More on social mobility (or its lack)

My last post was about a review I had read in a recent Economist, of a book called “The Sons also Rise”, by Gregory Clark.

The author uses surnames to track social mobility in different societies through history. His conclusion is that there is very little social mobility,

I said in my last post that this doesn’t seem to tie in with a lot of historical evidence, especially for ruling classes. Elite families seem to have a comparatively short endurance, in terms of generations – and that seems to be true for most societies in history.

Another thing about the book review in the Economist, was that it seemed to suggest that the author argues that elites keep their status due to their members’ intrinsic cleverness.

If the author is indeed arguing this, this is something that he really will have to work hard to convince a reader like myself about. It seems very clear to me that what history really shows is that elite families keep their footing within whatever ruling class they belong to through using their positions to give them privileged access to social assets denied to other members of society.

So, for example, in England, elite families have traditionally sent their children to public schools, where they gain a first class education: an education which is not just about developing academic capabilities, but is also aimed at instilling a range of intangible social advantages: self-confidence, the ability to express oneself in an articulate way, a certain disciplined competitiveness. Many pupils then go on to Oxford and Cambridge, which consolidates these advantages and gives the students an expectation of success in their future careers. Further back in time, the influence of family contacts (including downright nepotism) gave elite families a huge advantage when it came to careers in government, military, the law and certain areas of finance and commerce. And scholars have clearly shown that, the higher social rank an individuals’ family enjoyed, the higher rank he was likely to achieve in his chosen field. In the Royal Navy, for example, admirals at the time of Nelson tended to come from aristocratic rather than mere gentry backgrounds.

Anyhow, as I said last week, I will be very interested to read this book – and as I also said, I’ll read it with an open mind (honestly!). Anyhow, I’ll keep you posted. It’s a subject that I find fascinating.


By Peter Britton