What's in a name? Apparently a lot. So much so that social mobility in England hasn't changed much since pre-Industrial times.

After William the Conqueror defeated King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, making England a French country rather than an Anglo-Saxon one, he rewarded his supporters with lands taken from those who had been loyal to his opponent. He was very good to them - but he wanted his levies. So if your name appeared in the original Domesday Book, you were going to get a tax bill, but the benefits were so substantial you are more likely to be upper class even today.

Gregory Clark of UC Davis and Neil Cummins of the London School of Economics used the Oxbridge attendance of people with rare English surnames (last names) to track social mobility from 1170 to 2012. 

Great Domesday. Why Domesday? As is doomsday, this book was 'final judgment' on paying the king. Link: The National Archives

Social status is generally seen as a ranking of families across such aspects of status as education, income, wealth, occupation, and health. Clark and Cummings used various databases to calculate the social trajectory of families with rare English surnames over the past 28 generations. For this purpose, they analyzed the surnames of students who attended Oxford and Cambridge universities between 1170 and 2012, rich property owners between 1236 and 1299, as well as the national probate registry since 1858. Rare surnames such as Atthill, Bunduck, Balfour, Bramston, Cheslyn, and Conyngham were included in the study.

They found that social status is consistently passed down among families over multiple generations - it is even more strongly inherited than height. This correlation is unchanged over centuries, with social mobility in England in 2012 being almost the same as in pre-industrial times. 

Their analysis further shows that the rate of social mobility in any society can be estimated from the knowledge of just two facts: the distribution over time of surnames in the society and the distribution of surnames among an elite or underclass.

"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," says Clark. "Strong forces of familial culture, social connections, and genetics must connect the generations."

"Even more remarkable is the lack of a sign of any decline in status persistence across major institutional changes, such as the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century, the spread of universal schooling in the late nineteenth century, or the rise of the social democratic state in the twentieth century," adds Cummins. "Status persistence measured by education status is just as strong now as in the pre-industrial era."

Published in Human Nature. Source: Springer