MPIDR Working Paper

Analyzing biases in genealogies using demographic microsimulation

MPIDR Working Paper WP-2023-034, 38 pages.
Rostock, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (August 2023)
Revised August 2023
Open Access


Genealogies are promising sources for addressing many questions in historical and kinship demography. So far, an incomplete understanding of the biases that affect their representativeness has hindered their full exploitation. Here, we report on a series of experiments on synthetic populations aimed at understanding how different sources of bias in ascendant genealogies can affect the accuracy of demographic estimates. We use the SOCSIM demographic microsimulation program and data for Sweden from the Human Fertility Collection (1751-1890), the Human Fertility Database (1891-2022), and the Human Mortality Database (1751-2022). We analyze three sources of bias: selection in direct lineages, incomplete reconstruction of family trees, and missing information on some subpopulations. We evaluate their effect by comparing common demographic measures estimated from ‘perfectly-recorded’ and ‘bias-infused’ synthetic populations. Our results show that including only direct lineages leads to an underestimation of Total Fertility Rate (TFR) (c.a. −39% or 0.61 times lower) before the onset of fertility decline, and an overestimation of life expectancy at birth (e0) over the first two centuries (c.a. +42.2%). However, after adding selected collateral kin, the accuracy of the estimates improves: TFR is underestimated by only −0.11% during the first century and e0 is overestimated by only +1.5% over the whole period.

The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock is one of the leading demographic research centers in the world. It's part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research society.