History of Work Information System


Central to history is the world of work in the past, as known by occupational activities. Yet comparative research in this field is severely hampered by confusion regarding occupational terminology across time and space, within as well as between languages. To overcome this, we create an occupational information system that is both internationaland historical, and simultaneously links to existing classifications used for present-day conditions. The information system uses a historical international classification of occupations (HISCO) to combine various kinds of information on their tasks and duties in historical settings, as well as images on the history of work.

Why we started

Comparative research on the history of work is severely hampered by confusion regarding occupational terminology across time and space. This is regrettable as occupations form a key variable in many fields of history, ranging from research into stratification and mobility, through demography, to studies of labour markets and production.Within these fields, it is often desirable to make comparisons between regions and periods. The problems caused by the difficulties of interpretation have been evident in the field of stratification and mobility, where social position as indicated by occupation is a crucial issue.

Indeed it is frequently noted by historians that observed differences between tables of occupational mobility may very well be due to incompatibility between coding schemes or due to classification errors. Even when dealing with contemporary survey material in the social sciences, where the problem is arguably less severe, the same doubts on the validity of international comparisons due to anomalousapproaches to classification have often been voiced. Goldthorpe, for example, has noted that in many contemporary studies on social mobility: ”there is invariably a passage in which methodological problems and, in particular, problems of comparability of cross-national data are discussed and acknowledged to be grave.But then, this ritual having been completed, the analysis of the data goes ahead, even with a variety of caveats. The possibility that seems not to be contemplated, however, is that the degree of unreliability in the data is such that analyses should simply notbe undertaken; that rather than such analyses being of some value as 'preliminary' studies, which may subsequently be improved upon, they are in fact no more likely to have some approximate validity than they are to give results that point entirely in the wrong direction”.

It seems clear then that comparisons of important historical structures and processes would be a little less problematic if comparability in the coding of occupations was achieved. Such is the aim of HISCO. The data in the History of Work Information System are structured via HISCO. For most users this is, however, not immediately visible nor is it important to them. For users wishing to code their datasets it is essential, and for other users it may be interesting, to learn about HISCO.


Starting in the 1950s the International Labour Office has developed an International Standard Classification of Occupations (isco) allowing classification of occupational activities worldwide. Naturally, thissystem is not intended to deal with historical information. In recent years, a group of historians and sociologists have started to build upon the 1968 version of isco to create a classification scheme for occupational titles in the 19th and early 20th centuries, called hisco (see appendix) . It is tailored to cope with historical changes in the production process, and allows storage of information on product and status that could not be accommodated in isco. Large historical databases from which the hisco-data are taken and the international association of historians working on censuses have already agreed to adopt it, an many individual researchers are expected to do so as well.

Altogether, the HISCO scheme was originally based on the coding of the 1,000 most frequent male and female occupational titles in datasets from eight different countries: Belgium, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, theNetherlands, Norway and Sweden. The occupational data which were employed to develop the scheme span the period 1690-1970, but are mostly from the nineteenth century. They contain titles declared by or recorded for people of all ages in parish and civil registration documents. The data used to create HISCO encompass the largest country in western Europe, the world’s first industrial nation,the two most influential of the Scandinavian territories, and a newly-settled region of French-Canada. This, and an emphasis on variations within economies in sampling design, ensures that they provide a good mix of agricultural, industrial and commercial activities, of old and new technologies, of traditional and modern forms of organization. Moreover, the inclusion of two French-speakingpopulations, and a further region in which the official language was French, provides an effective test of the HISCO scheme’s sensitivity to the relationship between language and meaning.Nevertheless, the scheme is currently limited in coverage to the Northern European and Atlantic economies. Future development of the scheme will broaden its scope. To this end, the coding of new data into HISCO is being undertaken in several other countries.

The History of Work Information System has a coding section that helps users code their data in HISCO, and thus both make it comparable to other datasets, and make it of use to other scholars. The Provenance file lists all contributors to the HISCO-database.

Cross over between HISCO and ISCO

At present we have a concordance, or cross over between HISCO and ISCO68, that can be download. Under the links Harry Ganzeboom’s recode job between ISCO68 and ISCO88 can be found. Combining these a cross over exists between HISCO and ISCO88, currently used by census bureau’s all over the world.

Images on the world of work

Whenthe information system not only contains linguistic information on occupations from the historical record, but also occupational descriptions from encyclopaedias, and especially images on the world of work, a comparative cultural history of the world of work in past societies comes closer than ever. The images may not only revealtechnical details on the production process and the locus ofproduction, but also information on apparel, gestures, positions, emblemata, traditions of depicting work life etcetera.

At present the History of Work Information System contains images by the Dutch artist Jan Luycken, the German Hans Amman and by various artists in the French encylopédie of Diderot and D’Alembert.These will be supplemented by other images, and, furthermore, texts accompanying these images will be included, notable those written by dr. Donna Barnes (Hofstra University). We welcome new images, or texts on images.

Historical encyclopaedias

At present, occupational titles have been related, via HISCO, to a description of tasks and duties that is both short and contains little information specific to time and place. It is intended to extract information from historical encyclopaedias and other historical works that is more detailed as well as time and place specific, and to add this to the information system. To select and extract this information is a difficult task, and we welcomeassistance. The bibliography contains a section with titles of relevant works.

Measures of class and status

Once HISCO is easily available, recoding of historical occupational codes into a class scheme, a status scale or a division into economic sectors also becomes much less time-consuming than it is at present.In fact it allows an individual researcher virtually complete freedom to regroup individual occupational titles from various countries and periods, coded in HISCO, into a stratification scheme of his or her own liking. HISCO may thus also serve as an instrument to code historical occupational titles into a preferred class scheme.

Indeed, we intend to make a World Historical Class Scheme. The aim of this work is to reduce the 1675 HISCO codes into a smaller sizeable and meaningful number of classes. The class scheme will be rooted in HISCO, thus assuring consistency over the historical datasets andcomparability with current schemes.

Prof. Ken Prandy (sociology, Cardiff University) is considering to make a historical version of his CAMSIS-scale suitable for the HISCO-classification. This scale gives a continuous ranking of distances between occupations.

To demonstrate the viability of basing measures of class and status on HISCO, we already created a downloadable recode job from HISCO to Treiman’s international prestige scale. This scale has been used widely in sociology and has been applied by Treiman to some historical datasets.


The information system also contains a bibliography, with a small section devoted to works with images on the history of work. The bibliography also has a section on historical encyclopaedias and other historical works with descriptions on the tasks and duties of occupations in the past. It has a section on measures of class and prestige as well as occupational coding in the past, and, of course, a general section on the history of work. We welcome additionaltitles.


The information system has links to websites that are of interest to historians of work. We welcome information on new links.

Long-term perspective

The project is designed as a long-term infrastructural service to national and international researchers, gradually growing through their additions as the information system is used and appreciated.The Institute has a long-term global commitment to providingelectronic services in this field.

Moreover, we intend eventually further to develop the system by adding other types of data for use with other applications such as a gis allowing users to map geographical and temporal range of occupational titlesas well as gender divisions; software storing detailed information per sector of the production process and linked to individual occupations in that sector; software allowing linkage to rankings of occupations and occupational classes, e.g. literacy rates, tax-data, prestige scores etcetera. An appendix presents some examples of theuse of the information system.

Contacting us

If you would like to contribute to this project by coding occupational data into HISCO, supplying images of occupations, descriptions of the nature of the work, or otherwise, please contact: historyofwork@iisg.nl

Appendix: Some Uses of the History of Work Information System

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