Already, databases with microdata have stimulated the fields of family and community history in their respective countries. The IDS structure provides considerable added value by offering a common template for existing and new databases to:
- Link a large number of data elements (e.g., church with tax records) relating to individuals, thus enhancing the richness of the data;
- Reconstruct the family setting of individuals, allowing for the study of intergenerational processes such as the transmission of social status, health and cultural characteristics;
- Supplement information on individuals with contextual data, creating opportunities for multilevel research;
- Implement a longitudinal or life course perspective, in order to compare, for instance, socioeconomic and demographic careers of migrants and non-migrants or urban-, semi-urban and rural dwellers;
- Compare findings based on compatible datasets across Europe and across the globe.
Comparative historical demography can play an important role in understanding the challenges faced by contemporary European (and global) society. Currently, there is an intense discussion about the nature of recent changes in family life. Everywhere, we witness a decline in marriage and remarriage rates, an increase in divorce, a rise in the age at first marriage, an increase in cohabitation, a severe fertility decline, higher levels of education and salaried employment of women. According to some scholars, these are ‘new’ developments, representing the demographical shadow of the genesis of a new society (risk society, post-modern society, reflexive modernity). According to others, these new trends should not be exaggerated because continuity is more important than the differences. Processes such as the privatisation of family life, the formation and weakening of group identities, the development of new cultural identities, the reevaluation of women’s role and their position in family and society, were already visible in the second half of the nineteenth century.
To understand what is occurring in contemporary European society, we need not only good can be fitted to our standard), but also detailed and regionally diversified data on family formation, mobility and mortality. Our network and the interface between regional databases will prove a valuable tool for illuminating the role and conditions for endurance of regional family systems in an integrated Europe. Another example of a research field that will benefit from the IDS is migration studies. We need to know more about the conditions for and the nature of (successful) integration in receiving communities, preferably also for second and third generation immigrants. The IDS will allow us to compare the fate (in terms of marriage, family formation, health, careers) of immigrants in major cities across Europe, as well as the fate of their children. IDS will strengthen a new historical research agenda emerging from the analyses of individual migration trajectories including local moves.
Our network explicitly aims to facilitate collaboration between leading experts on large databases across all continents. Comparing life courses between cultures opens up a fascinating new field ofesearch. A pioneering effort in this field was the Eurasia Project, sponsored by the ESF. In this project, longitudinal village reconstitutions from Belgium, Sweden, Italy, Japan and China were compared. The group studied mortality across family systems, revealing differences in internal redistribution of food, differential protection in times of economic stress, and differential power relations between generations and sexes. When more datasets are made comparable, it will become feasible to study variation in family life, in family ties and in individual behaviour by religion, by level of urbanisation and economic specialisation, by system of communal support, etc. Understanding variation and different responses to similar economic conditions or processes (modernisation, globalisation) will provide important historical reflections on present-day challenges.
In sum, the network brings together scholars who, by creating and exploiting regional or national databases, have markedly advanced the field of family history and historical demography in their respective countries. The network allows them to proceed beyond the boundaries of their individual datasets, by creating a common interface for a truly European and even global history of the life course.