29 December 2018

The Son Also Rises: surnames and the history of social mobility

The social status of a person in the current generation can be explained by the social status of prior generations.

That's the conclusion Gregory Clark came to when confronted with evidence of the persistence of status over 500 years that was too glaring to ignore. As he writes "I was forced to abandon my cherry assurance that one of the joys of the capitalist economy was its pervasive and rapid social mobility. Having for years poured scorn on my colleagues in sociology for all their obsessions with such illusionary categories as class, I now have evidence that the individual's life chances were predictable not just from the status of the parents but from that of the great great great grandparents. Indeed there seems to be an inescapable inheritance substrata, looking suspiciously like social class, that underlies the outcomes for all individuals."

Clark's book The Son Also Rises: surnames and the history of social mobility published in 2014 documents examples from various countries. The graph, based on probate records for England and Wales, shows how surnames associated with different classes maintain their relative wealth over 150 years showing only a slow regression to the mean.

Find the book at https://www.amazon.com/Son-Also-Rises-Surnames-Princeton/dp/0691168377 or, as I did, at the Ottawa Public Library.

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