Sakari Saaritsa


Description of research and teaching

Associate Professor in Social History & Academy of Finland Research Fellow (August 2017-)

I am an economic and social historian working on topics related to development, poverty, welfare, gender and human capital. My research interests include social inequality, private and public investments into health and education, intrahousehold resource allocation, historical indicators of well-being and human development, relationships between economic growth and human resources development, interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral dialogue between development policy, development economics and development history, labour history, and relevant research methods and sources, such as microeconometrics, demography, anthropometrics, household budgets, social network analysis and oral histories.


In addition to academic research, I have worked in development in India, Tanzania, Syria and Mozambique in different capacities, from intern to consultant. Although I am a permanent resident of Helsinki, I have been based in Africa and the Middle East for altogether seven years since 2005.


I am currently working on a book project where a number of experienced Finnish historians reinterpret  their previous work from a development perspective as a part of an Academy of Finland research project Counteracting Amnesia in Development: Studies from the Periphery, directed by Juhani Koponen, professor emeritus of development studies at the University of Helsinki. I am also working on a series of papers on themes listed under work in progress below, and elaborating a new project on economic development and human resources in Finland in the 19th and 20th centuries.


A complete list of my publications, including translations for the Finnish titles, can be found at the end of my CV below.


Former research projects:

Counteracting Amnesia in Development -- Studies from the Periphery (Academy of Finland, director Juhani Koponen, 2014-2016)

Household risk management before the welfare state: Coping with insecurity in early 20th century Finland (Academy of Finland, 2010-2014)


Teaching in the academic year 2016-2017 (in Finnish):

Kandidaattiseminaari [BA thesis seminar]

Toimeentulon ja kehityksen mikrotaloushistoriaa -artikkeliseminaari (periodi II) [Seminar on the microeconomic history of poverty, welfare and development]

Kvantitatiiviset tutkimusmenetelmät, maisteriopintojen kurssi (periodi IV) [Quantitative methods, Master's course]

Faculty examinations: Emerging consumer society, The history of Everyday Life and Mentalities, The History of Social Science History, Population and Family and Population and History.


 Former teaching: 

Courses in the spring term 2016:

Global Development History and Finland (in Finnish, with Juhani Koponen, Development Studies & Economic and Social History, Period III)

Quantitative methods (in Finnish, Economic and Social History, Period IV)



Courses in the spring term 2012:

Seminar on the microeconomic history of poverty, welfare and development

See WebOodi,


Courses in the spring term 2011:

Seminar on the microeconomic history of poverty, welfare and development

(with Juhani Koponen:) Global development history and the Finnish experience


Work in progress:


(with Jarmo Peltola) Mortality and morbidity responses to water investments in Finnish cities, 1880s-1960s

The secular mortality decline in Finland since the 1870s has usually been linked with a standard Western urban sanitary intervention story, although the degree of urbanization was still low and much of the investments took place late. The paper uses longitudinal data on 45 Finnish cities to estimate the effect of water improvement on urban morbidity and mortality from the 1880s to the 1960s. Available data enables the construction of city-level time series on various outcome variables, such as the crude death rate, the infant mortality rate, mortality from waterborne vs. other illnesses, and non-lethal morbidity by disease. Local data on the exact timing of initiation and improvement of water services (piped water, sewers, filtration, chlorination) makes it possible to construct differences-in-differences regressions on key interventions, simultaneously including time/trend controls and other city-level controls (population, public services, etc.). This produces estimates on the share of mortality/morbidity change brought about by the initiation and upgrade of water services in cities, as opposed to other possible causes. As a late industrializer and a late urbanizer, Finland is potentially an interesting addition to the discussion on the factors behind the great Western mortality decline.

Deconstructing oral histories of family strategies through record linkage: Contrasting interview, tax, welfare and parish materials from early 20th century Finland

Research based on oral histories often exhibits an ambivalent relationship towards the treatment of narrative interviews as sources on facts. Preferred questions and methodological advances have for long focused on post-linguistic-turn approaches. On the other hand, particularly when analyzing life courses, basic facts about material context and events tend to be liberally drawn from the same narratives. The notion that omissions and silences can be significant in reading discourses is well established. Nevertheless, juxtaposition of oral and official sources tends to focus on what the latter are missing or distorting, rather than the other way around. This paper provides an extensive record linkage exercise in order to compare life courses as represented in oral histories with life courses as constructed from official sources. Oral histories of workers discussing household survival strategies in early 20th century Finland have been linked with the tax, parish, poor relied and address records on the same individuals and families. This makes it possible to actually detect and include into analysis the omissions and incongruences between oral representations and official records. The argument is that the effect of a traditional “fact-checking” exercise can be dramatic for the interpretation of oral narratives and the representations they are providing. Contrasting with other sources can make seemingly innocuous factual statements in oral histories highly significant in terms of self-representation and identity construction by showing what has been left unsaid or altered.


Socioeconomic capital, physiological capital and human capital: An anthropometric perspective on schooling and social mobility in interwar Finland

The paper exploits school-based statistics on height and weight by age to analyze the linkages between social inequality, physiological development, and evolving mass education in early 20th century Finland. Anthropometric research has cumulated evidence on the importance of physiological development captured by indicators of growth for cognitive skills, school attainment and productivity. In poor countries, the accumulation of “physiological capital” is largely determined by socioeconomic status via its effect on net nutrition, as well as the incidence of shocks like wars, epidemics and recessions. In the German-style “elitist” educational system of early 20th century Finland, a minority of pupils were tracked at age 10-11 to secondary schools offering access to white collar employment and the academia through what was formally a meritocratic process. The links between socioeconomic status, gender and secondary schooling have been elaborated in recent literature (Saaritsa & Kaihovaara, Cliometrica 2014). Available aggregate statistics on height and weight by age for a sample of thousands of pupils of both sexes by educational track between ages 7 and 20 from the turn of the 1920s and the mid-1930s enables incorporating physiological capital into the analysis. Applying recent WHO parameters makes it possible to estimate the extent of stunting and wasting by group and by sex in the two periods. Comparing weight and height based indicators in samples collected at specific historical moments makes it possible to gauge the effects of structural nutritional inequality versus the legacy of past shocks such as the civil war of 1918 and the Great Depression of the 1930s. In addition to measuring differences in height at age of tracking, it is possible to measure gender differences in the degree of physiological inequality between secondary and non-secondary schooled children, and their evolution over a period marked by GDP growth, crises and changes in gendered employment and educational patters. All this sheds light on the local social dynamics of a period characterized in historical HDI literature as one of human development rather than income growth driven progress in Europe.


Excess female mortality, tuberculosis, adolescence and modernization:  Evidence from Finnish population statistics, 19th - 20th c.

This paper presents findings on female excess mortality and tuberculosis based on Finnish population statistics which seem at odds with some dominant explanations of the phenomenon. Excess female mortality in age groups from late childhood till the end of the reproductive years has been observed across many populations in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but has later disappeared over time. Whereas the proximate cause in most cases seems to have been pulmonary tuberculosis (TB), the root causes remain contested. Intrahousehold discrimination related to changing bargaining positions of the sexes under capitalist modernization has been widely discussed, along with unsanitary early industrial working conditions in female majority branches like textiles. On the other hand, some new literature on the UK suggests epidemiological reasons and changes in disease environment were driving the rise and subsequent fall of the excess, while no consistent evidence of underlying discrimination is argued to exist. Somewhat surprisingly, any clinical consensus on the possible medical causes of greater female susceptibility to TB is equally hard to come by. A recurrent strand of explanations is based on puberty and related hormonal changes, some medical researchers suggesting sexually transmitted infections as potential drivers of TB advance. This paper describes a method for roughly estimating annual female excess mortality from TB by age group from the late 19th century to WWII with Finnish population data. It is shown that the annually available raw ratio of TB deaths by sex is reasonably close to the actual mortality difference calculable from decennial census data and may act as proxy. As identifying TB was well established, this indicator shows no breaks associated with changes in clinical capacity to define causes of death and statistical classification and provides a long, stable time series. The exercise seems to indicate a consistent female excess TB mortality already in the age group 5 to 9. While this ratio seems largely unresponsive to gendered structural changes occurring over the 60-year period in terms of employment, growth, industrialization and urbanization, it is equally incommensurable with epidemiological explanations based on puberty or sexual contact. Potential causes for the excess and its decline are explored.


The reduction of poverty in Finland measured with human development indicators, 19th - 20th c


Latest publications

  1. E-pub ahead of print

    Forever gender equal and child friendly? Intrahousehold allocations to health in Finland before the Nordic welfare state

    Saaritsa, S. 31 Jan 2017 In : European Review of Economic History.

    Publication: Contribution to journalA1 Refereed journal article

  2. "Data to Die For"?: Finnish Historical Household Budgets

    Saaritsa, S. Aug 2016 In : Rivista di storia economica. 32, 2, p. 177-210 34 p.

    Publication: Contribution to journalA1 Refereed journal article

  3. Good for girls or bad for boys?: Schooling, social inequality and intrahousehold allocation in early twentieth century Finland

    Saaritsa, S. & Kaihovaara, A. Jan 2016 In : Cliometrica. 10 , 1, p. 55-98 44 p.

    Publication: Contribution to journalA1 Refereed journal article

View all (25) »

Latest activities

  1. Supervisor, Antti Kaihovaara

    Saaritsa, S. (Supervisor)
    2017 → …

    Activity: ExaminationSupervisor or co-supervisor of doctoral thesis

  2. Co-supervisor (with Markus Jäntti and Sakari Heikkinen), Petri Roikonen

    Saaritsa, S. (Co-supervisor)
    2016 → …

    Activity: ExaminationSupervisor or co-supervisor of doctoral thesis

  3. Co-supervisor (with Sakari Heikkinen), Saska Heino

    Saaritsa, S. (Supervisor)
    2016 → …

    Activity: ExaminationSupervisor or co-supervisor of doctoral thesis

View all (59) »


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