Ancestry Matters: Patrilineage Growth and Extinction

Am Sociol Rev. 2015 Jun;80(3):574-602. doi: 10.1177/0003122415576516. Epub 2015 May 31.


Patrilineality, the organization of kinship, inheritance, and other key social processes based on patrilineal male descent, has been a salient feature of social organization in China and many other societies for centuries. Because continuity or growth of the patrilineage was the central focus of reproductive strategies in such societies, we introduce the number of patrilineal male descendants generations later as a stratification outcome. By reconstructing and analyzing 20,000 patrilineages in two prospective, multi-generational population databases from 18th and 19th century China, we show that patrilineages founded by high status males had higher growth rates for the next 150 years. The elevated growth rate of these patrilineages was due more to their having a lower probability of extinction at each point in time than to surviving patrilineal male descendants having larger numbers of sons on average. As a result, patrilineal male descendants of high status males account for a disproportionately large share of the male population in later generations. In China and elsewhere, patrilineal kin network characteristics influence individuals' life chances; thus effects of a male founder's characteristics on patrilineage size many generations later represent an indirect channel of status transmission that has not been considered previously.

Keywords: descent line; extinction; multigenerational inequality; population composition.