Home > Personal Network, Social, Uncategorized > Nepotism and Dunbar’s Number

Nepotism and Dunbar’s Number

Regular readers will know that I’ve been moving house. I’ve made the leap from a very pretty home in a small village beneath Belvoir Castle (the home of the Duke and Duchess of Rutland) to life in the centre of the City of Bath. Both are time capsules in different ways.

The village I have moved from is called Knipton – and my former home there could be dated back as a settlement to the days of the vikings. It’s the sort of village that Robin Dunbar would have researched when worked out his number – 150.

As readers from the UK will know, it’s our year for a census. I took the time to dig out what life looked like just over 120 years ago. No surprises

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, the village was divided in to two areas (North end and South end) – and they were made up of approximately 150 people each. Please take some time to click the links and skim through the names, families and birthplaces.

What is most striking from the census is that most of the people were born and lived their whole lives in the village – or have come in from a maximum of 5-10 miles away. There were a small number of family names making up the numbers – and many of them I can recognise in the area today. Families stayed together – and their jobs and crafts were passed down from generation to generation. This was nepotism at its finest. Was there something wrong with that?

We live in a world with very confusing signals. On one hand we want to get back to family values. On the other we want to fight a war on nepotism. Strange!

Last week, I wrote about the UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg making policy in “Canutish” style. He basically said that it was now “what you know” not “who you know” that will matter from now on. At the weekend, I watched a BBC current affairs comedy programme – “Have I got News for You”. It’s very entertaining show, full of satire – and the funniest guy on the panel by far is Paul Merton. On this topic, he didn’t create a funny. He just said:

“That’s what people do. They want to look after their kids. They want them to go to the best schools and they want them to have the best jobs. You can’t stop that.”

Many a true word is spoken in jest!

  1. Antonio
    April 12, 2011 at 10:35 am

    Very nice post, some dangerous analogy.
    From Wikipedia: “Nepotism is favoritism granted to relatives or friends regardless of merit.”
    I am not sure how appropriate is to use the term nepotism in the context of the very cute Knipton societies and then trigger an analogy based on such association.
    In larger, more complex, societies – where decisions that affect millions must be made – to have someone in a controlling position as a consequence of nepotism (meaning without a form of control on such person’s merit = competence) can predictably cause significant damage.
    To be clearer: I am not supporting Clegg. Not just because I have no political interest but because his sentence is somewhat deceiving too.. it has always been about “what you know” and always will (not just “now”).
    “Who you know” is just an instance of the fundamental equation knowledge = power.

    • April 12, 2011 at 11:11 am

      Hi Antonio. You make a very good point – and I have indeed casually used the term nepotism. You sent me scurrying to the web for definitions. This was the first that I found:-

      “favouritism shown to relatives or close friends by those with power or influence
      [from Italian nepotismo, from nepote nephew, from the former papal practice of granting special favours to nephews or other relatives]”

      I would share your concerns if it was “favouritism” that was “regardless of merit”. On reflection, I’ve probably given my support for a word that has too strong a link with “jobs for the boys”, “old school tie” and “daddy got him the job.”

      I’m all for meritocracy – my upbringing was a council house in Liverpool. However, the mix that helps people get on is undoubtedly a combination of competence (merit), Personal Network (the advocates who would recommend you) and attitude (your approach to life). I think government fighting to stop family or friends being able to “put in a word” is dangerous. It’s the only point that trust can be passed on in the selection process – CVs and HR-crafted references/testimonials are not very informative.

      I read a very good post by Brendan Baker on Quora this morning on “How Startups Communicate Traction to Investors.”. Point 9 was:-

      Using Testimonials as Traction


      Even shitty startups have glowing testimonials, so it doesn’t differentiate.

      It’s pretty sad that recommends and testimonials delivered in today’s environment are so untrusted. Who does LinkedIn recommends these days except to get the extra 15% completeness for LI stats? Isn’t it something we should encourage that friends or family look you in the eye and genuinely recommend someone (without favouritism) to be considered for a role?

      Sorry for the ramble – and thanks for your comment. You are quite right. On reflection, I think my analogy is poor. Nepotism (in its corrupting form) is not worth battling for!

  2. April 12, 2011 at 6:08 pm

    We need a word which combines the strong-tie implications of “nepotism” and the genuine value implications of “meritocracy” but “merinepotocracyism” doesn’t quite flow.

    The chap or gal who has the goods *and* a strong tie is clearly the winner. But someone with credentials is *not* necessarily gonna win. If I had to choose between a strong tie who had unclear qualifications, or a weak tie/unknown who had credentials I couldn’t clearly verify, I’ll take strong tie over credentials all day long and twice on Sunday.

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