Archive | November 2014

Review of Gregory Clark, ‘The son also rises’

Gregory Clark, The Son also Rise: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility, Princeton, Princeton UP, 2014, xii + 364

We have entered the exciting world of ‘big data’. Currently, however, social scientists are divided about its potential for rigorous research. On the one hand, it promises the prospect of assembling vast data bases offering the prospects of detecting distinctive patterns across time and space and with the capacity to provide granular findings. On the other hand, however, it can be argued that through this very process of abstracting data, context and specificity can be subsumed into superficial accounts which flatter only to deceive.

Clark’s high profile and much publicised book is therefore a fascinating test case to reflect on these issues. His premise is a simple one.  By examining the patterning of distinctive kinds of surnames and their association with markers of status in different times and places, it is possible to offer new light on the extent and character of social mobility. And so it is that this book ranges across nine nations (Sweden, the United States, England, India, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Chile), goes back in time as far as 1170 (in the English case), and comes up to the present day. The kind of data which is marshalled to extract surnames include student records (such as for Oxford and Cambridge Universities), professional bodies (such as the American Medical Association or of doctors in Bengal), registration data (including death records, as well as population registers such as the Swedish case), probate records, censuses, the Domesday book, political and military records. How can this remarkably wide ranging assemblage be anything other than a bravura performance?

Clark decides that he has discovered a ‘social law’, that ‘there is a universal constant of intergenerational correlation of 0.75 from which deviations are rare and predictable’ (p 12). It has been a long time since it has been thought that laws could be detected in historical analysis, and in this respect the book harks back to an older positivist style of thinking.  His fundamental tool for detecting this law is also simple. By extracting unusual surnames which can be shown to occupy high (or low) status at a certain moment, Clark examines how the status of such surnames changes over time. He shows that there is a slow but steady ‘regression to the mean’. This trend can be interpreted both to indicate a remarkable stability in elite (or ‘underclass’) reproduction, but it can also be interpreted as indicating that there is always a tendency towards elite (or ‘underclass’) dilution as well. The glass is either half full or half empty, depending on taste.

The book contains some lovely vignettes. For my taste, the account of the changing distribution of Norman names who arrived in England after the conquest, amongst Oxbridge graduates over succeeding centuries is very nicely done. In 1170, such names were over represented amongst Oxbridge graduates by 16 times, showing in concrete terms how the Normans dominated this elite educational institution. In the following decades the proportion of Norman names steadily declines, but very slowly. Three hundred years later, Norman names are still four times over-represented. Amazingly, even in the 1980s, Norman names are slightly over-represented. There is still a Normal elite afterlife 900 years after the Conquest.

However, whilst recognising the book’s ambition and verve, ultimately, it can only be seen as a failure. Most fundamentally, Clark’s intellectual range does not stray away from his home discipline of economics (and is selective even within that discipline). To say that ‘(d)iscussion about the mechanisms that drive the inheritance of social mobility has been limited’ (126) can only be regarded as an embarrassing admission of ignorance of the range and quality of sociological and historical research which has addressed this very question in recent decades. This is not simply academic point scoring. It matters because research in these disciplines has presented alternative arguments and theorisations which are considerably more sophisticated than Clark’s. This can be seen in at least four ways.

Firstly, structural approaches to social mobility are often seen to be more powerful than those which focus on individual attributes (as here). By placing social mobility within the context of structural shifts in the division of labour, analysis need not rely on vignettes but can provide accounts of mobility which are able to examine what proportions of social groups are (e.g) self-recruiting, open to the upwardly mobile etc. From Clark’s account, however, we learn nothing about how ‘closed’ different elite sectors are. More broadly, a structural approach would also allow Clark’s own measures of status, such as belonging to specific professions to be put in better historical context. The relative standing of doctors, university students and such like is not historically invariant as Clark implies but itself needs to be contextualised. Oxbridge students are not an equivalent kind of elite in the 12th and 20th centuries.

Secondly, building on this point, sociological and historical accounts have argued that actually there are substantial shifts in the extent of absolute mobility, at least in modern times. It would have been interesting for Clark to have engaged with such an argument (if only to criticise it), but in fact he talks entirely past it. This point is also important in the context of Clark’s reliance on male names alone. Whilst recognising the pragmatic defence of this, given that gender relations are historically variant, and that there are differences in the extent to which, and the means by which, women are associated with elite positions, it becomes more difficult to read off from Clark’s findings to make more general claims about universal laws.

Thirdly, Clark’s conceptual terminology is very loose. Rather than framing mobility within an analysis of social classes (as in Goldthorpe’s class structural approach) or in a clearly defined occupational hierarchy (as with the Blau-Duncan or the CAMSIS approaches), or within a ‘social space’ perspective (as with Bourdieu), generic terms such as elites and underclasses are bandied around as if they are self-evident groupings. It is assumed that status can be measured hierarchically on a scale, with no recognition of the argument that it might be better rendered as mobility between groups which are not always hierarchically ordered.

Finally, and most controversially, there is Clark’s biological account of patterns of social mobility. As he admits, he has no direct evidence of any biological factor which might allow him to prove this. Instead, his argument is dependent on the logic of his statistical approach where he (understandably) differentiates underlying factors (‘competences’) from empirical observations which may be dependent on luck, contingency etc. Clark then assumes a biological basis to such competences, but this is entirely gratuitous. They could equally well be economic, cultural or social capital, in Bourdieu’s terms, for instance.

In the latter chapters of the book Clark throws caution to the wind. In a remarkably cavalier way he seizes on examples of Christian, Jewish, and Gypsy/traveller experience to argue that the persistence of advantage or disadvantage do not disprove his ‘social law’. He thus argues that endogamy amongst the Jewish population, combined with high population growth, explains why their relative high status persists and does not regress to the mean. This interpretation which sums up Jewish history into a three page synopsis based on a handful of sources entirely evades how the relationship between Jewish people and other social groups is organised, and notably the role anti-Semitism. Even more bizarrely, a photograph of two travellers is used to report that ‘they do not look like people of Indian descent’. It is to be hoped that readers are not offended by this kind of cavalier treatment which appears dismissive of the role of racist forces in history.

Ultimately then, Clark’s ambition and confidence proves to be his undoing. Because he puts all his eggs in one basket – of identifying his ‘social law’ – it follows that the book as a whole fails if this law is not convincing. It would be a great shame to disparage the work that has gone into this book. With the remarkable wealth of data at his disposal, Clark could have attempted a more modest but surely more valuable project of elaborating his data sources more contextually, so that they are used to explicate mobility processes in particular nations and times, rather than being yoked to an one grand purpose. It would have been fascinating to see much more detail on any of the data bases he has assembled and sensitive reflections on social mobility in any particular context. In fact, we rarely get details of the overall size and descriptive features (most common names at different times, for instance). Perhaps if the big data had been examined with greater attention to detail, a more satisfying book would have been written which could have more clearly identified the power of potential new data sources.

Mike Savage

London School of Economics.


Understanding Everyday Participation: Towards a more democratic approach to Cultural Value?

Understanding Everyday Participation:

Towards a more democratic approach to Cultural Value?

Andrew Miles

University of Manchester

What does it mean to participate in culture? Why are some activities seen as culturally valuable and others not? How does cultural participation inform issues of personal, social and community identity? In what ways are understandings of spaces, places and so-called ‘creative economies’ rendered through participation?

These are the core questions being addressed by the ‘Understanding Everyday Participation – Articulating Cultural Values’ (UEP) project. UEP is a five-year research project that began in 2012 and is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of its Connected Communities programme, with further investment provided by Creative Scotland. A collaboration between the Universities of Manchester, Leicester, Exeter and Warwick, it brings together an 11-strong team of experts from History, Sociology, Museum Studies, English, Drama and Cultural Policy Studies, supported by a group of 16 national and local partner organisations spanning the cultural and third sectors.

UEP starts from the proposition that the relationship between participation and value needs radically rethinking. Orthodox models of cultural engagement are based on a narrow definition of participation, one that focuses on the ‘high’ arts and traditional cultural institutions but which, in the process, neglects the significance of more informal hobbies, pastimes and other, ostensibly mundane, day-to-day activities. Our work sets out to explore the value of such everyday cultural practices through a five-part programme of interdisciplinary, mixed-methods research.

Reflecting a particular concern with the ‘situated’ nature of participation, the empirical core of the project focuses on a set of six case study areas, or ‘cultural ecosystems’. These are Manchester-Salford, Aberdeen, Gateshead, Dartmoor, Peterborough and Stornoway; locations chosen for their contrasting profiles in official statistics for levels of participation and investment in formal cultural activities. On one side, these local studies are being contextualised by new historical research on participation and value and by the reanalysis of existing survey data offering new perspectives on time use and the spatial dimensions of participation. On the other side, we are examining the policy applications of the case study findings in partner-led projects on local participation issues and by reviewing how the processes of partnership working across the project might inform dialogue across different communities of practice (research, policy, production) in the cultural sector.

Our work on the ground in the case study locations is predominantly inductive. We are not pre-determining what constitutes cultural participation but looking to identify key domains and emergent themes in each setting. To enable this approach, we are deploying a suite of, mostly, qualitative methods, which can offer different but complementary perspectives on how people and groups come into participation and what is at stake in this process. These methods include two waves of in-depth interviews with a representative sample of local residents, ethnography, social network analysis, community focus groups, local histories and cultural assets mapping. Currently, we are nearing completion of the Manchester-Salford case study, which has focused on the ethnically mixed and economically deprived wards of Cheetham Hill and Broughton, while work in a urban village community on the edge of Aberdeen and on a central corridor of Gateshead adjacent to the city’s formal cultural amenities is well advanced.

The data being produced in these locations are phenomenally rich and these are still early days in terms of moving towards worked up findings. In Cheetham and Broughton the ethnographic work has identified the particular importance of parks and open spaces as cultural resources, partly because they provide neutral, liminal ground for participation in areas defined by cohesive but in many respects mutually exclusive communities. In the Aberdeen case study the ways in which participation is mediated by changing working patterns and the importance of club life and volunteering in sustaining a sense local identity in the midst of economic, physical and cultural transformation have come to the fore. Initial readings of the in-depth interviews – the first wave of which focuses on people’s life histories and participation narratives, together with issues of identity and belonging – emphasise the sheer diversity of people’s participation practices, along with the cultural resonances of their social activities. Bearing out previous work carried out by UEP team members, they are also indicating the remoteness of the formal cultural sphere to the lives of the great majority, for whom ‘the arts’, at least in an institutional sense, hold little if any interest.

This last theme will be of particular interest to the Cultural Value project because it calls into question the privileging of traditional cultural forms and venues of the kind funded by government bodies.In an earlier post on the AHRC ‘Cultural Value’ project website Geoff Crossick suggested that by placing too much emphasis on participation in the everyday sphere we run the risk of neglecting the consequences of unequal access to the arts in divided societies. Given the association between the possession of established cultural capital and life chances in societies such as our own in the UK (Bennett et al 2009, Scherger and Savage 2010), this is a legitimate concern. Equally, however, this is a position that is unlikely to disturb the status quo, since it fails to challenge the role that existing hierarchies of cultural value play in shaping and reproducing the wider system of inequality in the first place (Bourdieu 1984).

A narrow focus on the importance of the conventional canon in cultural policy obscures the contested and divisive nature of the cultural field and the way in which ideas of cultural value are socially constructed. Policies that prioritise access to the arts in the name of social inclusion are at the same time part of a process of discrimination, marking out social boundaries according to establishment norms and understandings of what is to count as ‘legitimate’ culture (Miles 2013). By taking an empirically grounded, methodologically diverse approach to revealing those practices (and practitioners) marginalised in this process, the UEP project is attempting to develop a more democratic understanding of cultural participation and its values.


Bennett, T., Savage, M., Silva, E., Warde, A., Gayo-Cal, M. and Wright, D. (2009), Culture, Class, Distinction, London: Routledge

Bourdieu, P. (1984), Distinction. A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press

Miles, A. (2013), ‘Culture, participation and identity in contemporary Manchester’, in Savage, M., Wolff, J. and Savage, M. (eds), Culture in Manchester: Institutions and Urban Change since 1800, Manchester: Manchester University Press

Scherger, S. and Savage, M. (2010), ‘Cultural transmission, educational attainment and social mobility’, The Sociological Review, 53:3