Historical Social Stratification and Mobility in Costa Rica, 1840-2006

by Daniel Diaz Vidal (University of Tampa)

The full article from this post was published on The Economic History Review and is now available on Early View at this link

Banana Workers – available at <https://travelcostarica.nu/history>

The social mobility rate represents the degree to which the socioeconomic status of descendants varies relative to that of their progenitors. If the rate is very low then the social pyramid remains unchanged over many generations. Conversely, if the rate of social mobility is very high, then family, cultural, ethnic, and historical backgrounds are not useful in explaining the current social status of an individual. In essence, history determines present outcomes when there are lower rates of social mobility. Interest in social mobility research has grown since the Great Recession because of its relationship with socioeconomic inequality, or political upheaval.

This renewed interest in the study of social mobility has generated new approaches to this subject.  Recent social mobility studies which use surnames show that underlying social mobility rates in all cases studied are both very low and very similar across countries and time periods.[1] This research uses an enhanced surname methodology and previously unused historical data to study  social mobility in a new Spanish speaking, Central American economy. Costa Rica is particularly interesting as it has exhibited relatively egalitarian distributions of income since colonial times. This is significantly different to the previous Latin American economy, Chile, which had been the focus of a surname study of social mobility similar to this one. In order to study historical social mobility in Costa Rica over the past century and a half, one cannot use traditional father-son linkages since constructing such a dataset would be extremely difficult, if not impossible.  Traditional methods require panel datasets, such as the United States National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), or rich population registries like those found in Sweden and  Iceland. This limits the historical and geographical contexts in which social mobility can be studied. Surnames facilitate research  by permitting the clustering of people to identify groups of sons who collectively originated from a group of fathers, without needing to follow the branches of each specific family tree.

One of the methodologies used in this research involves overrepresentation of surname groups within certain elite professions in the 2006 electoral census. The  central idea is to see how frequent a surname is within the census and then use that to predict how many we should find in a sample of elite professionals. If a certain surname group represents 1 per cent of the population but 5 per cent of the individuals in high skilled professions, then they are overrepresented, and of higher status. In order to study how long the rich stay rich in Costa Rica, the author compiled a dataset of historically advantaged groups before the beginning of the elite profession dataset, in order to avoid selection bias.  The groups are: top coffee growers from 1911, coffee exporters in 1934, teachers and professors between 1923-1933, Jamaican banana growers from 1908, and ethnically- mixed plantation owners.  Figure 1 shows how these elite groups were still overrepresented at the end of the twentieth century and that they will require an average of six to seven generations to regress to the mean. These results are comparable to those produced by Clark, for a completely different set of socioeconomic and historical backgrounds.[2]  Of particular interest is the comparison of the results with Chile, since the two countries had different colonial experiences and varying degrees of inequality throughout their histories.

Figure 1. Elite Group Representation in Costa Rica – Note: The vertical black line determines where the data end and the projections begin.
Sources: Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones, Padron Nacional Electoral; Costa Rica, Direccion General de Estadística y Censos, Lista de cultivadores de banano, anuario 1907; Costa Rica, Instituto de Defensa del Café de Costa Rica, Revista del Instituto de Defensa del Café de Costa Rica. See article for further details.

This research shows that regression to the socioeconomic mean in Costa Rica occurred at a slower pace than that predicted by the previous literature. This implies that the equality-driven policy maker should be more concerned with economic growth, which should increase the average income of every strata, at least under a Kaldor compensation criterion[3], and with compressing the distance between social strata, rather than concerning itself with social mobility. This study has shown how historical groups take fewer generations to regress to the mean in comparison to the Chilean case studied in Clark.[4] This is attributed to the fact that the historical groups were not that far apart to begin with.

To contact the author: DDIAZVIDAL@ut.edu


[1]           G. Clark, The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015; G. Clark and N. Cummins, ‘Surnames and Social Mobility in England, 1170-2012’, Human Nature, 25 (2014), pp. 517-537.

[2]           Clark, The Son also rises.

[3]           This posits that an activity moves the economy closer to Pareto optimality if the maximum amount the gainers are prepared to pay to the losers to agree to the change is greater than the minimum amount losers are prepared to accept

[4]            Ibid.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s