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Call for Papers:


Accepted session at the 18th World Economic History Congress in Boston (WEHC 2018)

on Health inequalities and urbanization, 17th-20th centuries


Organizers: Joseph Ferrie (Dept. of Economics, Northwestern University) and Lionel Kesztenbaum (French Institute for Demographic Studies (INED) and Paris School of Economics)


Deadline for submissions: 30 September 2017


This is a call for papers for an accepted session at the WEHC 2018 in Boston (United States), 29 July–3 August 2018. Session organizers seek 4 additional papers on the topic. In addition to the congress itself, panelists will gather for a pre-session workshop in Paris late March in order to fully discuss all papers.


Participants are welcome to submit a full paper or a 2-to-4-page abstract before 30 September 2017 to both Joe Ferrie and Lionel Kesztenbaum. Acceptance will be communicated before the end of the year.


Session outline

For long periods in history, cities were deadly places, existing only through a constant influx of (more or less) healthy migrants. This situation changed slowly in the modern era with improvements on various levels (public health, large scale infrastructure, income growth). This phenomenon, however, was far from linear or homogenous. In particular little is known about the way different groups within cities took advantage of these improvements. This is all the more important as cities were places characterized by large inequalities, that the industrial revolution or the colonization process made even starker. This session will explore the various ways in which health inequalities within cities evolved over time. To do so, we suggest three main topics that will be discussed by the various papers included (or to be included) in the session.


The first will be devoted to measuring inequalities within cities. The evolution of rural-urban mortality differentials is quite well known but health inequalities within cities and their evolution during the mortality transition remain unexplored. Moreover, cities were also heterogeneous in many ways (degree of industrialization, relative share of migrants and their characteristics, urban growth rate, degree of income/wealth inequalities within them) which means that they might have experienced different evolutions of health inequality. Indeed, it is clear that health in some cities worsened as their income increased. The source of wealth and the composition of its population are important features here. We will also discuss the various ways industrialization might have affected urban denizens, looking not only at mortality but also at the changes in causes of death, at height, at morbidity, etc.


A second topic will discuss the importance of large scale urban infrastructures, for instance water and sanitation systems. They benefit large shares of the population but might not extend to everyone at first. In fact, it is obvious that the richest groups benefit first from these improvements. Then they might, quite paradoxically, increase health inequalities. This cannot be separated from the political economy of who finances the huge construction costs of these infrastructures. In short, we will discuss how different groups favor (or oppose) these infrastructures in relation to how they benefit from them.


A third axis will be devoted to the role of migrants and its evolution over time. As cities grew healthier the health relationship between migrants and city natives may have reversed (with migrants being healthier than natives in the past and the gap closing over time, sometimes even reversing). A key feature will be the health selection of migrants, given that the origin of migrants varies over time and space (domestic or international migrants, coming from the countryside or from smaller cities). Lastly, outmigrants are particularly important here as they will obviously also be selected on both economic and health characteristics.


While focusing on health inequality and urbanization in the long run, this session intends to place it in a broader structure of changing public policies. It will consider the evolution of mortality from different angles: ways of living for urban people, the healthy import of migrants; the relationship between urban elites and lumpen proletariat; the size and scope of infrastructure change and its consequences on health; and the rivalry between groups–defined by income, wealth or occupation–for the control of public spending; whether using micro or macro approaches. This session will mostly consider modern and contemporary cities but is open to places all over the world so as to achieve a genuinely comparative perspective. 


Panelists already included in the session:

  • Marcella Alsan (Stanford School of Medicine)
  • Sok Chul Hong (Seoul National University)
  • Volha Lazuka (Lund University)
  • Kota Ogasawara (Tokyo Institute of Technology)