Book Review: The son also rises: Surnames and the history of social mobility

Today’s book review is of The Son also rises: Surnames and the history of social mobility, by Gregory Clark.

This book is an extremely wide-ranging attempt to answer the question of how much your parents matter to your ability to make your way in the world. A common way of measuring this is looking at the relationship between the income of children and their parents – here’s one study (a pdf from Andrew Leigh) as an example. In it, Leigh estimates the “income elasticity” from fathers to sons as 0.2:

Combining four surveys conducted over a forty-year period, I calculate intergenerational earnings elasticities for Australia, using predicted earnings in parents’ occupations as a proxy for actual parental earnings. In the most recent survey, the elasticity of sons’ wages with respect to fathers’ wages is around 0.2.

In other words, a father’s income predicts a son’s income with 20% accuracy.

But this book goes much further than income, and fathers and sons.

Clark collects a number of studies, his own and a variety of others using similar methodology, which use surname frequency and a variety of different markers of status to measure the persistency of social status between parent and child. He begins with modern Sweden. To the non Scandinavian, Sweden is often thought of as a model of equality; we tend to assume that also means that your overall status is what you make of it; it doesn’t depend on your parents. Many intergenerational income studies have borne out this hypothesis.

Clark has a different way of approaching this investigation. He finds two sets of names from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – the educated elite and the Swedish nobility, and finds rare surnames in those names – names that are over-represented compared with their frequency in the population at large. He then looks at a number of different ways of measuring modern elites – physicians, attorneys, university students, and members of the Royal Academies – and finds that even two and three hundred years later, those surnames are still over-represented. If you define a generation as 30 years, then your chances of passing on your social status to your children in each generation is around 70%.

Most of the book goes on to analyse a number of other country’s datasets – mediaeval England (using Oxford graduates, Members of Parliament, and people rich enough to have wills), China’s upper classes (using members of the famous mandarin bureaucracy), and even movement between castes in India.

The research is fairly convincing that in a wide variety of societies social mobility (defined broadly) is consistently slow across generations, regardless of the superficial level of equality in that society. Movements between lower and upper classes (and vice versa) seem broadly consistent in 18th and 19th century Sweden and 14th and 15th century England, despite the stereotype of feudal England having no movement between classes and Sweden actually choosing a new King in 1810 from the military middle class of France.

And since this book, people have built on it – here is a recent study on Florence showing the persistence of status in which surnames are over-represented amongst the rich there since the 15th century, despite several wars and revolutions that massively disrupted Italian society.


Esther Hewlett, published author and my great great great great grandmother

Coincidentally, my family has been researching our family history, and it certainly bears this theory of conservation of class out. While my grandmother, the daughter of a tanner, wasn’t able to go to university despite her stellar university entrance results (10th in the Auckland district examinations), one of her ancestors was a published author whose book of Household hints predated Mrs Beeton by 40 years. That long history of education and literacy probably made it easier for the family to imagine that education was important, and encourage my father to earn his PhD in Physics.

In fact all four of my grandparents have ancestors with Wikipedia entries or other larger than life stories in their background. While as a family our status has fluctuated over the years, the average has been around the middle to upper middle classes, even if it is hard to see the causation of why that’s persisted. While I have studied and worked hard for any success I’ve had, it’s been a lot easier for me (with a long distant ancestor who was writing letters including mathematical proofs 200 years ago) than it would be for someone whose grandparents were illiterate.

In Australia, we love to tell stories of those people who managed to reinvent themselves and their family histories when they came here as immigrants. My favourite example is Mary Reibey, who was arrested for stealing a horse in August 1791, transported to Australia as a convict, and ended up a successful business woman in Sydney – the Bank of NSW (now Westpac) was founded in her house in Macquarie Place. We have so many successful refugees – Frank Lowy and Anh Do are great examples. But for every Mary Reibey, there is a Lucy Turnbull, former Lord Mayor of Sydney, and descended from wealthy Irish immigrants who ran Sydney almost as soon as they got here. Privilege still matters, and this book has the statistics to prove it.

So does this matter? For me the so what of this book is about how we should organise society. Given how much of your success in life is based around your background, how fair is it that the rewards to success are large? To me, showing that success in life is more about your family background than your own attributes suggests that we should try not to over-reward success.

Instinctively we are surprised that Sweden is such a hidebound and classbound society – ending up at the top of status depends (mostly, not entirely) on having a family that has started there. But it doesn’t seem to matter as much there as it does here in Australia, or in other Anglo-Saxon countries. Why? Because the difference in your life’s outcomes from the social capital you start with is not that great. Sure, you are more likely to make it as a lawyer or doctor if your family starts at that end of society. But you still have a pretty nice life if you start as a truck driver. So if it really is that hard to create social mobility in a society, then maybe we should work harder as a society so that the outcome differences aren’t that great.

  2 comments for “Book Review: The son also rises: Surnames and the history of social mobility

  1. André Dreyer
    May 24, 2016 at 12:07 am

    Thanks for this post, Jennifer. I enjoyed reading your interpretation and application to Australian society.

  2. Suzoz
    May 24, 2016 at 6:35 pm

    Class will out!

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