Thursday, February 04, 2010

What Surnames Can Tell You

When you hear the word England, what crosses your mind?

Harry Potter, Prince Harry, David Beckham (meh), Spice Girls (yes), fish and chips. Maybe if you are a bit literate Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and if you're exposed to social science a rigid class structured society.

The last bit is problematic. If indeed England has low social mobility, why the industrial revolution took place there after all? Capitalism, innovation, and technological progress would not flourish if there is no reward for innovators. A rigid class based structure prevents social reward goes to the capitalists or innovators.

Greg Clark of UC Davis investigates this question in a very clever way. He goes back 800 years earlier, digs the archival records, and looks at the surnames. Yes, surname, as it indicates the initial position of a family in a social structure 800 years ago, and tracing it all the way to today can illustrate how social mobility takes place.

Clark finds:
England, all the way from the heart of the Middle Ages in 1200 to 2009, is a society without persistent social classes, at least among the descendants of the medieval population. It was a world of complete social mobility, with no permanent over-class and under-class, a world of complete equal opportunity.
This work shows that economic history is a vibrant subject. Contrary to common belief, they have a very creative way to look at historical record and come up with often times striking new finding out of old stories. Greg Clark is one good example, Avner Greif of Stanford is the other.

Our own economic historian is the respectable Prof. Thee Kian Wie, and you know what, having attended his seminar, I can say that Greg Clark resembles young Thee Kian Wie -including his remarkable humility.

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