Conducts research and collects data on the global history of labour, workers, and labour relations

Jan Lucassen: retirement without farewell

Jan Lucassen has been a central figure for the International Institute of Social History (IISH), both as director of its research department and as a scholar.  Jan joined the IISH in 1988. Here he felt truly in his element, and he was to stay on the staff for the duration of his professional career. In 1990, he was also appointed part-time professor of international and comparative social history at the protestant Free University of Amsterdam. With great personal effort and dedication he built the research division at the IISH which, from 1993, became an independent unit; its emphasis was always on internationally comparative historiography. But services and infrastructure also captured Jan’s attention. Jan set a precedent when he accommodated the builders of historical data sets, and he initiated the very successful bi-annual European Social Science History Conferences, held since 1996. When he resigned his position as Research Director in 2000, `his’ research division had become what is probably the largest research group on social history in the whole world. In the last twelve years of his academic career, Jan was associated with the IISH as Senior Research Fellow. Because of his great achievements, he was made a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004.

With his numerous studies of labor migration, labor markets and remuneration systems in Europe and Asia, Lucassen has made a name for himself – at first in the Netherlands, but gradually and increasingly clearly also at the international level – as an unorthodox historian who dared to pursue new topics and try out new methods. Labour migration was the central focus of Jan Lucassen’s intellectual production, the theme to which he always returned after sometimes lengthy excursions into other fields of research. Jan’s dissertation of 1984 – of which a translation was published in 1987 under the title Migrant Labour in Europe 1600-1900 – was a pathbreaking study which was praised far and wide. Using survey records on ‘migration temporaire’ in the Napoleonic era, Lucassen chart with great precision the foundations and dynamics of the so-called ‘North Sea system’ – both at the start of the 19th century, but also, retroactively, for the whole early modern period. Crucial in his approach was the concept of the ‘labor cycle’: as most migrant laborers finding work in the economically highly developed coastal provinces of the Netherlands and Flanders typically ran their own small business as well, seasonal labour provided only part of the total family income, and was combined with the work of women and children in self-employment.

The comparative perspective which Jan adopted in his dissertation stayed with him during the rest of his career. But while in his PhD research he had concentrated on a comparison of different regions within Europe, his historical vision broadened more in the course of the 1990s – taking him far beyond Europe. In 1995 Jan visited India for the first time, and Indian history has never ceased to fascinate him since then. In his discussions with IISH colleagues, Jan began to realize that labor history ought not to be just a European affair, but demanded a global approach. Together with Marcel van der Linden he therefore published a Prolegomena for a Global Labor History in 1999, a brochure in which the case was made for enlarging the traditional research area very substantially. This text was also the basis of a change in direction for IISH research activities, which has been consolidated and made definitive since the turn of the 21st century .

The change to 'globalization’ became visible in all of Jan’s research pursuits, but first and foremost in his migration research. A landmark was a congress which he organized together with his brother Leo Lucassen at the NIAS (Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences) in Wassenaar in 1993. Its aim was to integrate the sub-specialism of migration history more structurally in general history, and involve other continents in this as well. The book resulting from this congress (Migration, Migration History, History, 1997) was reprinted several times.

A second theme to which Jan paid much attention as historian were corporate organizations, in particular the guilds. Often people think that the guilds were exclusivist professional organizations aiming mainly at mutual security and the restriction of competition, and thus, that they were typically `European-feudal’ institutions, incompatible with capitalism. But Jan and his close colleague Piet Lourens convincingly overturned this traditional interpretation. Creating an extensive database, they inventorized all the Dutch guilds since 1500, and convincingly showed that the guilds were still alive in the capitalist Northern Netherlands even in the 19th century, although their religious character had gradually vanished. Moreover, the guilds reached their maximum number of members only in the year 1770.

Closely connected to his fascination with migration history is a third area of research which has preoccupied Jan over the years: the history of brickmaking. In his PhD research, Jan had discovered that from the 18th to the early 20th century, large numbers of male seasonal workers, organized in hierarchical groups, came to the Netherlands from the German Lippe-Detmoldt region, to produce bricks. Over a number of years, Jan reconstructed the activities and experiences of this special migrant group with Piet Lourens: the workers’ backgrounds in Lippe-Detmoldt; the composition of the workteams; how they retained contact in the Netherlands with the families they left behind; what salary differences existed within the group; and even the family ties there were among them.

When he 'discovered’ India in the second half of the 1990s, Jan noticed that local brickmakers still used the same techniques as the German Lippers had before 1900, even although the Indian workers’ activities of course took place in the completely different context of a caste society. In the course of the last 15 years, Jan has spent many weeks, if not months, in North India pursuing anthropological field research to `study history via the present’ in a comparative way. Needless to say, he has subsequently also placed the Indian brickmakers in historical perspective with the aid of extensive archival research, carried out especially in New Delhi. En passant, he discovered that already in the middle of the 19th century the Indian brickmakers had staged very large strikes – decades earlier than the Indian working class had supposedly first begun to assert itself, according to mainstream Indian historiography.

While Jan Lucassen continually pursued new research themes in his career, he also kept up the social engagement he had in his student days. In particular, the increasingly heated discussions about `Islam’, and the supposed 'threats’ for Western society by immigrants, have been of great concern to him. In 1985, he therefore published a popular-scientific book with his old companion Rinus Penninx, titled Newcomers, which went through several reprints and editions;  and, more or less as a sequel to this book, he published a second book in the same vein with his younger brother Leo Lucassen, titled Winners and Losers, which upon its publication in the Netherlands in 2011 gained considerable media attention.

Jan will stay associated with the International Institute of Social History also after his retirement, as honorary fellow. Indeed, his work is by no means at an end. His plans for the near future are ambitious: he intends among other things to write a comprehensive treatise with the deceptively modest working title Work: A Concise History. We look forward to continuing collaboration with a most inspiring colleague!

Read more

Working on Labor. Essays in Honor of Jan Lucassen. Edited by Marcel van der Linden and Leo Lucassen.
This collection of seventeen essays takes its inspiration from the scholarly achievements of the Dutch historian Jan Lucassen.

Een geschiedenis van de arbeid in grote lijnen, prof.dr. J.M.W.G. Lucassen.
Rede uitgesproken bij het afscheid als hoogleraar Internationale en comparatieve sociale geschiedenis aan de faculteit der Letteren van de Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam op 6 juli 2012. (in Dutch)

Het Groote Boeck der Leerkonsten des Historievorschers-Meesters Jan Lucassen.
Ter ere van het emeritaat van prof. dr. Jan Lucassen van het Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis en de Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, 6 juli 2012. (in Dutch)
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Alafbetische lijst van de auteurs


6 July 2012