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Social Studies: Things that don’t change across generations; reliance on local news; when to pray for rain

Surprising findings from the social sciences.

Members of the Church of San Dionisio Areopagita in Spain's Andalusia region took the Christ of the water in procession to ask for an end to drought in April.Zowy Voeten/Getty

Downton Abbey forever

Analyzing genealogical data for rarer surnames in England from the last several centuries, an economist found that various indicators of socioeconomic status, like occupation status or home value, are remarkably durable within family trees, even for fourth cousins. Moreover, this heritability of socioeconomic status has been remarkably constant over the last four centuries, despite changes in culture and public schooling, health care, and welfare.

Clark, G., “The Inheritance of Social Status: England, 1600 to 2022,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (July 2023).

Information economy

A study out of the University of Pennsylvania finds that Black and non-college-educated Americans tend to rely on local news (especially local TV news) the most. White and college-educated Americans tend to be online more and spend more time on non-local news, even controlling for age, income, political affiliation, and area characteristics. The researchers say this is because Black and non-college-educated people generally are more at the mercy of local events and trends, and indeed, these individuals report more interest in local news about crime, jobs, and schools. This disparity in news consumption means that declining coverage of local news further disadvantages the disadvantaged.

Bang, M. et al., “Access and Exposure to Local News Media in the Digital Era: Evidence from U.S. Media Markets,” National Bureau of Economic Research (July 2023).


Coaching opportunity

A study just published in one of the top journals of sociology presents what may be the first comprehensive statistical analysis of the entire coaching staffs of NFL teams over several decades. Controlling for an extensive set of experience and performance measures pertaining to the various coaching positions, the study finds that white coaches were significantly more likely to be promoted and that this disparity persisted at lower levels of the coaching hierarchy, which feed into the top positions, while the NFL was presenting itself as opening up the top positions to Black coaches.


Rider, C. et al., “Racial Disparity in Leadership: Evidence of Valuative Bias in the Promotions of National Football League Coaches,” American Journal of Sociology (July 2023).

Playing the odds

If you’re a religious authority for your agriculturally invested tribe, should you pray for rain? Only if your area exhibits a certain weather pattern. Among hundreds of ethnic groups in the anthropological literature, rainmaking rituals were much more likely to be practiced by groups that lived in areas where the odds of rainfall on a given day increase as a drought goes on. The explanation for this connection is that religious authorities can look more prescient by undertaking the ritual when the odds are trending in their favor.

Espín-Sánchez, J.-A. et al., “Praying for Rain,” National Bureau of Economic Research (June 2023).

Down on the farm

What made some European states richer than others from the Middle Ages onward? Some economists argue that it wasn’t necessarily that some areas had better land or other resources, but that the richest states tended to have less variability in the productivity of their land. That’s because a great deal of variation in the quality of the land made it harder for tax collectors to accurately assess the output and potential of one farm compared to another, limiting the fiscal capacity of their states or municipalities.

Huning, T. & Wahl, F., “You Reap What You Know: Appropriability and the Origin of European States,” European Journal of Political Economy (forthcoming).