Surnames and Social Mobility in England, 1170–2012

HUMAN NATURE (2014). ADVANCED ONLINE PUBLICATION. DOI10.1007/s12110-014-9219-y

Using educational status in England from 1170 to 2012, the authors argue that the rate of social mobility in any society can be estimated from knowledge of just two facts: the distribution over time of surnames in the society and the distribution of surnames among an elite or underclass. Such surname measures reveal that social mobility in England in 2012 was little greater than in preindustrial times.  The authors claim that 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. Strong forces of familial culture, social connections, and genetics must connect the generations. This interpretation is reinforced by the finding of Clark et al. (2014) that all societies observed—including the USA, Sweden, India, China, and Japan—have similar low rates of social mobility when surnames are used to identify elites and underclasses, despite an even wider range of social institutions.