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Institutions, Inequalities, and Life courses

Institutions, Inequalities and Life Courses

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. Examples of institutions are welfare states, labor market arrangements, educational systems, occupational groups, norms and rules in organizations, and gender role norms.

The programme not only studies how institutions develop and change, but also examines consequences of institutions for inequality and life courses. Attention is also given to the linkages between inequality on the one hand, and life courses on the other hand.

Inequality is conceived as the distribution of income, status, and wellbeing in a society. 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, as well as the age-related transitions in other life domains, such as leaving schooling, 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 uses a mixture of methods and data including quantitative analyses of survey data, analyses of register data, experimental data, social network analysis, and policy analysis. An important goal of the programme is to invest in the collection, development, enrichment, and dissemination of cross-national and longitudinal survey data. By comparing individuals in a large number of countries with multi-level methods, better evidence can be obtained on the effects of institutions. With longitudinal survey data, individual changes over the life course can be related to life events so as to gain stronger evidence on causal effects.

Programme Group Leaders

Research Staff

Our Projects

  • Income inequality in professional and vocational occupations

    This project investigates the link between occupational closure and income inequality in Norway, and examines how this connects with social inequality. In doing so, it addresses one of the core concerns of VAM, being the economic and social development of the Norwegian welfare society.

    The sustainability of the Norwegian welfare model builds on a labour market organization that maintains a compressed wage structure and high employment rates. It is a model that has promoted social mobility, equality and prosperity; yet, it is also a model under pressure. However the external threats are well known, the internal threats are less discussed.

    The expansion of the educated middle-class has the potential of destabilizing this model, as redistribution to the top and the bottom of the income distribution can become more challenging when the middle-class constitutes the majority. The social classes have diverging interests in the income distribution and so far, the income levels of the middle-class have been held back in solidarity with the low-income earners. This project thus addresses topics in three thematic priority areas concerning support for the welfare state, solidarity and social equality, and the consequences that labour organization, regulation and labour migration have on the wage distribution.


    Institutional inequality is of great academic, political and societal interest and controversy, and relates to ethnic inequality, social class inequality and the gender pay gap. Until now, little attention has been paid to the manner in which occupational groups are internally structured with regard to equality among incumbents. In order to gain understanding on the extent to which wage levels are affected by occupational closure, further research is required.

    The project will seek to investigate whether processes of occupational closure create inclusionary and exclusionary mechanisms in the labour market based on ethnicity, immigrant status and/or social class background. The mechanisms underlying occupational closure might interact with these bases of exclusion in ways that could reduce inequality on basis of personal characteristics. This side of closure theory is highly underdeveloped. This research therefore focuses on the impact closure strategies have on the overall distribution of incomes, both between and within occupations, and the manner in which unions and associations negotiate closure practices.


    With the aim of conducting innovative empirical research and ground breaking theory development, this project combines quantitative and qualitative research methods. Because the topic of interest is structural, administrative register data is used with great benefit. The qualitative work is comparative and seeks to understand how associations and unions navigate and manage professional interest, which strategies are pursued, how these are justified, including analysing the sources of closure, and what their ultimate aim is. It will give authorities and unions knowledge about the consequences of (de)regulation of occupations and increasing skills demands for wages

    Funding: Norwegian Research Council 

    Dr. T. (Thijs) Bol

    Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

    Programme group: Institutions, Inequalities and Life courses

  • De Toekomst van het Vakmanschap

    Vakmanschap heeft verschillende betekenissen. Voor de een betreft vakmanschap het ontwikkelen van goed opgeleide mensen die flexibel zijn, beschikken over ‘21st century skills’ en een bijdrage kunnen leveren aan een ‘lerende economie’. Voor de ander staat vakmanschap voor het ontwikkelen van specialistische kennis en een daarmee samenhangende beroepsidentiteit.

    In deze visie is de innovatiekracht en groei van de economie sterk afhankelijk van mensen die hoog gespecialiseerd zijn. Weer een andere visie benadrukt vooral het praktische karakter van vakmanschap. Hierbij gaat de aandacht vooral uit naar leerlingen aan de onderkant van het onderwijsgebouw die met een vakmanschapsroute een keuze maken die past bij hun praktische oriëntatie en talenten. Hierdoor hebben ze bovendien een comparatief voordeel op de arbeidsmarkt in vergelijking met algemeen opgeleide leerlingen.

    De verschillende visies op vakmanschap verwijzen elk naar een andere functie van beroepsonderwijs en hebben belangrijke consequenties voor de inrichting, vormgeving en sturing van het beroepsonderwijs.


    In dit project zullen de verschillende visies op vakmanschap worden geëxpliciteerd en uitgewerkt in verschillende toekomstscenario’s (deelproject 1). Deze zullen worden gerelateerd aan de wijze waarop de inrichting van het onderwijs bepaalde vormen van vakmanschap ontwikkelt (deelproject 2), de vraag op de arbeidsmarkt naar verschillende soorten vakmanschap (deelproject 3), en de relatie tussen de invulling van vakmanschap en de institutionele vormgeving van het bestel (deelproject 4). Aan het eind van het project worden de resultaten in de vorm van verschillende toekomstscenario’s voorgelegd en bediscussieerd met beleidsmakers en relevante stakeholders (deelproject 1).

    Funding:NRO Programmaraad voor Beleidsgericht Onderzoek (ProBO)

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

    Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

    Programme group: Institutions, Inequalities and Life courses

    Dr. T. (Thijs) Bol

    Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

    Programme group: Institutions, Inequalities and Life courses

  • 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.

    Funding: NWO Vici

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

    Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

    Programme group: Institutions, Inequalities and Life courses

  • Critical Life Events and the Dynamics of Inequality: Risk, Vulnerability, and Cumulative Disadvantage

    A research consortium led by Thomas Leopold, Associate Professor of Sociology, has been awarded € 1,5 million by the European Commission via an ERA-NET Cofund grant. The project will be situated within the programme group Institutions, Inequalities, and Life Courses and carried out as a transnational research programme involving three collaborating institutions: University of Oxford, Stockholm University, and University of Lausanne.

    The project studies the impact of two critical life events – job loss and union dissolution – on the life trajectories of adults and their children. It examines two pathways through which these events may produce an accumulation of inequality over the life course: risk and vulnerability. Risk refers to social gradients in the likelihood of experiencing these events, whereas vulnerability refers to social gradients in the impact of these events on economic and noneconomic outcomes.


    The project’s main objectives are to understand (1) how job loss and union dissolution contribute to the accumulation of disadvantage over the life course; (2) what mechanisms explain the (unequal) impact of these events; and (3) which work and family policies are effective in targeting these mechanisms in order to reduce inequality.

    Work will be conducted within five research groups, all of which will apply comparable designs to the analysis of survey data and register data in five countries: Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The groups will develop a common theoretical framework that specifies shared research goals and ensures a high level of integration throughout the project’s three-year duration. The cohesion of the project across the participating institutions is fostered by a series of meetings and workshops in which all junior and senior members participate.

    Dr. T. (Thijs) Bol

    Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

    Programme group: Institutions, Inequalities and Life courses

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

    Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

    Programme group: Institutions, Inequalities and Life courses

  • InGRID-2: Integrating Research Infrastructure For European Expertise on Inclusive Growth from Data To policy

    The objectives of the InGRID-2 project are to advance the integration and innovation of distributed social sciences research infrastructures (RI) on ‘povety, living conditions and social policies’ as well as ‘working conditions, vulnerability and labour policies’.

    Referring to the increasingly challenging EU2020-ambitions of Inclusive Growth , the objectives of the InGRID-2 project are to advance the integration and innovation of distributed social sciences research infrastructures (RI) on ‘povety, living conditions and social policies’ as well as ‘working conditions, vulnerability and labour policies’.

    InGRID-2 will extend transnational on-site and virtual access, organize mutual learning and discussions of innovations, and improve data services and facilities of comparative research. The focus areas are a) integrated and harmonized data, (b) links between policy and practice, and (c) indicator-building tools. Lead users are social scientist involved in comparative research to provide new evidence for European policy innovations. Key science actors and their stakeholders are coupled in the consortium to provide expert services to users of comparative research infrastructures by investing in collaborative efforts to better integrate micro-data, identify new ways of collecting data, establish and improve harmonized classification tools, extend available policy databases, optimize statistical quality, and set-up microsimulation environments and indicator-building tools as important means of valorization.

    Helping scientists to enhance their expertise from data to policy is the advanced mission of InGRID-2. A research portal will be the gateway to this IRI. Networking activities will provide initiation (summer schools), in-depth discussions (expert workshops), and help to promote necessary innovations for sustainable inclusive growth. Extending the RI to all EU countries is an important mission on the agenda for InGRID-2. Based on surveyed users’ needs, joint research activities are conducted in the focus areas and concentrate on extending data integrations, exploring new data linkage and sources, innovating microsimulation tools, improving comparative policy data, and investigating new high-quality indicators.

    • Period: May 1, 2017 - April 31, 2017
    • Funding: H2020
    Dr. S.M. (Stephanie) Steinmetz

    Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

    Programme group: Institutions, Inequalities and Life courses

  • Growth, Equal Opportunities, Migration and Markets

    The GEMM project delivers an assessment of labour market inequalities of migrants and minorities in Europe.

    We especially focus on highly skilled migrants to Europe, who do not always find jobs in which their skills are used most effectively. By understanding the drivers of these inequalities and determining how institutional factors account for differences between countries, we provide recommendations of great practical and policy relevance.

    The GEMM project strives to produce research that is highly usable for policy makers. In order to do so, we implemented an innovative methodological framework that considers different determinants of inequality as a barrier to the smooth functioning of local labour markets.

  • Ethnic Discrimination on the Labour Market in Context

    How do organisations and national institutions shape ethnic discrimination on the labour market? This four-country study analyses how organisational policies, organisational structure and interethnic attitudes explain discriminatory behaviour of employers. To answer these questions, Lancee will use a combination of methods: vignettes, field experiments, laboratory experiments and a survey.

    NWO Vidi