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The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility

Author(s):Clark, Gregory
Reviewer(s):Salisbury, Laura

Published by EH.Net (September 2014)

Gregory Clark, The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014. xii + 364 pp. $30 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-691-16254-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Laura Salisbury, Department of Economics, York University.

In The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility, Gregory Clark (UC-Davis) marshals centuries of historical data for the purpose of characterizing social mobility in the very long run. Examining the performance of individuals with historically elite surnames, he argues that social status is dramatically more persistent than most existing estimates suggest. Covering a broad range of geographic regions and historical periods, Clark’s findings are striking. However, I find his interpretation of these findings less convincing.

The book is divided into three parts. In the first part, Clark introduces his methodology for measuring social mobility, and he characterizes long-term mobility in three countries:  Sweden, the United States, and the United Kingdom. The methodology involves identifying historically elite surnames from each country and, over a very long period, tracking their relative representation in both institutions of higher learning and in professions like law and medicine. In the case of modern England, he is able to look at wealth outcomes as well. Clark finds that, in all three countries, individuals with elite surnames are significantly overrepresented in high status positions. Using these surname groups, he estimates an implied rate of intergenerational persistence in each country to be in the range of 0.75-0.80; in contrast, conventional estimates are typically less than 0.60.

Clark goes on to describe the mechanism that he believes to be driving this high degree of persistence. In brief, he argues that a person’s life outcomes are determined in part by what he calls “social competence,” or underlying ability, which is only imperfectly measured by the life outcomes of the person’s parents. As surnames are transmitted across many generations, they embed more information about this underlying competence, hence the greater degree of persistence measured using surnames instead of parental achievements.

Clark suggests that underlying social competence is transmitted across generations genetically, or by a social process resembling the transmission of genes. In part 2, he presents evidence on socioeconomic persistence from other countries (India, China, Chile, and Japan) that he argues is consistent with this interpretation. In particular, he shows that persistence of social status is high in an endogamous society, and the degree of persistence is not appreciably interrupted by political regime change. Part 3 contains closing remarks on the future of social mobility within and across countries.

This book contributes a great deal to the discussion on social mobility. One of Clark’s major insights is that studies of mobility across two generations — the industry standard until recently — must be plagued with error in the measurement of socioeconomic status, and that taking a very long view of mobility may yield very different results. The major roadblock that other researchers have encountered is that there is little data out there that would enable such a study. The use of surnames is an inventive tool for overcoming these data limitations.  Other researchers (myself included) are taking steps to incorporate multiple generations into studies of intergenerational income transmission using historical census data. However, very few such studies are able to look at mobility over more than a few generations. Clark’s book uses data spanning hundreds of years, and, as such, provides an entirely novel perspective on this important question.

Of course, the ability to take this very long-run view comes at a cost. The bulk of the book centers on the transmission of professional or educational attainment among elite families or ethnic and religious groups; most studies examine income transmission for a nationally representative sample of families. The process of status transmission among elites may be fundamentally different from the process of status transmission in the entire population. If this is the case, it means that Clark’s results apply to a very particular type of persistence and should be interpreted as such. Clark acknowledges this possibility and argues against it; however, I think this is still an open question. Nonetheless, even if the book merely demonstrates persistence of elite status over many generations, this in itself is an important contribution that both academics and policymakers should value.

What I find less convincing is Clark’s account of the mechanism by which social status is maintained over such long periods. He is very quick to attribute social status to productive individual characteristics. In particular, he presumes that the achievement of status markers like education or wealth is driven by social competence, which he suggests is transmitted genetically.

It seems important to note that there is more to social class than “competence.” The tendency for elites to employ social, cultural and legal institutions to maintain their position is well explored in the literature on political economy and history. I think Clark is too quick to dismiss the various institutional mechanisms through which class is transmitted in the societies under investigation in this book. He argues that, because these countries have different institutions and social structures, the cross-country commonality in the persistence of social status is evidence that these institutions do not matter. I would be surprised if this convinces many readers. Of course, the broad collection of countries studied in this book makes it difficult to fully explore the unique institutional environments that may cause social class to persist in each place. Still, I do not think that Clark gives sufficient evidence for us to conclude that genetics are the primary driver of status persistence.

Take, for example, the discussion of mobility in India (chapter 8). Clark shows an extremely high degree of persistence of social status, which he measures using surnames common to different castes; he also notes that endogamous marriages have long been prevalent in India. Clark takes this as evidence that social class is genetically transmitted — couples are more likely to transmit genetic traits enabling success to their children if both halves of the couple possess these traits. However, a compelling alternative explanation is that India’s relatively rigid, socially enforced class system precludes social mobility while simultaneously discouraging marriages that cross class lines. It seems impossible to disentangle institutional barriers to class mobility from genetics in this case.

In short, Clark’s book begins a fascinating and important conversation about social mobility. He favors a single, unifying explanation for the persistence of social status across the globe, which may not convince many readers. Still, I think Clark’s findings are important to engage with, and they will factor into discussions about social mobility for years to come.

Laura Salisbury studies historical marriage markets, income mobility, and the development and consequences of historical income support programs. Her publications include “Selective Migration, Wages, and Occupational Mobility in Nineteenth Century America,” Explorations in Economic History, 2014.

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Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Income and Wealth
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative