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HISCO: Historical International Standard Classification of Occupations

Author(s):Leeuwen, Marco H.D. van
Maas, Ineke
Miles, Andrew
Reviewer(s):James, Hamish

Published by EH.NET (August 2002)


Marco H.D. van Leeuwen, Ineke Maas and Andrew Miles, HISCO: Historical International Standard Classification of Occupations. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2002. 441 pp. $79.50 (cloth), ISBN: 90-5867-196-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Hamish James, Collections Manager, History Data Service, University of Essex.

To date, comparative work drawing on historical occupational data has been beset by the muddle of occupational classifications that have been used by historians. A desire to remain faithful to the nuances of local occupational structure and terminology has often led researchers to create classification schemes that are not quite compatible with those used by others. A tendency to aggregate occupational titles straight into class or status schemas which, of course, reflect the theoretical framework of the researcher, has also added to problems of compatibility. Meanwhile, the historical sources themselves contain many peculiarities to do with the way in which occupational information was originally collected and collated.

The Historical International Standard Classification of Occupations (HISCO) is an attempt to overcome some of these problems by creating an historically sensitive and internationally valid occupational classification that will allow “researchers from a variety of countries to communicate with each other and make international comparisons across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in social, economic and other fields of history” (p. 1).

Instead of designing a new scheme from scratch, the authors, and others involved in developing HISCO, have taken an existing scheme, ISCO68 (1968 International Standard Classification of Occupations), and customized it for historical research. ISCO68 is the middle of a series of three classifications developed by the International Labour Office, and was selected as the starting point for HISCO because it contains more occupational classifications than the earlier ISCO56 classification while still retaining the historical occupational titles that were subsequently dropped from ISCO88. Jobs that post-date the HISCO period have been deleted. Jobs whose status has altered significantly since the nineteenth century have been reassigned to different groups within the classification system. Jobs of historical importance not included in ISCO68 have been added to HISCO. In addition to the main classification based on ISCO68, HISCO includes three subsidiary classification schemes. A simple status scheme can be used to discern masters from apprentices, or students from graduates for example. The product scheme, based on the United Nations Central Product Scheme, can be used to record details of materials used in an occupation. The relation scheme can be used to record details about individuals who are in some way related to an occupation, such as a farmer’s wife, or a retired jeweler.

HISCO’s structure closely resembles ISCO68. There are eight major groups divided into 83 minor groups, which contain among them some 284 unit groups. Within the unit groups are 1,881 occupational categories, the finest level of detail within the HISCO scheme. The manual contains an entry for each occupational category (and these take up the bulk of the pages), including a short description of the tasks and activities involved in the occupation described, and a list of the specific historical occupational titles coded to that category during the development of HISCO.

A key point is that HISCO is not a class or status scheme, and should not be judged in those terms. Occupations are classified by economic sector and workplace tasks. For example, major group 6 is “Agricultural, animal husbandry and forestry workers, fishermen and hunters” (the use of fishermen is unusual, the language of the manual is in the main gender neutral), and within this group you will find minor groups such as “forestry workers” containing unit groups such as “loggers” and, finally, occupational categories such as “logger (general),” and “tree feller and bucker.” Inevitably, the distribution of occupations into different categories within HISCO does reveal some of the usual assumptions. You will find professional occupations in major group 0/1 and laborers in major group 7/8/9. But with a total of 1,881 separate occupational categories there is plenty of scope to reassemble HISCO coded data into any number of alternative class or status classifications, and this should allow occupational data to be shared irrespective of the theoretical preferences of individual researchers.

Coders will find the task of assigning HISCO codes to occupational titles slow until they are familiar with the structure of HISCO. Basic instructions on how to use the manual are given (four pages), but it is unlikely that two coders will achieve a high level of consistency without taking more time to explore the scheme in detail. For the coder, the most valuable section of the manual may well be the last, chapter seven, which contains alphabetical listings of occupational titles and their associated HISCO codes, providing a quick route into the occupational categories. Reflecting the international nature of HISCO, there are occupational title listings in Dutch, English, French, German, Norwegian and Swedish.

Familiarity with the scheme will help reduce the time needed to assign codes, but the possibility of error is likely to remain because of the many ‘other’ categories included in HISCO. How, for example, does one know, on finding the group “butcher, general,” described as someone who “slaughters animals, bones and cuts up carcasses and prepares standard meat cuts,” that a pork butcher should not be assigned to this group, but rather to the group, “Other Butchers and Meat Preparers”? There are many instances where a given occupational title could quite reasonably be assigned to a number of codes (some legitimate, in which case multiple coding options are indicated in the manual), so a careful reading of all occupational categories in a unit group is recommended before a code is assigned. Fortunately, as most of these difficulties occur at the occupational category level, it should in practice be possible to avoid many problems by analyzing the data at the unit group level. The 284 unit groups should provide a more than adequate level of detail for many purposes, particularly given the inherent limitations in the reliability and detail of many occupational titles found in historical sources.

The HISCO scheme has been built through a practical coding exercise involving a series of national samples from Belgium, Britain, France, Canada, Germany, Norway and Sweden. The assignment of occupational titles to HISCO groups was done for the 1,000 most common occupations found in each sample. All the records used were from parish, civil or census records, and the bulk of the records are from the nineteenth century, but the combined collection spans the period from 1690 to 1970. The geographical scope varies between samples; from “6 German Villages” to “Great Britain.”

The range of times, places and sources drawn upon is wide, adding up to an impressive total of well over two million records coded during the development of HISCO. This, along with HISCO’s association with the established and well-used ISCO68 scheme mark it out as more than just another of the many occupational coding schemes that have been proposed by historians, although the extent to which it can become the standard classification for historical occupations remains to be seen.

This volume should find its way onto the desk of anyone of needs to code historical occupations. Its presence is justified simply by its value as a reference work, but for the potential of HISCO to be achieved individuals and projects need to be encouraged to adopt HISCO as their occupational classification. In this respect, the authors have missed an important opportunity to stress that work on HISCO is on-going in a number of countries.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII