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

Prof. Christopher Paik

How do family networks influence social mobility in a meritocracy? Climbing the ladder of success may be fraught with nepotism and corruption, especially in monarchies where connections can trump talent. A merit-based selection of government officials in such context may serve as a remedy to curb these negative outcomes. In this paper, we investigate the effects of family networks on successfully obtaining official positions during the Joseon Dynasty from 1392 to 1897 CE. The Korean kingdom implemented humanities examination (mun-gwa) intended to fill central official positions based on merit. Its comprehensive records on family ties, exam results and official positions span over 503 years, longer than any other such data under a single dynasty in the world to our knowledge, and offer researchers a unique opportunity to investigate the efficacy of merit-based selections of political elites under a monarchy. We use an individually linked database of successful candidates and their family members from the humanities examination rosters and official position information. We find that those from more connected predecessors in the network had significantly higher likelihoods of obtaining high-level rank positions after passing the exams, even when conditioning on age and performance at the examination. In light of the persistent family network influence, we evaluate the efficacy of meritocratic selection of political elites under a monarchy, and changing relevance of family networks as reflective of political stability over time.