We are dedicated to combining our teaching in the broad fields of economic, social and demographic history (ESDG) with specialized research with an international profile. Our research has two interconnected strands: historical demography and colonial social history. This mission statement sketches these connections and looks ahead.

Economic, Social and Demographic History (ESDG)

The educational mission of the section is to make students familiar with the main societal developments since 1500, such as the emergence of trading empires, social and economic causes and consequences of industrialization, the demographic and health transition, migration streams across the globe, global interdependencies and emerging social inequalities.

A second aim is to motivate students to do research in the field of ESDG, by introducing them to a variety of historical sources, to let them experiment with mixed methods, including the building of datasets and techniques to analyze quantitative data. Students learn from the experience of their teachers, and especially on collaborating in their projects which can range from financial history, the study of colonial exploitation to the history of romantic partner choice.

Societal as well as historiographical changes are reflected in new topics and new perspectives which likely guide our teaching in the foreseeable future. Examples are the corona pandemic which has heightened attention to social, political and demographic responses and effects of health crises in the past. Another example is the increased awareness of lingering discrimination of ethnic minorities which calls for historical reflections on issues of migrant integration and the (intergeneration) persistence of disadvantages, which may go back to the colonial period. The study of the colonial past requires a non-Eurocentric approach by including the interaction with and pressure by local intermediaries and the subaltern populations.

Specializations: historical demography and colonial social history

For more than thirty years, social and economic history at Radboud University has concentrated on demographic history, both on the aggregate and the individual level. The name change around 2010 of ESG into ESDG was therefore apposite, but is still unique in the Netherlands. The ambition has not changed: we aim to be a national leader as well as a global player in the field of historical demography.

A second – but strongly related – field of expertise is colonial social history which focuses on a bottom-up reconstruction of social relations, identity formation and individual life chances and strategies in the context of intensified cultural contacts and colonial exploitation. This field requires an in-depth knowledge of the (administrative) sources in which individuals, families and social or ethnic groups are described and classified.

How to ensure the academic quality as well as the societal relevance of our core research interests and expertise?

Core expertise historical demography

Historical demography studies the key processes at the heart of population growth or decline: marriage and fertility, migration and mortality. Understanding these processes brings one to the complex relations between individuals’ health, wellbeing,  and family-related, occupational or residential decisions, cultural norms and economic constraints and opportunities. These complex relations are best unearthed through the longitudinal study of individuals and families – in other words, through a life course perspective.

As one of the few centers for historical demography we are squarely located within a history department, and we are blessed by the Dutch zeal for governmental administration as well as by pioneering efforts to create large databases. In other words, we have direct access to sources on population history not available elsewhere in the world: HSN, LINKS, cause-of-death data et cetera. Given our historical skill set, we can combine a critical perspective on the sources (who created them, for what purposes, how should the different categories and variables be interpreted) with the ability to create properly documented datasets and the knowledge to analyze them according to the highest (statistical) standards.

Our embeddedness in history also facilitates the connection with family history. Although most demographic events take place within and derive meaning from the family setting, both disciplines have drifted apart in the past decades.  In our group, they are still closely interlinked. This also means we welcome qualitative approaches (e.g. oral history) and sources (e.g. ego-documents, family histories) that help us to understand crucial aspects of life courses and vital events: sexuality and sexual norms; relations between partners and parents and children, the importance of kin, neighbors and friends,  family income strategies, religion et cetera.

Core expertise colonial social history

A relatively recent addition to the research of ESDG is colonial social history. Our exploits in this field share with historical demography an interest in sources allowing a reconstruction of the lives of ordinary people.  The studies of colonial families and colonial population developments are clearly overlapping fields of research. But the challenges involved in collecting and understanding colonial sources are formidable. To interpret the categories as well as the social and behavioral patterns emerging from those sources requires knowledge of administrative and legal practices, the financial interests involved and underlying colonization, the processes of interaction between colonizers and subaltern peoples, and the customs, beliefs and relations of the people involved. This often requires collaboration with researchers from the former colonies in question. An early example is the involvement of ESDG in the study of Taiwanese population registers created by the Japanese colonizers. Important new initiatives in this area include the analysis of Ceylonese thombos and the slave registers of Suriname.

This field shares with family history an interest in the application of mixed methods: insights from qualitative sources or approaches (e.g. oral history) are crucial to inform more formal hypothesis testing on quantitative data, whereas the quantitative databases are needed to move beyond – possibly non-representative  – case studies.

Strengthening our research

To further improve our position within the (international) fields of historical demography and colonial social history implies investments:

  1. In finding, understanding, documenting, and digitizing of sources that expand our knowledge base. Especially in the former colonies many sources are still untapped. New skills we should further elaborate or experiment with are, respectively, crowd sourcing, Optical Character Recognition and Handwritten Text Recognition.
  2. In a new generation by teaching (e.g. online modules, summerschools, international master Slavery, Forced Migration and Reparative Justice) skills needed to build and analyze historical databases.  Furthermore, be as visible as possible in NW Posthumus Institute.
  3. In contacts across disciplines.  Historical demography often requires applying and combining knowledge beyond the reach of individual scholars: e.g. human biology; medicine, advanced statistics. Colonial social history requires insights from e.g. legal history and ethnography. Teaming up with scholars from other disciplines is the way forward.
  4. In strategic partnerships around shared data and grant applications and, more in general, in international networks.
  5. In outreach – and international agenda-setting – also by running peer-reviewed journals, a book series and by organizing conferences.

Respond to changing societal demands

  1. Regarding issues of inclusion and diversity ESDG has a track record of consistent attention for gender differences in historical demography, an interest in processes of migrant integration and inclusion, and in the role of religious and ethnic differentials in partner choice. Even more important, our data collection strategies are explicitly geared at finding the roots and the intergenerational transmission mechanism of lasting inequality at the social or ethnic level. We do this respectively through our involvement in the Historical Sample of the Netherlands and the project Legacies of Bondage.
  2. The creation of resilient societies requires an in-depth understanding of how health crises in the past have been solved, how inequalities relate to economic integration and the emerging welfare state, what healthy ageing means and how it can be understood from a multi-generational perspective, how societies should cope with ageing of the population et cetera.
  3. Low fertility, ageing and migration are core challenges for our societies. This requires unwavering attention to understanding past and present fertility trends as well as the background and implications for receiving and sending countries of (labor) migration.
  4. Valorisation. To translate and to show the relevance of our work to the public and society at large we work with a variety of means: popular summaries of findings, guides to our sources for the public (e.g. the anticipated Thombo manual), interactive websites and media interviews. Most important in this field is our considerable investment (and acquired skills) in crowd sourcing, that is the involvement of volunteers in our digitization projects.