department of Sociology and Population Studies Center (PSC) at the University of Michigan changed the way demographers think about fertility change, HIV/AIDS, aging, historical demography, and mixed methods research, and paved the way for future scholars to study demography in Southeast Asia.

John Knodel at PSC

Born in Mount Vernon, N.Y. on July 25, 1940, Knodel attended Duke University, where he learned about demography. He attended an Anthropology summer program at Mexico City College, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude with a degree in Psychology in 1961. Knodel went on to earn his M.A. and Ph.D. in Sociology from Princeton University in 1963 and 1965, respectively. He then held a series of brief faculty and research appointments at Rutgers University, Princeton University, and Brown University as well as serving as field staff for the Population Council before joining the faculty at Michigan in 1975, where he was promoted to Professor of Sociology and Research Professor in the Population Studies Center in 1980. Knodel remained at the University of Michigan for the rest of his career, retiring from active faculty status in 2004. He held a concurrent faculty appointment at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand for more than 40 years, and following retirement, he maintained an active affiliation with the College of Population Studies at Chulalongkorn and the Population Studies Center at Michigan.

Demographic Transition and Germany’s Demographic History

Knodel’s mentor was Professor Ansley Coale, one of America’s foremost demographers who was known for his leadership of the European Fertility Project and for influential work on the “demographic transition,” or the historical shift in societies toward lower birth and death rates. Coale often encouraged doctoral students to select a European country and author a dissertation about how the first “demographic transition” occurred in that nation. Knodel came from a German family and had a formative visit there at the age of 10, so he selected Germany and spent several years in Berlin studying the demographic history of that nation, starting with a one-year post-doctorate at Free University. Knodel published two definitive books describing German demographic trends in the 18th and 19th centuries: The Decline of Fertility in Germany 1871-1939 (1974), based on official statistical sources, and Demographic Behavior in the Past, analyzing family reconstitution data from German village genealogies.

Although his later career focused on a wide range of topics on social demography, mostly in Southeast Asia, Knodel was first a leading expert in the demographic history of Germany, said his longtime friend and Michigan colleague Reynolds Farley. “I do not believe anyone has written with more expertise about that country’s demographic history.”

Thailand’s Reproductive Revolution

John Knodel circa 1975

Around 1970, Ansley Coale approached Knodel with an offer to conduct demographic research abroad – in Turkey or Thailand – for the Population Council in New York. Knodel chose Thailand, where he established new scholarly interests – investigating the demographic transition that was occurring in Southeast Asia – as well as lifelong connections with staff and students at Chulalongkorn University.

“As I remember it, John was particularly taken by the possibility of doing various field work – enjoying the personal contact with Thai citizens and getting an inside view  into various aspects of Thai life,” said Erica Wesseling, whose marriage to John Knodel ended in 1984. When Knodel later had an opportunity to resume research he had started on German parish records, he passed on it. “The bond with Thailand as a country, its citizens and his colleagues there had already been sealed,” said Wesseling, “and it remained ’till the day of his passing away.”

John Knodel

Knodel was focusing on fertility decline in Thailand when he joined the University of Michigan in 1975. A major outcome of that work was a classic study of fertility decline: Thailand’s Reproductive Revolution, published in 1987 with co-authors Aphichat Chamratrithirong and Nibhon Debavalya.

“As a PhD student in the late 1980s, I quickly learned that John Knodel had set an unimaginable standard for scholarship in population studies,” said William Axinn, Professor of Sociology and Public Policy affiliated with PSC. “He had created field-leading, science-advancing studies of fertility change with exceptionally careful and thorough research in two entirely different continents…. Europe and Asia.  How could anyone do that?  He made it seem reasonable to have such aspirations.”

Research Inroads in Southeast Asia

John Knodel

Knodel paved the way for other scholars to initiate demographic research in formerly inaccessible countries of mainland Southeast Asia. He was instrumental in initiating the first national surveys of older persons in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar, and for opening channels for scholars from these countries, Thailand, and the U.S. to pursue collaborative and educational opportunities abroad.

“He was great at building international collaborations, one of PSC’s long standing traditions,” said Emeritus Professor David Lam, economist and former director of both the Population Studies Center and the Institute for Social Research. “I visited Vietnam in 1996, building on the connections that John had built, and saw firsthand the impact he had and the esteem in which he was held by international collaborators.”

Of his work in Cambodia, Il Ouer of the Analyzing Development Issues Centre said that Knodel’s insights and shared expertise contributed not only to shaping that organization but to the broader development of the country. “His support has been instrumental in building the research capacity of the ADIC team, NGO communities, and academic sphere in Cambodia,” he said. 

John Knodel interviewing an elderly Thai, Agutthaya Province, 1990

Much of Knodel’s late-career research dealt with issues related to aging in Southeast Asia, including the impact of rural to urban migration of adult children on older age parents in rural Thailand, elder wellbeing in Cambodia in the context of poverty and AIDS, and family change in Vietnam in relation to war, reunification and economic renovation. He was especially interested in the impact of the AIDS epidemic on older generations, particularly in Thailand and Cambodia.

“By example and by personal interaction, John strengthened institutions and enhanced the research abilities of a large number of population and public health specialists,” said Peter Donaldson, President Emeritus of the Population Council.  

Recognition for Work on Aging and HIV, Mixed-Methods Research

Knodel was named an Honored Member of the Population Association of America, where he served as vice president in 2002. The PAA recognized Knodel as “one of the earliest scholars to recognize and systematically investigate the extent and degree to which the elderly were being negatively impacted by HIV infections among their adult children; and how the demographic transition interacts with long-standing intergenerational support systems for older persons in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.”

Much of Knodel’s research used both qualitative and quantitative approaches, and his most cited article, of many, was “The Design and Analysis of Focus Group Studies: A Practical Approach,” written in 1993. On naming Knodel an Honorary Member, the PAA cited this work as a key area of his substantial impact in the field of demography: “That population scientists now embrace qualitative methods as a major component of their methodological toolkit is due in large part to John’s efforts to make such methods accessible and palatable to a field with a more quantitative orientation,” the organization wrote. “John’s enthusiasm for fieldwork has inspired younger generations of demographers to supplement their skills in data analysis with structured activities to observe, query, and listen in situ.”

As a methodologist, sociologist Charles Hirschman said Knodel was “obsessed with details — how to ask the right question in a survey, how to code responses, how to present data, and how to think about an idea in a non-obvious way.” 

“He was a wonderful colleague and always impressed me with his ability to move his research into new directions, making path-breaking contributions in any area he worked in,” said Lam. “He moved from mainstream quantitative methods into what was at the time cutting-edge qualitative approaches to demography.”

The University Council of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok awarded Knodel an honorary doctorate degree in 2015, recognizing his contributions to the field of historical demography and the demography of developing countries. He was cited for his “pioneering efforts to combine qualitative and quantitative methods, altering how demographic research is now carried out,” and for his work in Southeast Asia that “contributed to the development of demography and substantial capacity building in these areas.”

Knodel also received an Excellence in Education Award from the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA).

Rebel, Friend, and Mentor

Ren Farley describes Knodel as “a man of the 1960s” who tested the limits of regulations, university committees, and in multiple instances, border guards, when they seemed to lack right or reason. “He liked to do things in his own way, and he had a persistent skepticism about authority,” said Farley.

John Knodel

“He had marvelous stories about his time when he lived in West Berlin writing his dissertation but had to cross the Berlin wall every day to get to a library in East Berlin,” Farley said. Knodel spent his days in the library in East Berlin so he wanted to buy lunch or have a beer.  But it was illegal to take western currency through the Berlin wall.  So John secreted the currency across the border and put it in the most obscure book he could find in the East German library. His private East German bank was never discovered.

Farley shared another story about Knodel’s conversations on a Deutsche Bahn train traveling from East Germany to West Germany: 

“John would never pass up the opportunity for a demographic interview of whomever he met. John found some passengers on that train whose ancestors were part of the German diaspora that settled in the plains of Russia in the 19th century. When the train got to the West German border, the guards there would not let the Germans from Russia in. John was extremely upset that the West German guards knew nothing about the German migration to Russia a century ago and gave them a lecture. I can imagine his lecture and his disdain for the border guards. I do not know if those people ever got to Germany.”

Knodel will also be remembered as a remarkable teacher and mentor. 

Zachary Zimmer of Mount Saint Vincent University, a mentee and longtime collaborator, said the best memories of his entire career were the times he spent working with Knodel in Cambodia.

“Working with John, the research was always intermingled with great friendship,” Zimmer said. “As a mentor he was kind, thoughtful, and responsive… but what he taught me was mostly in the sphere of life and how to be an academic. I learned the importance of integrity in research, of honesty, and putting in all your effort.”

Hirschman said he gained insights on teaching by observing Knodel, and described teaching a two-week workshop on demographic methods in Hanoi in 1992 as one of the best professional experiences of his life. “He encouraged students to be open to making mistakes,” said Hirschman, “because that was the best way to learn.”

Knodel enjoyed spending time in Ann Arbor, Bangkok, and the nearby beach town of Hua Hin. He was a dedicated vegetarian and advocate for the humane treatment of animals. He loved bluegrass and conversations over beer. He had an adventurous mind: He traveled and tried new things with enthusiasm.

He was affiliated with departments of sociology, family studies, and public health at the National University of Singapore, Tulane University, the University of Utah, Pennsylvania State University, the University of Montana, Australian National University, the Vietnam Academy of Social Science, and the Royal University of Phnom Penh in Cambodia. He was also an affiliate of the Oxford Institute of Population and Ageing; the University of Michigan Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS); the Institute for Population and Social Research in Thailand; HelpAge International; UNESCAP; UNFPA; UNAIDS; the National Institute of Development Administration in Thailand; the Institute of Economic Research and the General Statistical Office in Vietnam, and many others, reflecting his enduring commitment to institution building.

He is survived by his wife of 31 years and longtime collaborator, Chanpen Saengtienchai. 

A merit-making ceremony for John Knodel’s life was held at Pathum Wanaram Rachaworawihan Temple in Bangkok, Thailand on January 17. A remembrance will also be included in the Memorial Services of the annual meetings of the Population Association of America in Columbus, Ohio, and the Thai Population Association, both this April.

If you have photos or stories to share about John Knodel, please submit them here.

This post was written by Reynolds Farley and Tevah Platt of the Population Studies Center.