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BW Businessworld

All In The Second Name

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Adopting an innovative approach to using surnames to measure social mobility, The Son Also Rises engages the reader by presenting data that comes to life as it is anchored by names we see in our daily life. In addition, surnames permit multi-generational studies that evens out the effect of windfall gains that benefit any one generation, thereby presenting a more realistic picture than single generation studies. Presence in elite professions like medicine and law, names on Ivy League university rolls, income and wealth of individuals, are the four indicators used to measure social status, which is well-balanced between social and economic factors.

Written by economic historian Clark, the book is a longitudinal study of social mobility. It studies multi-generational social mobility covering a span of 700 years across the geographies of Asia, Europe and America. This book comes to a counter-intuitive conclusion that rapid social mobility is an exception, not the rule.

Further, the influence of social and economic changes in the last two centuries is also low in promoting social mobility, which, the author admits, will be a controversial conclusion.

Social mobility, at a concrete level, translates to the range within which the social status of a child can be realistically predicted at its birth. The book answers the question: Is social mobility a feature like height that is determined by genes inherited or do social and economic factors like universal education and inheritance taxes influence it?

Despite the political will to increase it in the last century, the answer is external factors do not influence social mobility. The author argues that genes do not decide social mobility, it’s only hard work that does. But genes can predict who will have the compulsion to strive harder.

The book is organised into three parts, with the first part tracing social mobility in contrasting societies like the socialist Sweden and the free market driven US. In addition to tracing social mobility in societies with varying social ethos, it also tracks social mobility in different eras, by comparing England in the feudal age with the present democratic era to draw important conclusions. The second part tests the validity of these conclusions in different societies, ranging from caste entrenched India to Marxists China among other such distinct societies. The final part of the book contrasts social mobility with inequality and offers interesting suggestions for consideration.

Indian readers have an added incentive to get their hands on this book, as they get to compare social mobility in India with other parts of the world. Indian society is covered in one chapter. The focus is on Bengal and findings from the elite Kulin Brahmin community provide interesting insights that help Indian readers to extend the conclusion to other geographies in India.

In another important highlight, the positive impact of the reservation policy for the Scheduled Castes is reflected in the growing representation of scheduled caste doctors in Bengal which increased from around 0.5 per cent to around 2.0 per cent in 150 years between 1860 and 2011. Despite this four-fold increase, it has not corrected their underrepresentation in elite professions.

This study proposes that we should recognise low social mobility across different societies as a reality, which does not significantly change with universal education or resource redistribution through progressive taxation. This makes it imperative for societies to work towards reducing inequality levels in addition to, and not instead of, promoting social mobility.

A book with valuable insights derived from a well-designed research, it is strongly recommended to all serious readers interested in building strong democracies, for high social mobility is at the heart of a vibrant democracy. Policy makers will gain the benefits of counter-intuitive conclusions that this book throws up with its multi-generational study. Academicians interested in social justice and social activists engaged in promoting social mobility too will have a lot to chew on.

Finally, reading this book is a varied experience as it addresses two distinct audiences. Major parts of the book addressed to the general reader has smooth flowing narratives that tell a gripping tale. A few parts where the research methodology is described to support conclusions have the feel of an academic journal. The discerning reader pressed for time can judiciously skip these select parts without losing much of the essence.

The book makes one think what more can be done to reduce inequality in Indian society. Perhaps inheritance tax and wealth tax could be an answer. 

Jaganathan is author and economic historian

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 28-07-2014)