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Social status may persist across eight centuries or more

Nov. 17, 2014
Courtesy of Springer journals
and World Science staff

If your name re­veals you de­scended from the “in” crowd in the Eng­land of 1066—the year of the fa­mous Nor­man con­quest—then even now, you’re more likely than the av­er­age Brit to be up­per-class. 

That’s the find­ing of a new study con­clud­ing that at least in Eng­land, so­cial sta­tus has tended to per­sist for some eight cen­turies or 28 genera­t­ions, if not more. 

More­o­ver, so­cial mo­bil­ity has changed lit­tle—”strong forc­es of fa­mil­ial cul­ture, so­cial con­nec­tions, and ge­net­ics” seem to link genera­t­ions re­gard­less of so­ci­e­tal changes, said Greg­o­ry Clark of the Uni­vers­ity of Cal­i­for­nia, Da­vis, who col­la­bo­rat­ed in the work.

Clark, with Neil Cum­mins of the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics, tracked so­cial mo­bil­ity by ex­am­in­ing the ap­pear­ance of rare Eng­lish sur­names, or last names, in var­i­ous his­tor­i­cal databases. These in­clud­ed stu­dents at the elite Ox­ford and Cam­bridge uni­vers­i­ties be­tween 1170 and 2012, rich prop­er­ty own­ers be­tween 1236 and 1299, and the na­t­ional pro­bate reg­is­try since 1858. The in­ves­ti­ga­tors checked for sur­names such as Atthill, Bun­duck, Bal­four, Bram­ston, Ches­lyn, and Conyn­g­ham.

Clark and Cum­mins found that so­cial sta­tus is even more strongly in­her­it­ed than height, and the rate of so­cial mo­bil­ity in any so­ci­e­ty can be es­ti­mat­ed from the knowl­edge of just two facts: the dis­tri­bu­tion over time of sur­names and the dis­tri­bu­tion of sur­names among an elite or un­der­class.

“The rel­a­tive con­stan­cy of the in­ter­genera­t­ional cor­rela­t­ion of un­der­ly­ing so­cial sta­tus across very dif­fer­ent so­cial en­vi­ron­ments in Eng­land from 1800 to 2012 sug­gests that it stems from the na­ture of in­her­it­ance of char­ac­ter­is­tics with­in fam­i­lies,” Clark said.

“Even more re­mark­a­ble is the lack of a sign of any de­cline in sta­tus per­sistence across ma­jor in­sti­tu­tion­al changes, such as the In­dus­t­ri­al Rev­o­lu­tion of the eight­eenth cen­tu­ry, the spread of uni­ver­sal school­ing in the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, or the rise of the so­cial dem­o­crat­ic state in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry,” added Cum­mins. “Sta­tus per­sistence meas­ured by educa­t­ion sta­tus is just as strong now as in the pre-in­dust­ri­al era.”

The study is pub­lished in the re­search jour­nal Hu­man Na­ture.


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If your name reveals you descended from the “in” crowd in the England of 1066—the year of the famous Norman conquest—then even now, you’re more likely than the average Brit to be upper-class. That’s the finding of a new study concluding that at least in England, social status has tended to persist for some eight centuries or 28 generations, if not more. Moreover, social mobility has changed little—”strong forces of familial culture, social connections, and genetics” seem to link generations regardless of societal changes, said Gregory Clark of the University of California, Davis, who collaborated in the work. Clark, with Neil Cummins of the London School of Economics, tracked social mobility by examining the appearance of rare English surnames, or last names, in various historical databases. These included students at the elite Oxford and Cambridge universities between 1170 and 2012, rich property owners between 1236 and 1299, and the national probate registry since 1858. The investigators checked for surnames such as Atthill, Bunduck, Balfour, Bramston, Cheslyn, and Conyngham. Clark and Cummins found that social status is even more strongly inherited than height, and the rate of social mobility in any society can be estimated from the knowledge of just two facts: the distribution over time of surnames and the distribution of surnames among an elite or underclass. “The relative constancy of the intergenerational correlation of underlying social status across very different social environments in England from 1800 to 2012 suggests that it stems from the nature of inheritance of characteristics within families,” Clark said. “Even more remarkable is the lack of a sign of any decline in status persistence across major institutional changes, such as the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century, the spread of universal schooling in the late nineteenth century, or the rise of the social democratic state in the twentieth century,” added Cummins. “Status persistence measured by education status is just as strong now as in the pre-industrial era.” The study is published in the research journal Human Nature.