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Real Roots Magic: Lineage Shapes Social Mobility

Biff Barnes

Genealogy is not a topic that often hits the pages of the New York Times, except when the business pages report on companies like Ancestry or My Heritage. Today’s op-ed piece Your Ancestors, Your Fate  is one that should generate wide interest, especially among those interested in genealogy and family history. According to the author, researcher Gregory Clark, “To a striking extent your overall life chances can be predicted not just from your parents’ status but also from your great-great-great-grandparents.”

Clark is an economics professor at the University of California at Davis and author of The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility. He and fellow researchers began with a simple question: what is the reason for a person’s upward social mobility, or lack of it?

Clark reported that,” …my colleagues and I estimate that 50 to 60 percent of variation in overall status is determined by your lineage. The fortunes of high-status families inexorably fall, and those of low-status families rise, toward the average — what social scientists call “regression to the mean” — but the process can take 10 to 15 generations (300 to 450 years), much longer than most social scientists have estimated in the past.”

What is particularly interesting is the methodology Clark used to reach these conclusions Clark explained, “We came to these conclusions after examining reams of data on surnames, a surprisingly strong indicator of social status, in eight countries — Chile, China, England, India, Japan, South Korea, Sweden and the United States — going back centuries.”

Although “status is determined by your lineage,” there are exceptions. “In any generation, happy accidents (including extraordinary talent) will produce new high-status families. It is impossible to predict which particular families are likely to experience such boosts.”

Some of Clark’s conclusions are controversial. They call into question assumptions about the nature of society that are strongly held on both the left and right of the political spectrum. As a consequence, they might be used to undermine public policy proposals coming from either political camp. Clark will need to be ready for a storm of challenges.

What I find interesting is the implication for genealogy and family history. Most family historians I meet consider their research a private pursuit of little interest even to many of their own relatives. That’s too bad. Clark’s research demonstrates that there’s more to genealogy than meets many eyes. Family researchers should recognize the broader socio-economic context of their history. And to their relatives who claim they aren’t interested in genealogy, they can point to research like Clark’s and say, “Yes, this does matter to you, and it will affect your children and grandchildren, too.”

What do you think? Leave a comment.