Tuesday, 22 July 2014

A brief and preliminary review of The Son also Rises by Gregory Clark


Gregory Clark. The son also rises: surnames and the history of social mobility. Princeton University Press, 2014.

In one word: disappointing.

In one sense this was inevitable, given that I regarded Clark's previous book (A Farewell to Alms - FtA) as a work of genius. Nonetheless, The Son also Rises (SaR) is disappointing in a disappointing way.

Whereas the facts and figures of FtA were structured by an underlying clear, explicit, comprehensible theoretical underpinning; the SaR reads like a compendium of new data - as-if a linked collection of papers. It includes a lot of empirical analysis - but the theoretical and explanatory basis seems either over-complex or muddled.

Also, the 'normative' or ethical concern over the good-ness or bad-ness of social mobility is intrusive and distracting - indeed, I regard this normative/ethical prominence as the main reason for the unclarity of the books theoretic basis.

Of course there is a lot of very interesting piecemeal data and analysis, evidence of a lot of hard work and thinking; but in the end the SaR is less than the sum of its parts.

What do I take-away from the SaR, so far (given that there are some of the inner sections I have not yet read - and may never read)?

Well, what I take-away from this book is that the whole topic of 'social mobility' is a stupid subject, a pseudo-discourse, a false frame for analysis, and (most of all) a fake ethical principle.

Therefore, given the astonishing abilities of Gregory Clark - a man who operates at an intellectual level far above my own - what I want is for him to try again with this mass of data.

What I would most like to see is that Clark set aside the whole 'social mobility' garbage - and instead present an honest, clear and explicit causal analysis, based upon a sufficiently simple and lucid and coherent theoretical basis.



J said...

A society that allows mobility is the opposite of a society described in Plato's Republic. It is problematic to classify people as slaves forever. Even the Bible allows for periodical jubilees.

Bruce Charlton said...

@J - I wouldn't describe it as the opposite of The Republic, since that was a 'meritocracy' - and I don't know where the reference to slaves comes from. But there have not been many societies without social mobility. Maybe India's caste system was an exception? - although I get the sense that there was considerable scope for talent even within lower castes. The biggest difficulty for class rigidity is to prevent high status men from breeding with, and even marrying, beautiful women from low classes.