About the project – University of Copenhagen

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About the project

The effect of industrialization and urbanization in the lives of city residents and the appearance of socio-economic differences in mortality are still heated topics in scholarship. Reliance on contemporary accounts and data published by statistical offices has only given us a broad, static, and impressionistic image of how the working classes lived and died.

Socio-economic status was not the only factor influencing the mortality of individuals but a variety of socio-demographic factors was also at play, mediating, contributing or buffering its effects (age, gender, marital status, place of birth, place of residence, etc). Thus, only when we look at the individuals in all their complexity can we get a full picture of the influence of socio-economic status.

This project will undertake this task by studying individuals living in Copenhagen and Madrid, in late 19th and early 20th century by using databases on individual life histories of both cities. A brand new database will be created for the city of Copenhagen (1880-1885) with individual information on lifecourses of all the inhabitants in the city (230,000 inhabitants), which will be compared to a similar data already available for Madrid.

Results will allow us a full examination of the factors involved in life and death in urban areas and, specifically, it will illuminate whether and why mortality was higher for the working classes, and whether there were particular sub-populations at risk within the city. This project is financed by the Danish Council for Independent Research and FP7 Marie Curie Actions – COFUND (reference DFF – 1321-00136).

Why should we study socio-economic differences in mortality in the past?
The almost ubiquitous presence of differences in mortality depending on socio-economic status, often referring only to occupation, has given credence to the “historical inevitability of social class differences in mortality”, as it has been referred to in contemporary research.

This assumption seems logical as it connects with the collective imagery of 19th century industrial areas. The  image popularized by Engels or Chadwick and many other doctors, reformers, and revolutionaries in continental Europe of the “dark Satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution, was one where long working hours, hot, damp, dusty, and overcrowded environments, poor food, etc., increased the susceptibility to disease and death.

Was this true everywhere in Europe at that time and even before? Several scholars have casted doubts on the existence of large differences in pre-industrial Europe and empirical evidence has found non-existent or even inverse differences in many historical settings. Cultural practices may have been partially to blame. Infant mortality was higher for the wealthy in 19th century Denmark, as “luxury” foods were given to infants instead of breastfeeding, thus, endangering their lives.

Biological factors may have also been to blame. While poverty is associated generally to decreased living conditions, the nutritional, housing, hygienic differences between rich and poor may not have been sufficient to create differences in the response to disease in a mortality regime governed by infectious disease where no real preventive or curative measures were prevalent.

Although the debate is still ongoing, most scholarship agrees that the process of divergence since mid-19th or early 20th century but the specific when seemed to have varied according to many factors.

From aggregated to individual-level sources in historical research
Historically, socio-economic differences in mortality have generally been studied through published statistics and contemporary sources, but modern research has shown that these sources have methodological problems for the study of individuals.

Aggregated figures can be distorted by problems of miss-registration; they also offer the average of a place, and do not allow us to study what happened to individuals, as they do not take into account individual characteristics; and, finally, with aggregated data, residents in the city are just considered as interchangeable units, as if all were the same, when we are well aware that particular groups can be more vulnerable than others, children, the elderly, etc. 

Developments in the last decades in computing and data acquisition have allowed the growing use of databases compiled on individuals, linking their socio-economic and demographic data at different points in time and even following generations evolving over time, permitting the examination of regular people’s lives (and their chances of death or social mobility) and the effect that different individual and contextual characteristics (such as sex, age, marital status, etc) may have on determining them.

Individuals and the city
The massive effort involved in building individual level datasets (digitation, homogenization and standardization, linkage, etc) has yielded enormous results in many countries of Europe, illuminating many aspects of the pre-industrial and industrial past.

These efforts have been mainly constrained to rural areas or relatively small towns or urban samples, offering mixed results on the onset of socio-economic differences. Thus, the focus of this project is to bring the cities to the forefront, as motors of change in the 19th century, first considered literal “graveyards”, but later becoming pioneers in mortality improvements through changes in sanitation, sewage, water.

By using individual-level data on two major European capitals around the turn of the century (Madrid and Copenhagen), this project aims to bring cities into the analysis of the complexity of socio-economic differences in mortality in order to gain a more complete insight into people’s lives.