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ERC grant: Reframing welfare history in modern Europe

Posted on 31 March 2020

In her ERC project, Professor Laura Lee Downs seeks to reframe the history of welfare and social care in modern Europe. She aims at restoring the view of the contribution of local actors - primarily families and associations - to shaping welfare systems in three borderland regions of northwestern, eastern, and southeastern Europe.

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In March 2020, five EUI researchers were awarded ERC advanced grants.

Downs adopts what she calls a "triadic" approach, which understands families, associations and states as co-constructors of social welfare. Focusing on borderland regions, where the reach of central states often fluctuated, Professor Downs and her team will examine a wide range of local welfare structures, based on national, but also non-national forms of identity and solidarity, such as occupation, religion, gender, neighbourhood, etc..

By focusing on these overlapping, and at times competing structures of social provision, Professor Downs and her team will explore the interplays between inclusion and exclusion that have long shaped European welfare provision. The researchers will home in on the contexts where such competition was particularly visible. Downs is convinced that the long-range historical study (1870s – 1990s) of local actors' ideas and practices around social welfare in European borderlands has much to tell us about the development of welfare across Europe in general. 

Rather than treating borderlands as peripheries, we approach them as laboratories for the development of social protection, thanks to the dense variety of actors competing for influence over their putative objects of assistance and for access to material resources,” said Professor Downs.

Among other things, the inside-yet-outside-the-state perspective that the triadic approach offers will enable us to analyse state-building processes through a lens that is distinct from, yet complementary to that of national solidarity/nationalist conflict, which currently dominates the literature on European borderlands.”

The project will go beyond the role of municipalities in welfare, which has been the object of extensive research. It will investigate how families and voluntary associations negotiated over entitlements to welfare, focusing in particular on support to children, veterans and working-class women.

Over the next five years, Professor Downs’s team will collaborate with other scholars and projects, including Marta Verginella’s ERC project on postwar transitions in gendered perspective: the case of the North-Eastern Adriatic region (1918, 1945, 1989); and Susan Zimmerman’s ERC project on women’s labor activism in Eastern Europe and transnationally from the age of empires to the late 20th century. Downs will also be working with a Vienna-based U.N. think tank, the European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research.

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Project title: Social politics in European borderlands: A comparative and transnational study, 1870s-1990s

Laura Lee Downs is Professor History of Gender and Sexuality at the EUI and Directrice d’études at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, where she holds the chair in the comparative history of social management. She is also co-director of the COST project “Who Cares in Europe?” and co-convener (with Anton Hemerijck and Andrea Ichino) of the EUI’s transdisciplinary cluster on Inequality, Social Justice and Social Welfare.