Estimating Historical Inequality from Social Tables: \\ Towards Methodological Consistency

36 Pages Posted: 16 May 2023

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Calumet Links

Stellenbosch University

Dieter von Fintel

Stellenbosch University

Erik Green

Lund University


Research on long-term historical inequality has expanded to include previously neglected periods and societies, particularly in the global South. This is partly due to the resurgence of the social tables method in economic history, an approach which uses archival records to reconstruct income and wealth distributions in contexts where micro data is unavailable. This method can cause a downward bias in estimating inequality, but there is limited evidence of this bias in economic history. We collected a new data set of 108 historical social tables spanning over a 1000 years. We found that the compilers consistently made careful methodological choices that took data limitations into account. We found that the inequality estimates are not systematically related to the number of classes chosen or the size of the top class, but that choosing bottom classes that bundle together even small variations in income or wealth can introduce a downward bias to the inequality estimates. This drawback can be overcome by using methodological cohesion to mitigate the problem of limited information about the poorest classes in colonial archives.

Keywords: social tables, gini, Inequality, pre-industrial, grouped data

Suggested Citation

Links, Calumet and von Fintel, Dieter and Green, Erik, Estimating Historical Inequality from Social Tables: \\ Towards Methodological Consistency. Available at SSRN: or

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Stellenbosch University ( email )

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Stellenbosch, 7602
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Dieter Von Fintel

Stellenbosch University ( email )

Erik Green

Lund University ( email )

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