Sakari Saaritsa

Research activity per year

Personal profile

Description of research and teaching

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Professor of Social History, Head of Discipline (Economic and Social History)

I am an economic and social historian working on topics related to development, poverty, welfare, gender and human capital. My research interests include the quantitative history of human development (particularly health, education and physiological capital), social inequality, intrahousehold resource allocation, historical indicators of well-being, relationships between economic and human development, dialogue between development policy, development economics and development history, as well as relevant approaches and sources, such as microeconometrics, historical demography, anthropometrics, household budgets, social network analysis and oral histories.

In addition to academic research, I have worked in development in India, Tanzania, Syria, and Mozambique in different capacities, such as an intern, a UN official, and a consultant. Although I am a permanent resident of Helsinki, I have been based in Africa and the Middle East for several years since 2005. Since fall 2022, I am spending parts of the academic year in Zambia.

From fall 2023, I am the director of a four-year project funded by the Academy of Finland called “A scarred people: The imprint of crises on population health and livelihoods in early 20th century Finland”. The project uses individual level data to study the long-run impact of economic and social crises on population health, livelihoods, and capabilities.

I got my PhD at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy in 2008. My thesis was on informal transfers between households as a form of social security in early 20th century Finland. I have been on longer academic visits at the Economic History Department of the London School of Economics twice, first as a doctoral student and recently as a Visiting Fellow in 2021. I am currently serving in the Editorial Boards of the European Review of Economic History and Social Science History, as well as in the Executive Committee of the Social Science History Association. I am a member of the Programme Committee of the 2023 Annual Conference of the SSHA. I also participate in the activities of the Rule of Law Center of the University of Helsinki in Mozambique.

In fall 2023, I am the head of discipline for Economic and Social History.

Teaching 2023-2024

Courses (all taught in Finnish):

Fall term 2023

YK-111 Johdatus yhteiskunnallisen muutoksen tutkimukseen 1, sosiaalihistorian osuus (periodi I) [Introductory course to the Bachelor's program in social change 1, social history part]

YK-112 Johdatus yhteiskunnallisen muutoksen tutkimukseen 2, sosiaalihistorian osuus (periodi II) [Introductory course to the Bachelor's program in social change 2, social history part]

YM-301 Yhteiskuntateorian suuret kysymykset, talous- ja sosiaalihistorian osuus (periodi I) [Grand questions in social theory, economic and social history part]

YMT-3509 Maisteriseminaari II, talous- ja sosiaalihistoria (periodit I-II) [Master’s thesis seminar]

YM-602 Työharjoittelu (raportit) [Internship reports]

Spring term 2024

YMV-T518 Väestö, kuolleisuus ja kehitys (intensiivijakso 8.-12.1.2023) [Population, mortality and development]

YKT-252 Näkökulmia Suomen sosiaalihistoriaan (periodi III, yhdessä Alejandro Gomez-del-Moralin kanssa) [Perspectives on social history in Finland]

YMT-3508 Maisteriseminaari I, talous- ja sosiaalihistoria (periodit III-IV) [Master’s thesis seminar]

YMT-3505 Syventävät kvantitatiiviset menetelmät (periodi IV) [Advanced quantitative methods]


Exams and essays (throughout the year):

YKT-252 Näkökulmia Suomen sosiaalihistoriaan [Perspectives on social history in Finland]

YKT-255 Rakenteet ja kehitys [Structures and development]

YM-301 Yhteiskuntateorian suuret kysymykset [Grand questions in social theory, economic and social history part]

YMT-3502 Taloudellinen eriarvoisuus [Economic inequality]

YMV-T509 Työ ja toimeentulo [Work and livelihoods]

YMV-T518 Väestö, kuolleisuus ja kehitys [Population, mortality and development]


I also co-organize the Research Seminar in Economic and Social History together with Andrei Markevich.


Previous research projects:

Beyond virtuous circles: A new economic history of human development in Finland, 19th-20th c. (Academy of Finland Research Fellow, 2017-2022)

Counteracting amnesia in development -- studies from the periphery (Academy of Finland, director Juhani Koponen, 2014-2016)

Household risk management before the welfare state: Coping with insecurity in early 20th century Finland (Academy of Finland, Postdoctoral Researcher's Project, 2010-2014)


Work in progress:

Sex Ratios at Birth and ‘Missing Girls’ in Finland: Regional and Temporal Variation, 1880-1938

In modern, relatively stable, and equitable reference populations, a constant of male excess in births as well as in subsequent mortality across age groups can be observed. However, both sex ratios at birth (SRB) and sex ratios in later life are known to vary significantly across populations over time and place. Variation in sex ratios in surviving cohorts has been associated with discrimination within households at early ages, most famously in the analysis of “Missing girls” by Amartya Sen, as well as with gendered changes in disease mortality over time. Compelling historical and modern evidence of neglect and infanticide targeting girls has been found for certain regions such as South Asia and Spain, whereas the debate has remained lively on e.g., historical Britain. Variation in SRB, then again, has been variously associated with environmental and societal stress during gestation, the composition of parents (age, coital frequency) and other factors such as temperature or genetics. Since the potential explanations for the two types of variation are largely orthogonal, it would be important to know how much of variation in sex ratios of surviving cohorts can be explained by variation in SRB, and how much can be explained by differential mortality after birth. This paper uses exceptionally comprehensive local data to analyze regional and temporal variation in sex ratios at birth and in childhood in rural Finland in order to both identify regional patterns and to decompose the role of SRB in sex ratios in subsequent age cohorts. The data consists of municipality level annual records of births by sex (c. 25 000 observations in a panel on 423 stable, harmonized units), decennial data on municipality level age-sex composition, and a vector of local socioeconomic controls. The data has been linked to shapefiles for mapping and spatial analysis. It is further augmented by monthly aggregate time series of births and stillbirths by sex covering the entire period. This enables addressing the following questions: are there consistent regional or temporal patterns in sex ratios and/or SRB? How much of the variation in sex ratios is explained by variation in SRB? What could plausibly explain the regional or temporal variation in sex ratios and/or SRB?

The Anthropometrics of War, Famine and Development: Helsinki schoolchildren, 1910-1932 (with Joël Floris and Tuuli Hurme)

This project is based on rare individual level health records of c. 18,000 Helsinki primary school students of both sexes in the years 1910-1932, fully digitized for the first time in 2020. The data will be used to analyze the effects of major historical shocks, in particular the Finnish Civil War of 1918 and the disruptions in food supply in 1917-1919, on the nutritional status and growth patterns of children. The school health cards of Helsinki are in many ways a unique source. The primary school data contain both sexes. Historical anthropometric data on females is still scarce (Steckel, 2009; Koepke et. al., 2018). School data have fewer selection issues than the classic sources of anthropometric data such as armies and prisons (A’Hearn, 2004). The covered period, 1910-1932, includes major crises, particularly 1917-1919, and the volume of observations is large enough for analyzing trends and social decomposition with adequate statistical power. In addition, it is unique that the individual records have survived: the few studies analyzing anthropometric measures of children in the context of World War I have had to rely on summary statistics (Harris, 1993; Cox, 2015). Using measurement of schoolchildren to assess nutritional status and health has several advantages (Cox, 2015): Children are more sensitive to changes in nutritional status; thus negative environmental impacts are more immediately seen in children’s stature and growth than in adult measurements; deficit during deprivation can be masked in later years through catch-up growth; and finally, negative impact in childhood increases risk of disease and likelihood of mortality in adulthood. Thus a number of approaches for developing metrics of health status on the basis of the data are possible. External references like the new universal WHO growth standard designed for contemporary developing countries, providing highly precise benchmarks on height and weight for boys and girls of different ages (WHO 2007) or the Finnish national scale (detailed data in PI’s possession), can be applied to determine the extent of harmful stunting by modern standards. As an application to the crisis of 1918, the following analyses are attainable: measurement of BMI and weight changes during the crisis itself in order to understand the severity and incidence of the immediate nutrition shock among children already at school; comparison of effects on stunting and estimation of compensatory growth among cohorts that were hit by the crisis at different ages; and comparison of cohorts born during and right after the crisis. All of the above can be done with conditional distributions using school catchment areas as proxy for SES variation, as well as by sex. While 1918 has mainly been depicted as a political event and as a tragedy of violence, its human development implications have been neglected, particularly considering the severity of the shock. This project will work towards measures of the cost of the conflict in damaged human capital.

Selection, distribution and change in birth weights during crisis and growth periods in an urban near-complete count data, 1921-1945 (with Jarmo Peltola)

Recent work on birth weights has on one hand reaffirmed their association with later life outcomes, on the other hand produced findings challenging the notion that birth weights are an appropriate indicator for standard of living or fetal health variation in general. We leverage a rare dataset on the near-complete universe of births in the Finnish city of Tampere in 1921-1945 (c. 35 000 births) to precisely measure the variation in the distribution of birth weights and its underlying constituents during the crisis and growth periods in these years. The data contains birth weights and heights, birth order, mother’s age, mother’s or spouse’s occupation, ordinal maternal health score, mother’s age at menarche, and identifying information. It is possible to effectively control for issues of selection by analyzing compositional changes in the social and spatial background of the mothers.

The impoverished insophisticate: Human and economic development in Finland, 19th-20th centuries

A central tenet of the Scandinavian development narrative has been the notion of synergy between human capital and economic growth – a model Lars Sandberg (1979) famously elaborated by referring to mid-19th century Sweden as an “impoverished sophisticate” characterized by high life expectancy, high levels of literacy and low GDP. The human development characteristics were seen to facilitate later take-off in terms of growth. It is a well-worn practice in Finnish economic history literature to use Scandinavia as the primary reference group when assessing Finnish economic and social development, although by many standards Finland was midway between this group and what is now termed Central and Eastern Europe. This paper assesses the Finnish case from this perspective by reconstructing and deconstructing a historical human development index (HHDI) for Finland and comparing it both to the usual suspects from Scandinavia and Western Europe and to a select set of countries more similar by initial state and geopolitical economy (E.g., Ireland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland). Comparison are made not only in terms of timings of convergence and timings of take-offs and accelerations, but also timings of divergence. Methodologically, the paper also discusses characteristics of the HDI as a representation of development by unpicking how perspectives change when moving from a composite “mashup” index of development to a “dashboard” of dimensions, and how this affects the plausibility of the Nordic narrative. A systematic comparison of HDI and contributions to HDI of its subcomponents in the Nordic countries over different historical periods à la Prados de la Escosura will be included. Despite a rather complete convergence with the Nordic pattern by the late 20th century, Finland emerges as an “impoverished insophisticate” where economic growth was the first dimension to diverge from the periphery, education lagged behind not only other Nordics but also parts of the European periphery surprisingly long by many metrics, and the evolution of health was far from linear. The observations are discussed in detailed historical context.

Excess female mortality, tuberculosis, adolescence and modernization:  Evidence from Finnish population statistics, 19th - 20th c.

This paper presents findings on female excess mortality and tuberculosis based on Finnish population statistics which seem at odds with some dominant explanations of the phenomenon. Excess female mortality in age groups from late childhood till the end of the reproductive years has been observed across many populations in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but has later disappeared over time. Whereas the proximate cause in most cases seems to have been pulmonary tuberculosis (TB), the root causes remain contested. Intrahousehold discrimination related to changing bargaining positions of the sexes under capitalist modernization has been widely discussed, along with unsanitary early industrial working conditions in female majority branches like textiles. On the other hand, some new literature on the UK suggests epidemiological reasons and changes in disease environment were driving the rise and subsequent fall of the excess, while no consistent evidence of underlying discrimination is argued to exist. Somewhat surprisingly, any clinical consensus on the possible medical causes of greater female susceptibility to TB is equally hard to come by. A recurrent strand of explanations is based on puberty and related hormonal changes, some medical researchers suggesting sexually transmitted infections as potential drivers of TB advance. This paper describes a method for roughly estimating annual female excess mortality from TB by age group from the late 19th century to WWII with Finnish population data. It is shown that the annually available raw ratio of TB deaths by sex is reasonably close to the actual mortality difference calculable from decennial census data and may act as proxy. As identifying TB was well established, this indicator shows no breaks associated with changes in clinical capacity to define causes of death and statistical classification and provides a long, stable time series. The exercise seems to indicate a consistent female excess TB mortality already in the age group 5 to 9. While this ratio seems largely unresponsive to gendered structural changes occurring over the 60-year period in terms of employment, growth, industrialization and urbanization, it is equally incommensurable with epidemiological explanations based on puberty or sexual contact. Potential causes for the excess and its decline are explored.

On the right side of U: Changing determinants of married women’s employment in early 20th century US and Nordic countries in light of historical household budgets (with Evan Roberts, Stefan Öberg and Giulia Mancini)

Influential work by Claudia Goldin in the 1990s established an empirical and theoretical basis for a U-shaped pattern in married women's paid work patterns over time. Still outstanding is the question of understanding married women's paid employment on the right side of the "U", as labor force participation rates slowly began to rise in the first half of the twentieth century. In this paper, we take a comparative approach to understanding this pattern of behavior. We select several broadly comparable household budget datasets from the United States (1889-1940), Finland, Sweden, and Italy. We document the similarities and differences in data collection protocols, and then from microdata versions of the surveys construction consistent criteria for including women and families in the sample. We measure labor force participation in a range of ways, using indicators of both hours and earnings over various thresholds to determine if women were working. In all three countries, we show that the basis for married women's decisions to participate in the labor market changed over time in important ways. In the United States, women's work decisions were less responsive to their husband's earnings by 1940 than they had been in 1919. Finnish data enables analyzing changes over the 1920s, differences between rural and urban worker households and for the year 1928, short and long run determinants of married women’s labor supply. Swedish data similarly covers 2500 households between 1913 and 1934. For Italy, scattered household-level data available after 1950 are complemented by census data aggregated at the province level, documenting a drastic shift in women’s employment patterns.

Beneath Moral Economy: An Economic and Social Microhistory of Informal Assistance in Early 20th Century Finland (kirja, kustannussopimus Helsinki University Press)

The book is about connections and comparisons between the ideologies, popular discourses and practices of informal assistance in early 20th century Finland. It aims to show how stated ideals and their local, situational interpretations linked and contrasted with real transfers of resources and actual material outcomes at the household level. In a nutshell, it is a case study of the nature of the “informal welfare state” in Finland – as ideologies, everyday experiences and material outcomes – before the era of the “real” welfare state.

    The book operates on two levels, empirical and methodological. In addition to yielding concrete results, the historical investigations are intended to represent a series of laboratory experiments of sorts on the effects of using different approaches on the topic. Besides the conclusions on informal assistance per se, also the approaches used in different parts of the book, the changes of those approaches, and their consequences, are an essential part of the study. The book is written with close attention to historical contexts, not only of the historical acts studied, but of the theories, methodological tools and sources used.

The main sources of the study consist of oral histories, parish registers, tax and poor relief records and household budgets. They are briefly introduced, and their interconnections and the perspectives they offer discussed. In the introduction I also show how literatures on themes like ‘dual’, ‘moral’ and ‘informal’ economies, families, households and social networks, and exchange, risk and insurance, as well as survival strategies, relate to each other and the subject, and how their underlying intellectual histories have affected previous interpretations.

    In the first empirical part, based principally on oral histories, there are three main components, which all approach the material in slightly different ways and show different things. First, under the heading “Imagining a Moral Economy”, there is an exercise in decontextualisation, where, in the spirit of early 20th century ethnography, the material is treated as if it was an expression of a coherent culture of solidarity to construct main elements of what a collective popular moral economy could have looked like. It is the respectable alternative to formal assistance or credit, something that does not threaten an ethos of independence. It becomes evident the oral histories are prone to emphasize informal and de-emphasize formal assistance. Informal solidarity is not expressed as something universal, but rather as something that attaches itself to specific social groups and demarcates them strictly from some others. This pattern gives rise to an archipelago of segregated solidarities – of a village, a factory, a block, a street gang – rather than a universal peoples’ communion. The oral histories also refer explicitly to material necessity as the reason behind informal solidarity. This necessity is elevated into a virtue, most strikingly in an interview making reference to the “blessed poverty” of the past, which turned everything common. The hallmark of a good community in all the cases studied seemed to be that no-one was better off than anybody else. This was a blunt weapon against envy, which was the worst threat to solidarity.

    In the next part, in analyzing the political economy of solidarity, such discourses are returned to their historical contexts, and put in motion. The empirical focus is on the historical background and practical interaction of different kinds of notions of communities, the social identities and roles they attribute on people, and their relation to the descriptions of practices of solidarity – informal transfers – in the oral histories. The analysis is carried out as microhistorical case studies of a rural factory community and of an informal notable living in a suburb of Helsinki. In the encounters that took place during a strike in the former case, it is possible to see how political discourses emanating from various centres of power – state, employers, the labour movement – entered into people’s self-definitions, but how people at the same time made their own, situational uses of them when informal assistance was sought. In the latter case, careful record linkage is used to show a number of significant omissions, turning seemingly innocuous factual statements into meaningful strategic representations, and suggesting systematic biases towards informal assistance in describing livelihoods and sources of income. Finally, the part addresses the role of nostalgia in the descriptions of informal solidarity. In each of the communities discussed, potentially traumatizing events generating nostalgia can be pointed out: end of production at a factory, dissolution of cooperation among smallholders, and the demolition and redevelopment of a working-class neighborhood. Nostalgia and the end of certain concrete forms of cooperation coexist in oral histories of informal solidarity.

    The final part of the book provides a quantitative analysis of the size, logic and effectiveness of informal transfers, based on a unique dataset from 1928 subjected to econometric treatment. In quantitative terms, informal assistance was relatively scarce. It took various forms which followed logics that broadly resembled social security but had significant differences. Gifts and assistance were more important for chronically low-income workers, whereas informal loans were related to temporary fluctuations in income and more accessible to richer workers. Assistance in kind targeted households with many small children. In the male-dominated households of the data, informal assistance in cash was apparently controlled by men, whereas the “informal child allowance” represented by assistance in kind was controlled by women.

  The assessment of the book is critical. Informal solidarity seemed to require its unworthy Others, who were violating against its norms, and discursively excluded. In different historical situations, entitlement to assistance was attached to changing political and social circumstances, which made access uncertain, difficult, and at times, humiliating for the potential beneficiaries. Kinship trumped principles. Income inequality was replicated as income smoothing inequality, and support seemed economically inadequate.

The meaning of these results for contemporary discussions on social policy, the nature of modern society and alternative economies of solidarity is discussed in detail.


Fields of Science

  • 5202 Economic and Social History
  • Microeconomic history of poverty and welfare
  • Health
  • Education
  • Welfare
  • 5203 Global Development Studies
  • Development history