Marco H.D. van Leeuwen - Biography#

Trained as a social and economic historian of the Ancien Régime, I became interested first in historical demography and other methods of historical research, and later in sociology. After my MA in history, I spent a year at the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure. Gradually my interest focused on social structure, in particular historical variation in forms, levels, and determinants of social inequality from the Middle Ages to the present. I believe that combining knowledge and best practices in history and sociology allows for a better understanding of past societies. If done well, this leads to interesting questions, well-tested theories, and well-informed and readable writing on the past. I have published extensively on welfare arrangements (philanthropy, mutual aid, insurance) from 1500 to the present, and on social mobility in France, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, and Sweden during the past three centuries. As part of my ERC-project I am currently comparing mobility patterns in 10 countries.

I test theories from the humanities and the social sciences using historical data, both scrutinizing the limitations and exploiting the richness and variation such data offer, with research designs that are simple, transparent, robust, and which can be widely applied. One attractive consequence is that this research becomes replicable, as has happened with my work on charity and social mobility. Another advantage is that the application of social science theory often serves a heuristic purpose, alerting me to important general processes that I might otherwise have understood less clearly. The most singular advantage, however, is that the historical record provides a greater variety of testing grounds for social science theories – certainly with regard to slow or path-dependent processes.

Following this procedure, in my book The Logic of Charity (Macmillan, 2000) I was able to profit from social science notions on how charity could work, even though in some instances my analysis pointed out that the historical reality was a great deal more complex than social science theories would lead one to expect. Similarly, I have used notions from welfare economics (on moral hazards, free-rider problems and adverse selection) to study the functioning and development of mutual aid by guilds, Friendly Societies and trade union funds in the period 1550-1960. I have also used these notions in two volumes on the history of risks in the Netherlands 1500-1890.

Coordinating an international team of historians and sociologists, I have developed historical and comparative research tools, including a Historical International Social Classification of Occupations (HISCO), associated measures of rank (HISCAM) and social class (HISCLASS), and a website with occupational titles, images, and descriptions of the history of work. HISCO is now being used by large databases and individual scholars around the world. It is a historical extension of the ISCO coding grid developed by the ILO and in use by statistical agencies all over the world. This extension is now having a significant impact on the study of global social history because it allows one to ask and answer many comparative questions involving occupations in historical societies in different parts of the world or periods.
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