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Summer student research: Socially mobile peasants

July 22, 2014

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    Katie Keith '15

During the summer months, Lewis & Clark students remain closely engaged with their fields of study, and many make meaningful contributions to scholarship by collaborating with faculty on innovative research.

Katie Keith ’15 has been working with Associate Professor of Economics Clifford Bekar to study social mobility among peasants of medieval England. She reflects on this experience in the following Q&A.

What are you researching?

We are studying social mobility among peasants of medieval English peasantry. We plan to first produce a time series of seed yields for wheat, barley, and rye—the three main medieval grain crops—and then write a new simulation code to track intergenerational variables such as population levels, distribution of land, and land market transactions.

We want to understand the impact of peasant land markets on social mobility in England, the relationship between inequality and social mobility, and the role of skill versus luck in determining the distribution of income among medieval peasantry.

What initially sparked your interest in this project, and how does it relate to your previous coursework?

As a mathematics major, I’ve found myself most in the flow when I sit down with a problem set to complete or a computer program to write. I’m so excited by the limitless possibilities of mathematics, and I find myself feeling most passionate about its social applications. I became interested in Professor Bekar’s project because it is extremely interdisciplinary. It will require me to apply what I’ve learned in my computer science and mathematics classes to a very concrete problem in the discipline of economic history.

How has your Lewis & Clark education been enhanced by close collaboration with faculty?

Were it not for the Lewis & Clark emphasis on student-faculty interaction, I would likely not have this summer research opportunity. I took my first class with Professor Bekar—Game Theory—last fall, and even though I wasn’t an economics major or minor, he was eager to answer my questions and further my understanding of the subject. I was amazed by his willingness to hold office hours every single day and for long stretches of time. Because of Professor Bekar’s outreach toward students, I was able to develop an academic relationship with him that led to this summer opportunity.

Does your research have potential to be applied in the real world or to influence other work in your field?

We expect that the time series estimates of seed yields and the simulation model we produce will be of interest to other economic historians. Ultimately, we hope our results can contribute to the debate surrounding the origins of the early industrial revolution’s labor force.

How will this research experience hopefully impact your future studies or professional pursuits?

Although my future plans constantly change, I can currently see myself attending graduate school for industrial or systems engineering. These fields seems suitable to my interest in combining math, computer science, and other empirical, problem-solving disciplines with the social sciences and real world applications. I hope that my research this summer will help me narrow my interests and allow me to gain invaluable experience that could assist me in these future studies.

About the Mellon Foundation

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation allows students to pursue graduate-level research in the humanities and social sciences. This summer, more than 20 students are being sponsored to study such topics as pop culture and national identity in Mexico, immigration of Russian speakers to Oregon, and social mobility among peasants of medieval England. They are conducting research on campus and at diverse sites around the world.

“We firmly believe that engaging students in the practice of their discipline is the best way to prepare them for life beyond the college,” said Jerusha Detweiler-Bedell, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Student-faculty research is seen as one of the strengths of our educational experience, and with this grant, we can ensure that students have access to opportunities for collaboration.”

By supporting these endeavors, the Mellon Foundation continues its long legacy of enriching scholarly and curricular offerings at Lewis & Clark.

Katrina Staaf ’16 contributed to this story.

Economics Department Collaborative Research