Social and Economic Inequality

Identifying individual mechanisms that create new or perpetuate existing social inequalities is no simple task. Many of our approaches use history as a laboratory, in which we control for time and space to single out these factors. As such, time and space have a central position in our research.

Such approaches involving local or regional differentiation across time come with a specific set of challenges: from dealing with “messy”, context-dependent historical data to avoiding incorrect levels of spatial aggregation (the modifiable areal unit problem), and to identifying, disambiguating, and geospatially defining historical localities. To confront these challenges, many of our historical analyses are based on data that is gathered at the most granular level. This mirrors tendencies in the social sciences to use increasingly large data in research, and actively engages with the “spatial turn” in humanities and social sciences research.[i] Our work in this field is conducted together with several national and international partners, including the ENCHOS network,[ii] CLARIAH,[iii] and SSHOC-NL.[iv] There are also strong links with the HSNDB project.[v]

At the core of this cluster are various forms of social and economic inequality. Some address categorical or durable inequality – which, as explained above, can reinforce other forms of social inequality. Durable inequalities refer to the persistent and pervasive disparities in power, wealth, and opportunities that have endured over time and across different regions of the world. These inequalities are not just the result of random or natural factors but are often created and sustained by social and economic structures, institutions, and policies that privilege some groups over others. Durable inequalities can manifest themselves in different forms, such as gender, race, ethnicity, class, nationality, or religion, and can have wide-ranging implications for individuals, communities, and societies. Understanding the dynamics of durable inequalities is therefore crucial for grasping the complexities of social and economic relations in history and today. For example, the role that categorization plays in enslavement or the exclusion of immigrants from the city and its labour market, which is central to Samantha Sint Nikolaas’s PhD research, and the unequal access to education of second-generation immigrant children, as studied by Eva van der Heijden. 

In future, we we will sharpen our gender perspective with, inter alia, a pilot study to analyse our existing datasets and infrastructures with new methods – borrowed from projects such as Maria Ågren’s “Gender and Work” project, with whom we already have a close collaboration, which has resulted in a first publication in the IISH’s International Review of Social History. What do the court records of the VOC, the Inquisition, and the Spanish Cortes tell us about women’s work and men’s work in Asia and Africa if we look for verbs that express work activities? But also: what are the differences in the effects of slavery on women and men, to what extent do their option’s to change their position individually or collectively differ? Other projects address inequality in regional demographic, economic, and infrastructural developments.

Both types – categorical/durable inequality and regional demographic/economic development –overlap significantly. For example, the shift of labour from the countryside to the city before the nineteenth century, often cited as a driver of urban manufacturing, was, at best, negligible in China while it made a major contribution to urban areas in Western Europe. This changed in the twentieth century, when extensive rural–urban migration in China drove the government to implement policies that excluded rural migrants from inter alia education in cities.[vi]

These studies on social and economic inequality can be performed with different kinds of data and methodologies, such as micro studies. For example, in 2019 a project was initiated (still ongoing) on “Metal smelting in Qing China, 1720–1910”, which has collected ca. 3,000 data points on individual mining and smelting operations from gazetteers. The data is currently being entered into Excel. Besides this project, over the past few years, various other micro studies have been done on China, including on eighteenth- to nineteenth-century agricultural household inventories.[vii]

Another option for looking at this from an economic perspective is to examine how goods and services were produced. An analysis of modes of production (in a household context or more commodified) can be linked with labour relations. The efficiency of the mode of production has an impact on labour and product markets, and thus on productivity. An important issue in this regard is the extent to which technology is used in production. Labour relations can determine access to technology, and vice versa, and can lead to various inequalities. The availability of advanced technology, such as Artificial Intelligence, will determine the work and labour relations of many in the very near future; unequal access to AI and unequal distribution of the benefits and drawbacks of this technology will impact social and economic inequality worldwide.

Instead of looking at the individual/household dynamics, one might also take a regional perspective, such as the move from agricultural areas to urbanized centres.[viii] For example, a current international collaboration at the IISH studies why certain industries concentrated in particular regions in China in ca. 1933 and 2010. This project involves data collection at the prefectural level for ten coastal Chinese provinces, spatial (GIS analysis), regression analyses, and international comparison. We can also approach issues from a global or continental level. Currently, for example, the collaborative project “The Roots of Divergence: Innovation and Economic Development in Eurasia ca. 500 BCE–Present” is an intercontinental/global comparison on technology, labour productivity and growth in China, the former Soviet Union area, and Western Europe. The project compares descriptions of the role of labour and theories on growth over time and across continents.

Regional differentiation in long-term economic and demographic development is also central in Rombert Stapel’s  “(Re)Counting the Uncounted” project (now). This study involves replicating four often-used publications with provincial and national population estimates for the Netherlands and Belgium prior to 1800. This requires the digitization and contextualization of 2000 medieval and early modern censuses, which are linked to digital GIS maps of premodern boundaries in the Low Countries.[ix] The project will produce significantly revised and more robust population estimates at an unprecedented granular level (namely, that of the parish-equivalent territory). Moreover, the project contributes significantly to Open Science, in particular via the Linked Open Data model that we are developing to improve transparency with respect to how data-driven scientific knowledge is produced.[x]

The project’s focus on data quality in a humanities perspective, as well as producing fine-grained spatially defined data on human movement and settlement in premodern times, provides two important strands of scholarly intervention that carry meaning well beyond the confinements of historical demography. It allows us to apply new research questions on how people, land, labour, and migration interact in an area of the world characterized by dynamic economic development. The project also helps in identifying and understanding potential weaknesses in existing data-driven humanities research practices, thus allowing for the creation of more robust analyses in the future.

Another major research strand involves partners from the KNAW HuC’s Digital Infrastructure department,[xi] the Rijksdienst voor Cultureel Erfgoed, and Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. Together, we have started work towards the digitization of the so-called Napoleonic cadastre of the Netherlands (HisGIS 1832). Over the next few years (2023–2025), this will lead to a fully open-access, geospatial data model and database of all cadastral units (both urban and rural, including their taxed wealth, land use, and owners) in the Netherlands in 1832 – prior to the largescale industrialization of the country. Existing HisGIS data from 1832 is already used in a wide range of IISH and KNAW HuC projects,[xii] and can be employed to reconstruct multi-modal transport networks in GIS, linking up directly with similar projects regarding the transport history of China.

However, the project will also open new research into the interaction between land use, commodification of the countryside, and land ownership. For this reason, we have established close connections with other colleagues, especially within the Commodities, Labour, and Environment cluster. Moreover, because of the uniform set-up of the Napoleonic cadastre in Europe, our data model will be applicable to much of Western Europe. In the future, we plan to combine the population estimate data and the land-use data from HisGIS 1832 to build simulation models of the Dutch premodern economy and its impact on the environment and the people who lived and worked there. [xiii]  

The Lives and Afterlives of Imperial Material Infrastructure in Southeastern China” (hereafter InfraLivenowNWO Open Grant) and its sister project, led by Hilde de Weerdt, at KU Leuven (“Regionalizing Material Infrastructures” or Reginfra, ERC Advanced Grant) (both 2022–2027) study regional and social inequality in infrastructural development between ca. 1000 and 1900 in the Chinese territories.  InfraLives and Reginfra hypothesize that the history of infrastructures in the Chinese and neighbouring territories has been regional in scope. In late imperial times, the lives and afterlives of infrastructural works, while called into the service of empire-building projects, often depended on local organization, and were frequently motivated by local and regional interests. These projects will test prior models of regional difference and inequality, and develop new models that also allow for cross-border infrastructural colonization and contraction. In order to facilitate such a longue-durée cross-infrastructure study, we are constructing a large dataset containing all events of construction, destruction, disuse, and renovation documented in inscriptions for city walls and bridges, gathered in 6000 fully digitized local gazetteers covering the period from the eleventh through the twentieth centuries. Infralives and Reginfra also aim to bring together inequality studies with critical theoretical insights of modern historical and anthropological studies on the mediating effects of infrastructures.

[i] D.A. DeBats, I.N. Gregory, and D. Lafreniere, “Introduction: Spatial History, History, and GIS”, in I.N. Gregory, D.A. DeBats, and D. Lafreniere (eds), The Routledge Companion to Spatial History (London: Routledge 2018) pp. 1–6.

[ii] he European Network for the Comparative History of Population Geography and Occupational Structure 1500-1900:

[iii] Common Lab Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities:

[iv] Social Sciences & Humanities Open Cloud Netherlands:


[vi] Y. Xu, Bas van Leeuwen, and J.L.van Zanden, “Urbanization in China, ca. 1100–1900”, Frontiers of Economics in China, vol. 13, no. 3 (2018), pp. 322–368.

[vii] M. Wang and Bas van Leeuwen, “Fenjiashu: Economic development in the Chinese Countryside Based on Household Division Inventories, ca. 1750–1910”, Australian Economic History Review vol. 61, no. 3 (2021), pp. 252–272.

[viii] M. Wang and Bas van Leeuwen, “Spatial-Economic Development: The Effect of Urbanisation on Education in China, 1890–Present”, in M. Molema and S. Svensson (eds), Regional Economic Development and History (London: Routledge, 2019) pp. 164–182.

[ix] R.J. Stapel et al., “‘(Re)Counting the Uncounted’: Repository of Digitised Premodern Censuses in the Low Countries” (IISH Data Collection 2023)

[x] R.J. Stapel and I. Zandhuis, “Digital Humanities and Replication: Ingredients for a Love Story. Experiences from the ‘(Re)Counting the Uncounted’ Project”, in Y. Wang et al. (eds), Digital Humanities 2022: Responding to Asian Diversity (Tokyo, Japan: DH2022 Local Organizing Committee 2022), pp. 373–376,


[xii] Diamond processors; Golden Agents (; Amsterdam Time Machine (; Historical Atlas of the Low Countries 1350–1800 (; Nicoline van der Sijs, Marieke van Erp, and Kristel Doreleijers, A Reconstruction of 19th-Century Amsterdam Dialects and Sociolects (? Publisher).

[xiii] Tom Brughmans and Andrew Wilson (eds), Simulating Roman Economies: Theories, Methods, and Computational Models (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press 2022); M.T.M. de Kleijn et al., “Simulating Past Land Use Patterns: The Impact of the Romans on the Lower-Rhine Delta in the First Century AD”, Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 20 (2018), pp. 244–256.