George Alter: History from the bottom up

By Susan Rosegrant
September 2011

George Alter

George Alter doesn’t miss a beat when describing what he was like as a child. He clasps his hands, leans forward, and smiles slightly: “I was a nerdy kid before there were computers to be nerdy with,” he says.

Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research(ICPSR), has a carefully trimmed white beard, wire-rimmed glasses, and a habitually pleasant expression: If he were a doctor, he would quickly put his patients at ease. He grew up in northeast Pennsylvania, where his father owned a small outerwear garment factory, and his mother ran the factory’s retail store.

That world didn’t speak to Alter, but life began to ignite at the University of Pennsylvania. Alter was already a history buff when he signed up for a computer programming course “as a lark.” Almost immediately, he says, his eyes were opened to the thrill and power of computers. When a history professor learned of Alter’s programming skills, he drafted him as an assistant, a stint that led to a job with the Philadelphia Social History Project, an ambitious study of the city’s population from the 1830s through the 1880s.

The project was Alter’s introduction to historical demography, a relatively new discipline that married two important subjects and, in Alter’s mind, brought deeper meaning and perspective to both. “I’m interested in continuities and patterns in human behavior, but those only make sense in a context,” he says—a context provided by making quantitative comparisons across time and space.

After earning a Ph.D. in history from the University of Pennsylvania, and doing a two-year economic demography post doc at Michigan, Alter moved on to Indiana University, where he taught history and later directed the Population Institute for Research and Training. In 2007, he came to Michigan as associate director of ICPSR and research professor in the Population Studies Center at the Institute for Social Research. He became acting director of ICPSR in 2009, and was appointed director in August 2011.

Many of the pioneers in historical demography were thinking about contemporary problems. —George Alter

Alter’s research is far ranging, but all of it tries to illuminate human behavior by examining decisions and behavior at the level of the individual—an approach that can be described as “history from the bottom up.” The insights to be gleaned from this work, he says, can be highly relevant to the present. “Many of the pioneers in historical demography were thinking about contemporary problems,” Alter says. Of particular interest to early researchers were fertility decline and population growth.

When Alter was at Michigan as a post doc, for example, ISR Research Professor John Knodel and fellow social scientists were conducting historical research that upended the theory that economic development was the primary engine driving lower fertility. “The work of John and others of that generation showed that there was no real equivalence there,” Alter says. “You could not draw a straight line from economic development to family limitation and smaller families. In fact, it operated through changes in culture.”

Alter is currently comparing fertility behavior in 19th Century Europe with late 20th Century fertility behavior in sub-Saharan Africa. The work done so far suggests that in Europe, couples did not use birth control until they reached a target family size—often two or three children—at which point they stopped having kids. But in Africa, Alter says, couples more commonly used birth control to space the time between births, but not necessarily to stop. “My results are consistent with other studies suggesting that African couples are using birth control for purposes other than family limitation, and this may help us understand why fertility has not continued to decrease in some African countries,” Alter explains.

Similarly, Alter’s work in recent years with the Eurasia Project shows different decision making frameworks regarding fertility among European versus Chinese and Japanese couples. The ambitious collaboration is looking at more than 2.5 million individual records to compare how five societies in Europe and East Asia responded to economic stress in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

George Alter (left) at a recent meeting at ICPSR.

George Alter (left) at a recent meeting at ICPSR.

Before the transition to small families, European couples married late and did not limit childbearing. But Chinese and Japanese families were subject to various kinds of controls that limited fertility within marriage, Alter says. For example, Chinese extended families could include two or more married sons in one family compound. Complex family interactions played a role in fertility decisions and even in whether a particular couple should strive for sons or daughters.

In addition, both Chinese and Japanese families used infanticide in strategic ways, Alter says. “Infanticide was not simply a response to destitution and overpopulation; it was actually a strategic choice to have families of a certain size and composition.” He adds: “When you confront other societies that make decisions in different ways, you end up learning interesting things about your own society—things you might have taken for granted.”

Collaborators in the Eurasia Project describe Alter as an unfailingly warm colleague, and as a strong manager and administrator. In addition, they say, Alter stands out because he does his own programming. James Lee, now chair of the Division of Social Science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, says Alter designs the statistical analysis and crunches his own data whenever possible. “For large projects, it’s very unusual for people who are high up to be involved in the nitty gritty on the ground,” Lee says. “It gives it very much a George imprint.”

Susan Hautaniemi Leonard, an assistant research scientist at ICPSR, agrees. “George really likes to get hands on with the data,” she says. For a class they created and co-teach, Alter created a video that painstakingly walks students through the steps necessary to use database software. At the same time, Alter is “intensely curious,” Leonard says, and gets a kick out of student interactions. “New ideas really spark his mind,” she says, “and he’s ready to go and explore new things.”

George Alter and his wife, Elyce Rotella, in the windows of their apartment in Paris. (Photo courtesy of George Alter)

George Alter and his wife, Elyce Rotella, in the windows of their apartment in Paris. (Photo courtesy of George Alter)

In the last few years, Alter has had to step back from his research; as director, he spends many days in meetings, for example, huddling with university lawyers over confidential data agreements, and working with the ICPSR staff to develop new policies and procedures. But colleagues say he always carves out time for his family. He and his wife, Elyce Rotella, who recently retired from Indiana University and now teaches in the economics department at U-M, were parent volunteers for their daughter Miriam’s high school band, schlepping, driving, and chaperoning. Last summer, Alter and Rotella were in Paris for a week (“I speak bad French fluently,” Alter says with a chuckle), and then visited Moscow, where their now 19-year-old daughter was studying.

Now as director of ICPSR, Alter shies away from putting the emphasis on himself, or from focusing on the personal stamp he might put on the consortium. “I don’t think about it that way.” Rather, he wants to maintain the steady evolution and expansion already underway under predecessor and long-time friend Myron Guttman. That includes continuing to improve data preservation approaches, bringing in new studies, and making data available in different forms.

That can mean moving beyond surveys to other kinds of data, like video, geographic information systems, and even biomarkers. “Up until now, we’ve had videos that come from projects where it’s in support of quantitative data, but we really haven’t had a way to distribute video online to users,” Alter explains. Now ICPSR is building a repository and dissemination system that will display videos online. The capability has allowed ICPSR to accept a grant from the Gates Foundation to archive a collection on how to measure effective teaching that features about 20,000 videos of teachers in action.

It’s the kind of work—looking at the behavior of individuals to draw important conclusions about a larger issue—that Alter appreciates.