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The Institutions, Inequalities, and Life courses programme (IIL) examines institutions in a broad way as the formal and informal rules and arrangements in society that govern individual behavior and social relationships.
Institutions, Inequalities and Life Courses

Institutions affect the degree of inequality in a society and they modify the individual determinants of status, income and well-being. For example, educational systems affect the influence of parents on children’s success in school, labor market rules affect gender inequality in wages and work careers, and pension systems affect income inequality at older ages.

With life courses, the programme especially refers to changes in the household- and family relationships that people experience as they grow older, such as leaving school, making a career, and retirement. Institutions affect life courses in many ways. For example, gender roles affect the formation of marriage and the way couples divide paid and household labor, welfare state arrangements affect divorce and fertility, and governmental care systems for the elderly may affect intergenerational relationships.

The IIL programme aims to provide strong evidence on the effects of institutions by comparing individuals across many countries and tracking changes over their life courses. By using multi-level and longitudinal data, the programme can better understand causal relationships between life events and individual changes.

Our projects
  • Between institutions and social mechanisms: education and inequality in comparative perspective

    Herman van de Werfhorst's NWO Vici project studies the relation between three dimensions of a society’s educational institutional structure (tracking, standardization of examinations/tests, and the vocational specificity) and educational outcomes (student performance, educational attainment, and socioeconomic and ethnic inequalities).

    Research aim

    Unlike previous studies this study explicitly focuses on the social mechanisms in families and schools that are ‘ignited’ by educational institutions, and on how institutions change in response to changing political, economic and societal contexts. Using longitudinal institutional data from the 1950s-2010s, combined with international student assessments, surveys on educational attainment and data on political parties also from many years and countries, both the effects of institutions for educational outcomes and the formation and adaptation of institutions are studied.

    Research structure

    Bringing together perspectives from sociology, political science/political economy, and educational science, the project studies (1) whether educational institutions are related to student performance, educational attainment, and inequalities; (2) through which mechanisms institutions influence behaviours, intentions and beliefs of parents, teachers and children, (3) how institutional change with respect to tracking, standardized tests and vocational specificity is related to political, economic and societal forces, and (4) how existing structures and inequalities in a society are legitimized by the daily practices and beliefs of teachers, parents and school principals?

    Novel research designs on changing institutions on changing educational outcomes will be developed and applied. The strength of the project is that it tells us why institutions matter (i.e. through which micro-level processes), and how it can be that institutions persist even if they do not ‘function well’ according to central tasks society imposes on educational systems. Societal norms and common beliefs and practices are essential to understand why institutions change (or why not) and why they affect educational outcomes.

    Funded by NWO VICI

    Prof. dr. H.G. (Herman) van de Werfhorst

    Faculteit der Maatschappij- en Gedragswetenschappen

    Programmagroep: Institutions, Inequalities and Life courses

    W. (Wouter) Schakel

    Faculteit der Maatschappij- en Gedragswetenschappen

    Programmagroep: Political Economy and Transnational Governance

  • Social Norms, Body Weight, and Well-Being: A Multi-Method Comparison of Germany, Korea, the Netherlands, and the United States.

    Which body weight is considered normal and socially accepted in modern societies? Do body-weight norms differ across countries? How do they affect the psychological well-being of those who conform and deviate?

    Answers to these questions are highly relevant across the globe, as the obesity epidemic continues to spread throughout Western countries, while underweight – especially among women – emerges as a growing problem in Asian countries. This renders large population groups at risk of declines in psychological well-being and further weight gain or loss.

    Research suggests that body-weight norms play an important role. Yet, little is known about how body-weight norms differ between countries, how body-weight norms differ across social groups, and how body-weight norms affect individual-level outcomes.

    The project will be the first to measure body-weight norms, their associations with individual outcomes, and the key mechanisms behind these associations – sanctions, pressure, and internalization – using internationally comparative and representative samples. A triangulation of descriptive and explanatory methods will provide an in-depth understanding of how and why body-weight norms vary between and within countries and how these norms affect individual body-weight satisfaction, weight gain and loss, psychological well-being, and self-esteem.

    This knowledge is societally relevant because it contributes to understanding why deviations from healthy body weight spread unequally between and within countries, and to assessing the mental health burden resulting from cultural body-weight norms.

    Funded by NWO VENI

    Dr. L. (Liliya) Leopold

    Faculteit der Maatschappij- en Gedragswetenschappen

    Programmagroep: Institutions, Inequalities and Life courses

  • Bringing the context back in: How national institutions and organizations shape ethnic discrimination in the labour market. A multi-method comparative study

    Existing research unequivocally shows that employers discriminate against ethnic minorities on the labour market. Researchers have focused on characteristics of job seekers, such as their skills, motivation, and work experience, in explaining discrimination in hiring and promotion decisions. However, scholars have focused (too) much on why ethnic discrimination exists, while we don’t yet understand how discrimination comes about in the workplace. Relatedly, scholarly work on discrimination has been too concerned with its individual-level explanations, thereby largely ignoring the role of the workplace. Yet, discrimination is a socially constructed process that is embedded in a larger institutional environment.

    Therefore, the working hypothesis of this project is that organizations and national institutions provide the opportunity structure for ethnic discrimination on the labour market. While discrimination varies across organizations and countries, existing explanations of discriminatory behaviour cannot account for differential treatment across institutional settings.

    Hence, a pressing question that has not been yet been sufficiently addressed is: how does the organizational and national institutional context affect discriminatory behaviour of employers? The aim of the project is to hypothesize and empirically assess the ‘institutional circumstances’ under which ethnicity becomes decisive in hiring and promotion decisions. This is done at three levels: the employer, the organization and the country. The proposed research thereby responds to the longstanding plea of leading scholars studying ascriptive inequality that we must ‘bring the firm back in.’

    This project is the first comprehensive, cross-national study on how the institutional context shapes discriminatory behaviour of employers. By including four countries (The Netherlands, United Kingdom, Germany, and Spain), the role of the national context is studied. The project collects unique organizational data and conducts a vignette study among employers and laboratory experiments. The research allows developing and testing new insights on how policy makers can reduce discriminatory behaviour of employers.

    Funded by NWO VIDI

    Dr. B. (Bram) Lancee

    Faculteit der Maatschappij- en Gedragswetenschappen

    Programmagroep: Institutions, Inequalities and Life courses

    K.E. (Katharina) Stückradt MSc

    Faculteit der Maatschappij- en Gedragswetenschappen

    Programmagroep: Institutions, Inequalities and Life courses

  • The role of religious cognition for immigrant integration (RECOGNITION)

    Immigrants in general, and Muslims in particular, have been found to be more religious than non-migrants in European societies. In public and scholarly discourses, this high level of religiosity is often conceived of as a barrier to immigrant integration.

    However, 20 years of large-scale survey research have yielded contradictory findings regarding the question of how religion is related to immigrant integration and how immigrant religion changes as a consequence of migration and integration. Fenella Fleischmann argues that these nonconclusive results are due to a limited conceptualisation of immigrant religion in survey-based research, which has too narrowly focused on religiousness, i.e., the frequency of religious practices and the subjective importance of religion, but largely ignored religious cognition, i.e., the more literal or symbolic ways in which individuals reason about religion.

    The RECOGNITION project takes an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural comparative approach and proposes to transform this line of research with a systematic investigation of religious cognition as explanation for different domains of immigrant integration that is independent of religiousness.

    Prof. dr. F. (Fenella) Fleischmann

    Faculteit der Maatschappij- en Gedragswetenschappen

    Programmagroep: Institutions, Inequalities and Life courses

Programme group leaders

Prof. dr. F. (Fenella) Fleischmann

Faculteit der Maatschappij- en Gedragswetenschappen

Programmagroep: Institutions, Inequalities and Life courses

Research staff