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Department of Sociology



The sociology department at the John F. Kennedy Institute teaches and studies the political economy of the United States in comparative and historical perspective combining data-driven computational approaches with informed institutional analyses of capitalism, finance and insurance, housing and welfare states as well as policing and drawing on theories from Comparative Political Economy, historical and economic sociology.


Freie Universität Berlin
John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies
Department of Sociology
Lansstraße 7-9
14195 Berlin

Front Office
Regina Götz (Room 322)
Telephone +49 30 838 52702
Fax +49 30 838 452702


Department Chair
Sebastian Kohl


Insuring modern societies: A historical-comparative sociology of private insurance, its evolution, origins and consequences

Sebastian Kohl

Funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft/ German Research Foundation (project number: 521230583)

This project proposes a historical-comparative sociology of the private insurance sector in its life and non-life branches (property, transport, etc.) in 20 old OECD countries starting in the late 19th century and 15 emerging economies with shorter coverage (Latin America, Asia, Eastern Europe). The insurance sector annually collects about 7% of world GDP as premium income, holds about half of total banking assets and becomes increasingly important in times of rising climate and catastrophe risks. This has strangely been neglected by either historians and economists of finance, with their focus on banks and capital markets, or political scientists, with their strong focus on public insurances within the welfare states. Sociologists themselves have covered “risk sociology” very well, but largely ignored the insurance sector therein. This project aims at filling this gap by building a cross-country historical database of the main stock and flow variables of modern premium-based insurances in order to study their evolution across time and countries, to explain their growth and to investigate selected consequences in three working packages. The first working package will build the insurance database and describe the about 200 years of modern insurance development and will compare its growth trends with those of other financial institutions and the public welfare state. It will also uncover countries’ different insurance growth trajectories. The second working package addresses the question of different growth determinants by mainly looking at often discussed economic and cultural factors, i.e. the relationship between economic development and insurance growth and the potentially Weberian relationship between Protestantism and different denominations and insurance development. A final working package focuses on selected consequences of insurances: does the sector macroeconomically insure against financial and other crises by allowing for quicker economic recoveries? Is there a trade-off between private insurers and public insurance domains, particularly in the pension and accident domain? Overall, the project connects to some questions studied across different disciplines for very short time spans, but plays out a huge data advantage of covering many countries in the long-run. Beyond building a future database for practical use in welfare, finance and securities studies, the project contributes to a potential sociology insurance that connects to Weberian themes of rationalization, to the different worlds of public welfare and the varieties of capitalism.

Housing shortage in Germany

Sebastian Kohl
Max Steinhardt
Luca Stella

Funded by Hans Böckler Foundation

A central but under-researched dimension of the New Housing Question is the inadequate supply of housing space to households. After decades of continuous growth in living space per household and person in western Germany, and from the 1990s also in eastern Germany, urban and especially tenant households have been reacting to price and rent inflation for the first time in recent years with a sharp decline in demand for living space. This trend is also documented by rising overcrowding rates in European countries. 10% of German households (and even 20% of young households) had less than one room per adult person available in 2020 (overcrowding). Housing supply and overcrowding are strongly income-related in society, with a Gini coefficient of about 20% in Germany, according to data from the Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) (Kohl et al. 2019). While unequal consumption need not be problematic per se, it has a number of socially undesirable consequences, particularly in the case of overcrowding. Our project focuses on families who face the trilemma of balancing family, school and work when it comes to housing. The existing literature shows a strong correlation of overcrowding with psychological stress, family instability, and low academic performance. This has become extremely evident in the Corona-related retreat to the home office and home schooling.
Housing shortages thus have negative spillover effects on a number of domains of life, which this project aims to explore for the first time using causal methodology as well as in the context of the Corona pandemic for Germany. Adequate housing is not only a key factor in the reproduction and allocation of labor, but is also an increasingly important aspect of the welfare state. Thus, the housing issue has been repeatedly referred to as "the social issue of our time" in recent years.

Mapping the Housing Question: Social Segregation as Reflected in the Housing Enquets at the End of the 19th Century

Sebastian Kohl
Florian Müller

Supported by the research fund "Forschung 'Ellen Rifkin Hill'"

At the end of the 19th century, rapidly growing European cities were characterized by a large social housing and rent inequality, which was documented in detail by contemporary housing surveys. The project aims to use these surveys to gain new insights into inner-city segregation in a comparative perspective. The interdisciplinary project investigates the Swiss and German housing inquiries as examples of urban spatial inequalities in the distribution of housing space, housing comfort, and rent burden and visualizes them using the innovative approach of the historical geographic information system HGIS. Visualization using GIS allows us to draw more precise conclusions about the spatial segregation of urban populations by dwelling size, dwelling amenities, and rental prices, and to compare these with historical indicators between neighborhoods and cities and over time. The analysis of housing inquires promises to add to the existing research literature on the social segregation of European cities at the end of the 19th century on two levels. On the one hand, we would like to use the detailed surveys to comprehensively present segregation at the neighborhood level for the first time. On the other hand, we would like to make use of the unusually rich and relatively standardized housing surveys to compare Swiss and German cities comparatively.

Ongoing reseach projects include:

• Varieties of institutional investors: what is the role of institutional investors in financial capitalism and why do they differ so much across capitalist economies?
• Housing shortages: what are the causes and consequences of inequalities in residential floor areas?
• Insuring capitalism: what is the historical evolution of private insurance, why has it differed across the Maritime vs. Alpine economies and what are the consequences of different insurance cultures?
• Are there trade-offs between the public welfare state and private modes of welfare provision (insurance, homeownership)?
• Financial capitalism: why are financial institutions governing private wealth so different across countries and time? What are the micro-effects of different private household wealth compositions?
• Social housing: why was Red Vienna possible (and not elsewhere)? What is the long-run evolution of social housing rates nationally?
• The Financialization of Rental Housing: A Historical-Comparative Global Study (Rubicon Fellowship: Bo Li)
• From “New Theoretical Movement” to “Cultural Sociology”: Jeffrey Alexander and the Recent Changes in Sociological Discourse (DFG Walter Benjamin-Stelle: Jayme Gomes)

Office Hours

Front Office (Regina Götz)
Office hours: Mon - Thu from 1 p.m. - 4 p.m., room 322

For office hours of instructors, please see their profile pages:

Prof. Kohl

Prof. Kienscherf

Prof. Wenzel

Jonas von Ciriacy-Wantrup

Osman Demirbağ

Clara Heinrich

Ria Wilken