The two keywords that capture Professor Herman van de Werfhorst’s research are education and inequality. In an interview, he explained how he came to be an expert on the interaction of the two, and how he hopes to enrich the research and teaching environment at the EUI.
Why did you choose to study education?
My interest in education goes way back. In fact, in the process of decluttering my house I unearthed a paper about the Dutch school system that I had written at the age of 11. My interest was probably awakened by the impending social separation from my friends; it’s at this age that you and your friends are put into different ‘tracks’ in the Netherlands.
Education can either mitigate or reinforce social stratification. It is well established that inequality among school pupils is mainly determined by their home situation (parents’ origin, economic and social status, etc.). What I ask is, how and where do schools and school systems make a difference? This could be in economic wellbeing, barriers to political participation or other things.
Inequality is a huge subject. How do you approach it?
My research has micro and macro dimensions. The micro looks at the resources or skills kids possess when entering school, what they acquire there, and how these set them up for employment (or not) and a certain career path. A more macro approach theorises that schools are part of a system that, as a whole, creates and reinforces inequalities, for example by creating categories within society. How education is organised in a society has an impact on the inequality patterns we see.
Educational outcomes have been my recent focus, both micro and macro. To understand the effect of education on social stratification, I look at various channels: the learning itself (test results, acquired qualification levels), labour market outcomes (job placement, wage attainment), and political formation (the social and civic values taught, and subsequent levels of political engagement or polarisation).
So, you bring together students’ initial inequality, their school experience and later political behaviour?
Yes, I study multiple outcomes in relation to education. For example, I am part of a six-year project funded by the Dutch Ministry of Internal Affairs called Adolescent Panel Democratic Values and School Careers (ADKS). It uses panel data, following school children from age 12 to 18, to investigate the links between family background, teaching content, instructional tracking and later democratic engagement. With such longitudinal data it is possible to see how democratic values develop at crucial ages, across different tracks, for different families, and in different schools. These data, together with the comparative work that I have been doing, allow us to get a better grip on the role of educational institutions in the way inequality in democratic engagement unfolds.
Our research tries to determine whether the civic education efforts in schools pay off, and if they do so differentially. The pay-off could be in terms of political engagement, or citizens’ understanding and support of key democratic concepts.
What data do you use in your research? Are there issues with data protection?
Besides collecting and analysing longitudinal survey and social network data in schools, I am also involved in using so-called register data. Since about ten or fifteen years ago, the availability of official registers has offered a major step forward for social research. Wealthy, highly institutionalised societies gather detailed – and properly anonymised – data on demographics, economics, and schooling. I helped develop the Netherlands Cohort Study of Education (NCO), which makes such data accessible for researchers.
The EUI is home to many scholars of migration. Does your research also touch on migration?
Yes, it’s part of the story. In the Netherlands, researchers have shown that teachers and administrators in schools do not, in the aggregate, discriminate pupils on the basis of migration background. Here it is clear the inequality of opportunity originates farther back in the chain, with the parents’ situation and resources. I would caution that lack of discrimination in the everyday business of schools does not prove the absence of discrimination in the Netherlands generally. The stratification and inequality we see has likely already resulted from discrimination against the parents (as non-Dutch) at the workplace or in other spheres such as housing. In these domains discrimination is well-documented.
You are the co-coordinator of the EUI’s Interdisciplinary Research Cluster on Inequality, Welfare and Social Justice, together with economics professor Alexander Monge-Naranjo. What’s in store?
A lot! In 2023, we want to explore in particular the problem of cumulative advantages – and disadvantages – in society. To understand these, it is crucial to embrace an interdisciplinary approach. I have founded and led the Amsterdam Centre for Inequality Studies with a similar objective. The Cluster’s involvement of various disciplines is thus something very familiar to me. Through a seminar series, some high-profile speakers and a two-day workshop on inequality, we plan to strengthen interactions across all the departments, with the Migration Policy Centre at the Robert Schuman Centre, and with the Comparative Life Course and Inequality Research Centre at SPS.