Social Mobility and Demographic Behaviour: A Long-Term Perspective

The complete collection of papers from the December 2008 IUSSP Scientific Panel on Historical Demography seminar “Social Mobility and Demographic Behaviour: A Long-term Perspective” that Martin Dribe, Jan Van Bavel, and I organized at the UCLA California Center for Population Research (CCPR) is now available as a special collection at Demographic Research:  The meeting received generous support not only from the IUSSP, but also from a number of UCLA units, including CCPR the International Institute, the Dean of Social Sciences, and the Department of Sociology.  Participating scholars came from Asia, Europe, and the Americas, and represented a variety of disciplines, including sociology, economics, and history.

The papers had already appeared individually as they completed the review and production process, and with the addition of our introduction, the collection is now complete.

These papers all address the interaction of demographic behavior with social mobility.  Most of them apply advanced quantitative techniques to longitudinal historical population databases such as the Historical Sample of the Netherlands, but some used contemporary data.  Specific of the many questions that the papers addressed included changes over time in the influence of family size of origin on socioeconomic attainment, and interactions between social mobility and  assortative mating.  A detailed introduction to the papers is available here:

Our paper on trends in the social origins of students at elite Chinese universities

Our paper on the long-term social origins of students at Peking University and Suzhou University has appeared in China Social Science (中国社会科学). The paper’s title is “无声的革命:北京大学与苏州大学学生社会来源研究 1952-2002 (Silent Revolution: Research on the Social Origins of Peking University and Suzhou University Students, 1952-2002).” The lead authors were James Lee/李中清 (HKUST) and LIANG Chen/梁晨 (Nanjing University) and there were six additional co-authors, including myself.

My own role was fairly small, and limited largely on advising on the statistical analysis, and participating in discussions of the implications of the results. But it is an important paper, and I would rather make a minor contribution to an important paper than make a major contribution to an unimportant one. I already do a lot of the latter.

Here is the announcement of the issue that includes the paper at the China Social Science website:

Here is a place at the China Social Science website where you can view a complete abstract and download the article:

The paper presents many novel empirical findings on trends in the social origins of the students at these two universities. In my mind, the most important is the demonstration that during the period covered by the analysis, the percentage of students from farming and working class origins was much higher than at national and regional elite universities in the US.

Perhaps the only elite schools in the US in which students from modest socioeconomic origins are so well represented are the University of California campuses, including UCLA. I was just at a meeting yesterday where some basic tabulations were presented on the socioeconomic characteristics of entering freshmen at UCLA and I was pleased to see that we continue to admit and enroll large numbers of students who are first-generation college students, or from families of relatively low socioeconomic status. Based on what I have seen in tabulations from the annual Freshman Survey carried out by the Higher Education Research Institute here at UCLA, in the United States the most selective privates admit a large share of their students from high income families. Only a small portion come from modest origins.

If you can lay your hands on a copy of 中国社会科学, the full reference is

梁晨 (LIANG Chen), 张浩 (ZHANG Hao), 李兰 (LI Lan), 阮丹青 (RUAN Danching), 康文林 (Cameron Campbell), 杨善华 (YANG Shanhua), 李中清 (James Lee). 2012. “无声的革命:北京大学与苏州大学学生社会来源研究 (1952-2002) (Silent Revolution: Research on the Social Origins of Students at Peking University and Suzhou University, 1952-2002).” 中国社会科学 (Chinese Social Science). 2012(1):98-118.
For those of you who can read Chinese, here is the abstract:

1949 年以来, 中国高等教育领域出现了一场革命。高等精英教育生 源开始多样化, 以往为社会上层子女所垄断的状况被打破, 工农等社会较低阶层子 女逐渐在其中占据相当比重, 并成功地将这一比重保持到20 世纪末。基础教育的 推广、统一高考招生制度的建立以及重点中学的设置等制度安排共同推动了无声革 命的出现。这场革命虽然不及社会政治革命那样引人瞩目, 却同样意义深远。本研 究利用1952 — 2002 年间北京大学和苏州大学学生学籍卡片的翔实材料, 力图将这 一革命及其成就呈现出来, 为中国高等教育改革与发展提供借鉴.

Because much of the online discussion of our article has focused on what appears to be an increase in the share of students whose father and/or mother are cadres, James Lee and Liang Chen have provided some additional details on this trend to help clarify some key underlying features.  Below, I have added this material to this blog entry, on 3/26/2012.  We are preparing additional materials to help ‘unpack’ the findings in the article and clarify some of the key trends.
Additional points re the increase in the proportion of students whose father and mother was a cadre (from James Lee and LIANG Chen) 

Recently there has been considerable interest in our research finding that the proportion of cadre children at PKU increased during the last quarter of the twentieth century from 11 percent in 1976 to 38 percent in 1999.

This finding which was published in《无声的革命:北京大学与苏州大学学生社会来源研究(1952-2002)》中国社会科学杂志 2012 年 1 期 is based on an analysis of the social origins of some 150,000 undergraduate students who entered Peking University and Suzhou University in the last half of the twentieth century.

The article also shows several other important discoveries.

1. Based on the analysis of Suzhou University undergraduates, while the overall proportion of cadre children similarly increased, the proportion of cadre children who are from explicitly political cadre families in fact declines from 85 percent in 1965 to fewer than 45 percent in 1999

2. The proportion of Suzhou University cadre children who are from commercial enterprise cadre families, however, increases from 3.4 percent in 1976 to over 43 percent in 2001.

3. At the same time, the proportion of children of factory workers also increases from 13 percent in 1992 to 22.4 percent in 1999 at Peking University and from 11.4 percent in 1989 to 24.4 percent in 2001 at Suzhou

In fact, overall the proportion of children from blue collar families remains roughly stable at Peking University during the last quarter of the twentieth century and increases during this period at Suzhou University.

Overall by international standards, Chinese elite university admissions as demonstrated by these two universities were and continue to be remarkably open to children from non-elite families.


最近,我们的一项研究发现,北大学生中干部子女的比例从1976年接近11%增加到了1999年的近38%,这引发了社会各界地广泛关注和持续讨论。实际上,这是我们对上世纪后半叶北京大学和苏州大学招收的共约15万名本科生社会来源研究的发现之一,该研究名为《无声的革命:北京大学与苏州大学学生社会来源研究(1952-2002)》,发表在《中国社会科学》杂志 2012 年第1期上。 其实,我们的研究至少还有其他三个重要发现值得注意:

1.              同北大类似,苏大学生中的干部子女在改革开放以后也有持续的增长,但在干部群体内部,党政干部的比例已经从1965年的85%下降到了2001年的40%
2.              与此相反,苏大干部子女中的企业干部子女比例却从最低谷1976年的3.4%增加到了2001年的43%,超越党政干部成为干部子女的最大来源。
3.              同时,两校的工人子女比例也都有明显增长。其中,北大的工人子女比例从1987年的13%增加到了1998年的22.4%;苏大的工人子女比例从1989年的11.4%增加到了2001年的24.4%



New paper on descent groups and inequality in Chinese society

James Lee and I just published a paper in the newly retitled Chinese Sociological Review examining the contribution of descent group membership to inequality between individuals in rural northeast China, and measuring continuity in the statuses of descent groups from the Qing to the present. We used linked contemporary retrospective survey data linked to historical household registers. We found that even after differences between households and villages were accounted for, there were pronounced differences in socioeconomic outcomes for individuals according to descent group. For marriage and socioeconomic attainment, differences in outcomes between descent groups in the same village were as large or larger than differences between villages.

Here is the reference:

Campbell, Cameron and James Z. Lee. 2011. “Kinship and the Long-Term Persistence of Inequality in Liaoning, China, 1749-2005.” Chinese Sociological Review. 44(1):71-104.

And here is a LINK. You’ll probably need an institutional subscription to get hold of the actual paper.

Here I will try to provide some intuition about why the work is novel and interesting, in the hope of persuading you to find the actual paper, read it, and cite it.

We all know from decades of qualitative research by anthropologists and historians that descent groups are an important unit of social organization in Chinese society. Results from fieldwork and other qualitative research suggests that descent group membership should have been an important source of inequality between individuals in Chinese society, in that individual outcomes were influenced heavily not only by the household into which they were born, but by the descent group into which they were born. In other words, otherwise identical individuals might have very different outcomes according to whether they were born into a high-status descent group or a low-status one. This is a point that is either explicit or implicit in a variety of works, for example by historians such as Robert Hymes, and anthropologists such as Maurice Freedman.

Oddly, quantitative studies of stratification and inequality in Chinese society don’t incorporate these qualitative insights into the importance of large kin groups in Chinese society. Quantitative studies of the determinants of individual life outcomes in China tend to follow models developed in the course of studying Western societies. Such models tend to emphasize the roles of macro-level differences in socioeconomic outcomes according to membership in categories defined by race, ethnicity, gender, nativity, and so forth, or micro-level differences according to individual and parental characteristics. While recent work by Don Treiman, Wang Feng, Wu Xiaogang, Xie Yu and others recognizes the role played by hukou status, danwei affiliation, and other distinctive features of contemporary Chinese society, there really isn’t much direct consideration of the role of larger kin groups.

Accordingly, our paper is a first stab at accounting for the role of descent groups in structuring inequality between individuals. We have retrospective survey data from selected villages in rural Liaoning that we have linked to household register data in the China Multigenerational Panel Dataset-Liaoning (CMGPD-LN). One of the key features of the CMGPD-LN is that it allows for reconstruction of descent groups across multiple generations through automated linking. Perhaps more importantly, the CMGPD-LN is now available for download by anyone who would like to extend upon our work.

For the analysis, we estimate multi-level random-effects models to measure the relative importance of differences between villages, descent groups, and households in accounting for differences in the socioeconomic and demographic outcomes of individuals. We also rank descent groups in the Qing and the last half of the twentieth century according to their success in attaining local official positions, and then calculate correlations in those ranks as indices of the continuity of status. The long and short of it is that there are pronounced differences between descent groups, and substantial continuity in the relative statuses of descent groups.

The question, of course, is why? We are still pondering this. So far our explanations for the importance of descent groups and the continuity of their statuses has revolved around the idea that especially before public education became universal, descent groups were a primary locus within individuals learned norms, behaviors, values, orientations and so forth. In other words, intangibles such as knowledge and skills circulated within descent groups and were passed down from one generation to the other. We further speculate that the continuity we observed from the Qing to the late twentieth century reflected the resilience of these intangibles to efforts at social leveling that focused on the redistribution of material goods.