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Nov. 16, 2004


Life under economic pressure: Project traces the past impact

ANN ARBOR, Mich—The next time you feel like complaining about the price of groceries, check out a few of the findings from an international research project that shows how everyday economic stress affected the lives of ordinary people in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Today we barely notice relatively minor changes in the price of staple foods like bread. But back then, a 10 percent increase in the price of grain typically raised the chances that a child, or a parent, would die by as much as 15 percent, according to the innovative analysis of some 2 million individual records of Europeans and Asians who lived in rural communities in Belgium, China, Italy, Japan and Sweden.

Illustration from the cover of "Life under Pressure"
“The goal of the Eurasia Project is to analyze how economic hardship influences the family and individual behavior that affect the most important life outcomes—to stay alive, to marry, and to have children,” said James Z. Lee, a University of Michigan historian and sociologist and co-author of the first in a five-volume series detailing the project's findings. “Life under Pressure: Mortality and Living Standards in Europe and Asia, 1700-1900,” was published this year by MIT Press.

The collaborative project, started 10 years ago, is now led by a group that includes Lee, who is affiliated with the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR), and Lund University economic historian, Tommy Bengtsson. They and others have discovered that some long-standing beliefs about the differences between Eastern and Western societies are myths.

During bad times, people in the West were even more likely to die than people in the East. Mortality patterns in the West were more selective, defined mainly by socioeconomic status—property ownership, in particular. In the East, age and gender were the most reliable predictors of mortality, with young females at a distinct disadvantage.

Overall, the results of the complex analysis of household and parish registries and other individual-level records suggest that human agency, not biology, must have shaped mortality patterns long before the era of modernization, Lee said. “Even in ancien regime societies, families were active agents, not passive victims of natural forces.”

The project pioneers a new approach to the comparative analysis of past societies that results in a more nuanced understanding of human behavior, according to Lee, who is also affiliated with the U-M Inter-University Consortium for Social and Political Research and is director of the U-M Center for Chinese Studies.

Instead of employing the standard demographic approach of analyzing the impact of famine, plague and other crises on large groups of people, the Eurasia Project analyzes the impact of everyday economic pressures on individuals and families, manipulating archival data to construct complex multi-generational histories. In a classic agrarian crisis, the price of food increased by 50 to 100 percent or more. Such crises were rare. Smaller fluctuations of 10 to 20 percent from one year to the next were much more common and by focusing on these smaller but more common annual fluctuations, this research has revealed a much more refined picture of how pressure affects families and individuals, not entire populations.

Panel discussions of the book, co-authored with University of California at Los Angeles sociologist, Cameron Campbell, Bengtsson and others, are scheduled at the upcoming annual meetings of the Social Science History Association this month and the Population Association of America next April. Both the project's findings and its methods are attracting increasing attention.

“Until about ten years ago, we didn't have the methods or the data to study individual lives in the past,” Lee said. “Now we apply new statistical techniques such as event history analysis that were developed or refined at ISR to historical panel data from household registers in different regions of the world. As a result, we have been able to generate new insights showing that our understanding of the past was far too simplistic.”

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The Eurasia Project, started in 1994, is a collaborative effort of some twenty scholars who use individual level data and event-history methods to reexamine the Malthusian paradigm explicitly contrasting historical populations from Belgium, China, Italy, Japan, and Sweden. The editorial board of the MIT Press Eurasian Population and Family History Series includes Marco Breschi (statistics, Udine), Cameron Campbell (sociology, UCLA), Akira Hayami (economics, Reitaku), Christer Lundh (economic history, Lund), Michel Oris (economic history, Geneva), and Noriko Tsuya (sociology, Keio). The series editors are James Lee (history and sociology, Michigan), Tommy Bengtsson (economic history, Lund), and George Alter (history, Indiana).

Established in 1948, the Institute for Social Research (ISR) is among the world's oldest survey research organizations, and a world leader in the development and application of social science methodology. ISR conducts some of the most widely-cited studies in the nation, including the Survey of Consumer Attitudes, the National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, the Columbia County Longitudinal Study and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the Institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China, and South Africa. ISR is also home to the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), the world's largest computerized social science data archive. Visit the ISR Web site at for more information.

Contact: Diane Swanbrow
Phone: (734) 647-9069