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Agency, Gender, and Economic Development in the World Economy 1850 - 2000


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Main topic

Marriage Patterns and Household Economies


Institutional setting

Co-operation between the research group on economic and social history at Utrecht University (UU), the Virtual Knowledge Studio for the Humanities and Social Sciences (VKS) and the International Institute of Social History (IISH).


Structure of research

The research programme endeavours to explore how ‘agency’, conceptualized as the potential for individual decision-making at the levels of households, economic activity and political participation, contributed to global economic development and vice versa. This question, which is at the core of current theorizing in economic history, requires innovative use of existing datasets and creation of new datasets, elaboration of concepts and theories in collaboration with leading experts, and extensive and careful cooperation between researchers working at both micro and macro levels. Four subprojects will be carried out by three PhD students and a postdoc. Between the researchers there will be intensive communication as they will work with the same datasets – approached from different angles.


The subprojects are:

  1. household formation, marriage patterns and economic development (IISH);
  2. political participation and economic development (UU);
  3. human capital formation and economic development (UU);
  4. an integrated approach to agency (postdoc) (VKS).


Description of research

Does economic development contribute to and result in more ‘agency’, the power of individuals to decide for themselves? And is the reverse also true? Can we find a link between historical developments (e.g. the advent of literacy) and institutions (laws, family forms, political systems) which promoted agency and the actual economic developments in the various countries of the world? Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen (1999) already argued that the ‘freedom’ to realize one’s potential is a major determinant and contributing factor of economic development. A crucial factor in this respect is ‘human capital formation’: education will increase the agency of people - enhance their possibilities to shape their own lives – and is at the same time an essential ingredient of economic development. We aim to study these interrelationships in depth, with a specific focus on gender. Given the crucial role of women in socialization (producing human capital of the new generation), we will look closely at (institutions creating) gender differences in agency.


Thus, we study the interaction between agency and economic development at two, interrelated levels: at the micro level of household and family formation (are men and women allowed and able to make their own choices in this respect, or are – for example – marriages arranged?) and at the macro-level of the state (are people allowed and able to be involved in the political decision making process?). We have developed innovative ways to measure these variables on a global scale. This will allow us to contribute significantly to the important debates among social scientist and historians about these links. Moreover, we think that adding the dimension of gender will deepen the analysis of these relationships.


One or two generations ago, social scientists and historians, especially those trained in the ‘modernization paradigm’, would consider these links as unproblematic, as ‘modernization’ was seen as a broad process including economic development, the spread of political democracy, the growth of individualism and the decline of sex discrimination. Recent (and some not so recent) criticisms of the modernization paradigm have pointed out that these links are more complex than was originally thought, and that substantial economic growth can occur in societies without fundamentally changing their political regime (communist China is the obvious example), or may even reinforce hierarchical relationships in household and marriage (as the revival of patriarchy in various Islamic countries suggests). Instead of relying on this modernization approach, the current proposal uses a number of new theoretical ideas and debates as sources of inspiration.




  • Prof. dr. Jan Luiten van Zanden (Utrecht University, main applicant)
  • Prof. dr. Jan Kok (Radboud University Nijmegen / Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, co-applicant)
  • Prof. Dr. Maarten Prak (Utrecht University)
  • Prof. Dr. Lex Heerma van Voss (International Institute of Social History / Utrecht University)
  • Prof. Dr. Jan Lucassen (International Institute of Social History / Free University Amsterdam)
  • Dr. Tine De Moor (Utrecht University)
  • Sarah Carmichael MA (Utrecht University)
  • Lotte van der Vleuten MA (Radboud University Nijmegen)
  • Selin Dilli MSc (Utrecht University)

Funding body

The Netherlands Organisation of Scientific Research (NWO)


Prof. Dr. Jan Luiten van Zanden (Utrecht University)

Contact details

Prof. Dr. Jan Luiten van Zanden

Phone: +31 30 2536391

Postal address:

Drift 10, 3512 BS , Utrecht, The Netherlands 

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