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Heredity of Status

The rise and fall of whole status hierarchies are of course important to understanding how these hierarchies work, but they still give little more than a general overview of social change over four centuries. In order to get closer up to the dynamics of this change, we must turn our focus to individual families in each status hierarchy: families have their own trajectories that follow or break from the general evolution of the status hierarchy to which they belong. Family differences in the timing of social rise, the length of time the status is maintained in the family and, in many cases, eventual social decline have all contributed to make status hierarchies very dynamic entities. The heredity of status and spousal choice, both of them driven by the imperative of status equivalence, have been very important in the discovery of this dynamics.

Social genealogies provided an excellent way of uncovering the efficacy of this imperative at different times and in different status hierarchies. This data set made it possible to move beyond individuals to their social world, where the actual passages from one status to another took place—or where the achieved status was maintained from generation to generation. One central result is that the family into which one is born has effectively predestined one’s status. However, the occurrences of social rise bear witness to the fact that the heredity of status is not all-pervasive. Practically all higher-ranking families under scrutiny in this research have had their parvenus, those who, at some time in the past, made their way from lower to upper ranks.

The most typical pattern of this upgrading was this: higher-ranking people came from families who already were on an upward trajectory. This held true for royalty, the nobility, learned professionals and prominent artists. In some cases, typically in the entrepreneurial status hierarchy, climbing the social ladder took place within the same field of trade. So, the parvenus on the highest rung of the entrepreneurial status hierarchy often came from families with at least some business experience in one or several generations.

The other pattern of social rise is totally different from the one described above. In this case, social rise has happened by leaps and bounds, from the bottom straight to the highest ranks. In the status hierarchies examined in this book, it was very difficult, if not impossible, to make a status journey of this kind before the twentieth century. However, a great many prominent musicians and actors in the nineteenth century came from a humble family background. Their credentials were appraised not only by music or theatre experts, but also by the general public, the audience whose applause, if tumultuous, would elevate them to the highest rank of their status hierarchy, to stardom, no matter what their family background. The other group of social climbers of this kind were politicians, who made their entries into top positions as a result of universal suffrage and eligibility, which took effect in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century. Election into Parliament upgraded a great many tenants, crofters, craftsmen and workers into MPs and even cabinet ministers. An examination of entries into the professoriate and other academic professions, however, presents a rather different picture. Children of workers did not begin to achieve these positions until from the 1950s onwards.

Once the higher status has been achieved, the heredity of status begins to show strength. In this respect the children of upstarts are in almost as strong a position as the children of those in whose families higherranking occupations have been passed on in several successive generations. This means that the principle of heredity has been a pressing force in the highest ranks, even in occupations that are not genuinely hereditary as in the case of learned professionals. However, what their children inherited was not necessarily a profession, but a university education. Thus, professors’ children became academic professionals rather than professors. The options were many and varied. The same concerns artists and their children: they too have a wide range of options, either to become artists in different fields or to choose jobs that in one way or another are associated with the arts. The imperative of status equivalence is possibly inherited from the past, but when put into effect at one’s discretion it shows its mysterious force. While most effectively aspired to in higher ranks, status equivalence turns into an acquired right that should be preserved in the family.

Social decline is similar to social rise in that it breaks the imperative of status equivalence. In this case too, the transition has usually been gradual, proceeding usually in three or four generations to reach the social bottom. Just as a recently achieved higher rank has often been maintained in the family, so a new lower status has tended to be passed down in the family: it has proven difficult to turn the momentum around, back onto an upward trajectory. Or if this has happened, it has usually happened at the same time as tenant-worker families with a long history in that position began to upgrade socially, in other words, from the 1950s onwards. This was made possible by the expansion of higher education.

Much concern has been voiced over educational inequality, not because education itself is graded into different levels, but because the children of highly educated parents have much better chances of getting into university than children of less educated parents. The point is this: concerns about educational inequality are focused not on the hierarchical order of educational institutes, but on university-level education, that is, the most highly valued type of education. The expression of these concerns is thus itself a performance of status. Some public policy measures have been put into place to reduce the extent of inequality in university enrolment, but so far these measures have not been effective enough. It is possible of course to suggest further measures, as Atkinson (2015, 303-4) has recently done, with his 15 proposals for public policy measures to reduce the extent of inequality in education. Without underestimating the positive influence that government and other public agencies can have on equality, the continued persistence of inequality gives reason to believe that, with the exception of totalitarian societies, flows to higher educational careers cannot be controlled by public policy alone for the simple reason that occupational choices are determined by factors that are beyond the authorities’ control. Occupational choices are family matters in a profound sense: parents want their children to do well, and they believe their children will do well if only they get the education needed for entry into professions, higher rather than lower.

The succession of the same status in the family has given birth to dynasties, most certainly so in the highest echelons, according to the dynasty’s original meaning, dynasteia, the ruling family. The power of dynasticity is not necessarily about power in the sense of ruling others; dynasticity is an asset that radiates extra glory upon those who are capable of maintaining a highly regarded status in their family. This is true even though we may abhor the inequality that dynastic power brings about. Yet there is something mystically captivating about dynasticity, possibly because we do not see it as a question of class but a family matter. It is perhaps for this same reason that family sagas are so popular topics of novels, films and TV series.

On the other hand, too, dynasticity is turning into a keen interest in one’s own roots. In the same way as pedigrees were important to royal and noble dynasties, so commoners are now investing great effort in producing their own pedigrees, some of which are published but most typically intended for family members only. Drawing up a pedigree is often quite an adventure: one never knows in advance who will turn up from the past: a nobleman who sired an illegitimate child into the family, a criminal or black sheep, or an upstart who elevated one branch of the family to an exalted position. A salient new genre of searching for one’s roots came to light when some children or grandchildren began to rummage around their fathers’ or grandfathers’ past that had hitherto been suppressed. Many of these biographical stories were about Nazis.

A common denominator of all these histories (Lebert and Lebert 2002; Himmler 2008; Bruhns 2009; Davidson 2011) is that any questions about the family’s past were forbidden. The children or grandchildren knew virtually nothing about their fathers or grandfathers, who were actively involved in political work that was to be widely condemned after the Second World War. Once the fathers and grandfathers had passed away, the mothers and grandmothers were still reluctant to answer the questions that were now being asked of them. The offspring therefore turned to the archives. So terrifying was the Nazi past that it continued to haunt the second and the third generation. In a way, they became polluted by their fathers’ or grandfathers’ wrongdoings, even though they had absolutely no share in them. In the same way, a dark shadow was cast on those thousands and thousands of children born during the war by French, Danish, Dutch, Norwegian and Finnish women and fathered by Nazi officers (;; Wendisch 2006). In these cases, the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable partner candidates was made on the basis of political divides. But again, not only those who had committed crimes, but even the children born out of these condemnable relationships came to suffer, both from the denial of their past and from the sense of shame of being a Nazi’s child. These cases go to show that families extend far beyond the current family, to past generations (Smart 2007, 112-32), most substantially three generations, just as councillors, the highest tier of the nobility, could prolong their heyday across two or three successive generations. In contrast to them, the driving force for the status was another kind of equivalence, that is, political equivalence, which divided people into friends and foes. Future research should move further in this direction to see on what grounds people are ranked into hierarchically ordered positions other than on the basis of their occupational status.

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