From Elite to Average: Social Mobility Takes 800 Years

Class structure in the UK evolves so slowly that it can take 800 years before social change occurs within elite families, according to recent research by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).  

The research was conducted by analysing surnames and how these names were distributed over centuries. Using educational status in England from 1170 to 2012, researchers analysed 27 generations over 30 years to detect the range of social status change as only 0.75-0.85.  

Social physics 

The small social change rate of only 0.75 -0.85 is constant over centuries. This suggests an underlying "social physics" which is immune to government interventions to challenge social mobility.  
Social mobility in England in 2012 is only a little different from pre-industrial times, and the surname evidence in other countries suggests similarly slow underlying mobility rates outside the UK.  

Name data 

To measure the average social status of surnames, researchers used the frequency of rare surnames among students at Oxford and Cambridge Universities as an indicator, by comparing the frequency of these surnames in the general population. Examples of rare and elite names include "Agar-Ellis," "Benthall" and "Blegborough."  

Research of name data shows that a whole half a millennium will pass before the UK's elite classes steer from their lineage and converge with more average members of society.  

Lead researcher, Dr Neil Cummins of the LSE, says that, despite much political, social and economic change over the past eight centuries, social mobility in the UK moves slowly - this has had a negative impact on access to the best jobs and resources.  

Dr Neil Cummins, said: "Just take the names of the Normans who conquered England nearly 1000 years ago. Surnames such as Baskerville, Darcy, Mandeville and Montgomery are still over-represented at Oxbridge and also among elite occupations such as medicine, law and politics,"  

Social inheritance 

The research reveals that even mass publicly funded education and universal voting rights have not impacted upon social mobility in England. It is still largely inheritance, not education, that defines an individual's future social positioning, according to findings. 

Dr Cummins adds, "What is surprising is that between 1800 and 2011 there have been substantial institutional changes in England but no gain in rates of social mobility for society as a whole."  

By studying genealogical history of English families with rare surnames together with data from, researchers were able to demonstrate that wealth, education and occupational status were highly "heritable", rather than "achieved."  

The study found that underlying social status, as revealed through education, is even more strongly inherited than the physical traits such as height. With social status more likely to be adopted via families than the height of each family member, the elite model is a difficult mould to break.  

Status update

But it is not impossible to break. Researchers found that the intergenerational correlations imply that the expected status of most elite and disadvantaged families will converge within 3-5 generations.  
So, if you have the patience, your social status will eventually evolve. Don’t update your Facebook status just yet as the fruits of social change take a long time to ripen - 800 years to be precise.



Source: Social Mobility LSE (2013) |