Lives over time: Birth cohort studies as a form of scientific knowledge-production


Project description

The project focuses on the history of the birth cohort study, a variant of cohort studies. The cohort study has a long pre-history, but it became a standard method of medical and social research only after the Second World War. Indeed, our project starts from the premise that the birth cohort study, as a form of knowledge-production, is a historically specific product of 20th century industrial and post-industrial society. This was a society keen to cure social, mental and bodily ills with the help of science-informed policies and that had, for the first time in history, the practical means of following large groups of individuals around for years and decades, producing a mass of varied data on them. There are many kinds of cohort studies, but the membership in a birth cohort is determined simply by date and place of birth. A BCS will seek to include all babies born within a limited span of time (e.g. a week or a year) within a country, city or other area. The first nation-wide BCS was launched in Britain in 1946 and has been followed by many others world over. BCSs have generated a vast amount of data and thousands of medical, psychological and sociological publications. Their findings have informed health, educational and social policies.

The project studies the BCS as a historical phenomenon. We trace the historical roots and explain the emergence of this form of knowledge-production in the 1920s–1940s, identify the major changes it has undergone since then, and discuss its scientific and social significance. The project represents sociologically informed history of science and medicine. We ask  

·     When and how did the BCS emerge as a viable approach in medical and social sciences? What were the background factors and preconditions for this step?

·     What are the most important changes that have taken place in the history of the BCSs, and what explains these changes?

·     What is the historical signifigance of this form of knowledge-production, viewed against the backdrop of general history of medical and human sciences and the history of 20th- and early 21st century society?

The project will provide the first compherensive historical account of the BCS. In addition, it investigates more spesific questions – such as the ethical guidelines steering long-term longitudical studies, the impact of technological changes on the data-gathering and –processing practices and the public image and impact of these studies – in the context of two Northern Finland BCSs (NFBCS), launched in 1966 and 1986 respectively

Project coordinator

University of Oulu

Project results


Heini Hakosalo

Heini Hakosalo

Anna Reetta Rönkä

Anna Reetta Rönkä

Postdoctoral researcher

Annukka Sailo

Postdoctoral researcher