Family Matters in a Meritocracy: Networks, Exams and Officialdom in the Joseon Dynasty

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How persistent is the family lineage effect in a meritocracy? While meritocratic institutions aim to screen political elites based on individual merit, they may still allow the elites to perpetuate their influence through the descendants. In this paper we look at the ancestors’ role in determining the political careers of individuals during the Joseon Dynasty in Korea from 1392 to 1897 CE. The Korean kingdom during this period implemented the humanities examination (mun-gwa) intended to fill its central official positions based on merit, and its comprehensive records on family ties and court official appointments span over 503 years, longer than any other dynasties found in the world. We use the individually linked family network data to find that 1) individuals with more exam-passing ancestors were also more likely to become high-ranking officials, with the effect coming from even the very distant ancestors from generations ago; and 2) the lineage effect on individuals’ careers became more pronounced during periods of political instability, suggesting that the ancestral know-hows were particularly valuable in these times.

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