What is it that makes one society capable of dealing with a major shock like a flood or a war relatively easily, whereas in another it turns into a disaster of unparalleled magnitude that still resonates decades later? Historian Bas van Bavel hopes to answer this question in the years ahead, partly thanks to a sizeable European research grant. Most people look no further back into the past than ten to fifteen years, but Bas van Bavel has a frame of reference spanning centuries. As a result, he can use our history as a laboratory to test out theories. Yet the object of his research is surprisingly modern: the resilience of societies.
"The theme of my research is the development of successful societies. For the ERC grant application I narrowed down the focus. The situation before and after a major shock can tell us more about the characteristic features of a resilient society. With a multidisciplinary team, we are researching various regions in Western Europe that experienced a major shock in the period from 1300 to 1800, such as Norfolk, Picardy, Münsterland and the coast of Flanders. It will be the first time that this has been done on a systematic basis."
Will the results also apply to modern society? "Of course, it seems odd to me that we think we are living in such a special era that cannot be compared to other times. That is not how I see things at all. We also face similar shocks, such as diseases, droughts and wars. The structure of society is not so very different either – in the 16th century, for example, the market was just as dominant as it is now, if not more so."
Resilience of a society
"We already know of various factors that may influence how resilient a society is, both in terms of prevention and recovery from a shock. The hypotheses we are currently testing are partly based on inequality in the distribution of wealth and political influence. We are also testing the assumption that a certain degree of self-sufficiency contributes towards resilience. The same applies to a combination of coordinating systems. For example, the 19th-century potato famine, that claimed millions of victims elsewhere, was partly dealt with in Flanders by linking up the government system of aid with religious, charitable and social networks. This made the allocation of the means of production, goods, land and labour more flexible and better able to cope with shocks. Of course, the question then arises as to how this kind of hybrid system emerges."
"The choice of the six regions studied in the research enables comparison with only a limited number of variables.. Within the region, we are also looking at smaller settlements that possess almost the same structure but differ from the rest only in a few characteristics. The great thing is that there is already a lot of data available. In addition, unlike economists, we have the advantage of the time dimension – it is less difficult for us to differentiate between cause and effect. If, after the passage of time, societies respond in a particular way, you know the direction of the causal link."
Van Bavel's researchers work in a majestic old building in the ancient city centre. "In Utrecht, I am part of a dynamic Economic and Social History research group, who have come together to develop a unique line of research", explains Van Bavel proudly. "The young researchers are able to participate fully. As academic director, I also actively collaborate with sociologists, economists, etc. within the 'Institutions' theme. This multidisciplinary cooperation is essential: the ERC research also involves two economists and a geographer, who is exploring the impact of erosion. The team combines qualitative and quantitative research. A data manager is building a database to accommodate all of the data in our model."
For someone with such a wide range of interests as Van Bavel, choosing an area of study was difficult. "My gut feeling made me choose History, but I was also tempted by Economics and Econometrics." With the knowledge he now has about major shocks and disasters, is he not afraid to venture out into the streets? Van Bavel smiles: "Not at all, but from an academic perspective, there are some developments that worry me, such as increasing inequality in terms of wealth. It does nothing to help the resilience of our society."
Read more about the Strategic Theme Institutions for Open Societies.
Written by: Youetta Visser