How Nepotism Works


Introduction to How Nepotism Works
Donald Trump's appointments of his son-in-law Jared Kushner (L) and daughter Ivanka Trump have garnered much controversy. View press/Corbis via Getty Images

Say the word "nepotism" out loud. It probably feels distasteful, like you're spitting out an insult. Because if you ever accuse someone of nepotism, it's likely not any kind of praise. There are laws against nepotism, but even when it's legal it carries the stain of unearned privilege, an unlevel playing field, rewarded incompetence and corruption.

So, nepotism is a terrible thing, right?

Sometimes. But sometimes it's a good thing, or at least a necessary thing. If nothing else, it's a nearly unavoidable act. Entire systems of government have been built on it, and entire systems of government have been built to eliminate it. One could even argue that it's a basis of human civilization.

The seemingly simple subject of nepotism — a tendency to grant favors to our family members over people who aren't related to us — turns out to have deep roots in human nature. It's worth taking a closer look, then, at nepotism's biological origins, cultural history and the measurable effect it has on modern society.

Defining Nepotism

Defining Nepotism
The papacy is plagued by a history of nepotism. In fact, the word "nepotism" has roots in the Catholic Church. TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images

The definition of nepotism you're most likely to encounter is a negative one, used in business and politics. It means hiring or appointing relatives without regard for their abilities or qualifications. If you hire your sister-in-law to manage the information technology (IT) department of your business despite her having no experience or training in IT, you might be accused of nepotism. It's distinct from cronyism, in which jobs are doled out as rewards to friends and people who are owed favors, but not necessarily relatives.

Biologists and other scientists who study animal behavior, however, use the word nepotism to describe any behavior that favors family members over unrelated individuals. Animal nepotism is a result of natural selection (which favors any behaviors that increase the likelihood of genetic traits being passed to another generation), suggesting that nepotism has an overall positive effect on survival rates for some species in certain situations.

Some animal nepotism has a negative effect on an individual animal's chance of surviving while increasing the chance of related animals surviving. For example, ground squirrels who give alarm calls at the approach of a predator are more likely to be killed by predators, but nearby relatives are more likely to survive than if there weren't an alarm call. Studies have found that the squirrels give alarm calls more often when more of their relatives are nearby, and don't give alarm calls when only unrelated squirrels are present [source: Sherman].

Or consider hive insect species like bees and ants. Some individuals are unable to reproduce, devoting their entire lives to helping the hive's queen reproduce successfully. The balance between self-sacrifice and advantage for related animals has even been distilled into a formula, where the reduced survival chances for the individual are weighed against the number of relatives who gain advantage and how closely related they are. The process is known as kin selection, and the formula is called Hamilton's Rule. British Scientist J.B.S. Haldane famously joked about the equation, saying that he would lay down his life "for two brothers, or eight cousins" [source: Dugatin].

The origin of the word "nepotism" lies in some of history's most prolific practitioners of it, Catholic popes. The Latin root nepos means "nephew." Since Catholic priests are forbidden from having sex, popes could never acknowledge the illegitimate sons they fathered. Yet popes wanted to promote their sons (and other relatives, including actual nephews) to important positions within the church. The workaround was to call these unacknowledged sons nephews [source: Sherman]. For example, Pope Sixtus IV had a lot of nephews [source: Metropolitan Museum of Art].

But popes aren't the only people to favor their relatives. Nepotism shows up in every era and culture. Let's look at how it has shaped the world.

Nepotism Through History and Around the World

Nepotism Through History and Around the World
Indian National Congress President Sonia Gandhi (L) and Vice President Rahul Gandhi speak during a press conference in New Delhi. Both are part of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty. PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images

The most basic community of humans is the family. Multiple families working together form a tribe. Tribes can gather together to form larger communities — clans, city-states and nations. This is, in a general sense, the pattern of human civilization. But the family remains the basic unit, and because humans are animals too, we are also subject to kin selection, an instinctive desire to support family members over unrelated people, no matter how big or powerful our larger communities become. So, a tension between loyalty to family and loyalty to the state has always been an important part of human civilizations.

There are plenty of examples. Confucianism is a school of political thought and philosophy that forms a vital part of the foundation of Chinese civilization, and a lot of Confucian writings emphasize family loyalty. But this loyalty had to be balanced with a concern for the general well-being of the state. Nepotism served as a counterbalance to growing imperial power in different Chinese eras; Confucianism even suggests a little nepotism is a good thing [source: Marsh]. Later attempts to eliminate nepotism in favor of a "purer" communist meritocracy gave government officials such unchecked power that they were able to freely promote family members regardless of qualification. The attempt to eliminate nepotism paradoxically caused an explosion of nepotism and corruption.

Both the Roman Republic and Empire were tangled webs of nepotism. Nepotism was essentially the vehicle for transmission of power, with noble families passing their wealth, lucrative businesses and powerful political positions to their sons and other relatives. The sway of nepotism in Rome grew and faded over the generations, but it was always present and is sometimes cited as a key contributor to the empire's eventual collapse. The promotion of incompetent relatives to important positions made it impossible to govern such a large and complex empire, so the empire gradually became more corrupt until it failed completely [source: Matyszak]. One of the most infamous events in world history, the assassination of the Roman politician Julius Caesar, involved nepotism. Instead of appointing a close political ally, Caesar willed his position as dictator and his fortune to a grandnephew, Octavian, who would become the first Roman emperor and take the name Caesar Augustus.

Similar tensions have played out in modern eras. In India, the Nehru-Gandhi family has held power for generations. In President Suharto's Indonesia, corruption was so widespread it gained its own abbreviation, KKN — which in Indonesian stands for "corruption, collusion and nepotism" — and led eventually to Suharto resigning. In the U.S., John F. Kennedy named his own brother, Robert Kennedy, U.S. attorney general despite his brother having no law experience. And President Donald Trump named his own daughter and son-in-law to high-level government positions [sources: Bellow, Greenlees, Joseph].

Nepotism has been hard at work in many other nations and eras, too, especially those where corruption was a problem. Or it hasn't been doing any work, since it got the job from its uncle and knows it can't really be fired.

Next, we'll look at the harmful effects of nepotism.

What's So Bad About Nepotism?

What's So Bad About Nepotism?
Department of Healthcare Finance Director Wayne Turnage testifies at a hearing about nepotism in the mayor's administration in Washington. Politics is one of the only realms in which nepotistic activity is forbidden by law. Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

It's clear that widespread nepotism in politics is a form of corruption that weakens governments. But what are the specific effects of nepotism? Too much nepotism in government messes up the balance between loyalty to family and loyalty to state. Eventually, the primary goal of public agencies and government officials becomes rewarding family members rather than serving citizens, and people take important jobs for which they are woefully unqualified. The public sees this happening and loses faith in public institutions, no longer trusting that the government can treat people without family connections fairly. During end-stage nepotism, the normal democratic process of electing new leaders is disrupted as the families in power establish ways to simply designate "heirs to the throne" [sources: Erickson, Gallup].

Nepotism has negative effects outside of politics as well. The passing of businesses to the owners' children, legacy admissions to universities (which gives preference to children of alumni) and even the tendency of children to go into the same field as their parents all help to entrench people who hold certain jobs or positions of power.

For example, one 1989 paper found that the child of a doctor has a 14 percent greater chance of being admitted into medical school than someone whose parents were not doctors, after controlling for other variables [source: Lentz & Laband]. At the same time, people from oppressed or disadvantaged groups may be denied opportunities to move into those jobs. Since families largely tend to be of the same race and nationality, nepotism can create a homogenous workplace and even constitute discrimination in some cases [source: Bolstad]. In these instances, nepotism can reinforce generations-old practices of racism and sexism by creating a structure that keeps power in the hands of the people who've always held that power, regardless of whether they deserve to be in that position. Relevant to this effect is the sociological theory of ethnic nepotism, which suggests that members of an ethnic group favor their own group members over nonmembers because they are more closely related, and can lead to increased ethnic and political conflict [source: Vanhanen].

Few people would question a business owners' right to pass the family business on to their children. But the owners' children aren't necessarily the best people for the job. According to one study, companies that promote CEOs based on family ties performed 14 percent worse (based on the company's book-to-market ratio) than firms that promoted unrelated CEOs [source: Pérez-González]. Indeed, the family business that lasts for generations is a rarity — there's even an aphorism about family businesses: "The first generation starts the business, the second generation maintains it and the third generation ruins it" [source: Schooley].

But is nepotism always bad? Contrary to how it may seem, nepotism can actually be helpful.

When Is Nepotism Good?

When Is Nepotism Good?
People who might've been marginalized based on their race or sex — like Jaden Smith (L), son of actor Will Smith — often have easier access to jobs when nepotism is at play. Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

Nepotism is here to stay, so the best society can do is limit its effects in the places where it can do the most harm, typically in politics. But there are times when nepotism isn't simply tolerated — it's actually beneficial.

The popes and their many nephews are a good example. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Catholic Church was as much a political power as a religious one. The transition from one pope to the next could result in destructive power struggles that would harm nations throughout Europe. Using nepotism to fill important positions with loyal family members allowed new popes to shore up their support within the church quickly, creating stability and reducing the risk of damaging battles for power and influence [source: Bellow]. This pattern is also present in other nations where a family has come to rule and pass leadership on to an appointed heir. It's a trade-off, since it comes with all the problems of government nepotism and corruption, but it increases the chances of a smooth transition of power.

Studies have found that nepotism can create stability in businesses as well, but only in certain situations. Some businesses are idiosyncratic — that is, they require specific knowledge and skills that aren't general business management skills. The more idiosyncratic a business is, the more it is likely to benefit from nepotism, because family members are more likely to acquire the necessary business knowledge [source: Lee et al.].

The benefit of nepotism in the anthropological sense, applied to everyday interactions outside of politics and business, is fairly obvious. Imagine if every holiday season you simply evaluated the merits of the people you know to determine who gets a gift. If your sister had an off year, she gets no present. Or if your son asked you for assistance with taking care of his child, and you decided that an unrelated person was more deserving of your child care efforts instead. That seems cold and inhuman. It's why we'll never get rid of nepotism: Our instinctive urge to help our family members is simply too strong.

Author's Note: How Nepotism Works

I never imagined how much nepotism is entwined around every part of human history when I started researching this. It was one of the more mind-blowing revelations in my years of researching HowStuffWorks articles. Just understanding the family-state tension in every human civilization, and the fact that the tension is necessary, that the pull of opposing forces creates a needed balance, makes me feel like I can see world history much more clearly now.

On the other hand, one of the things there wasn't really space to get into in the article is the fact that racism is a form of nepotism. The dirty secret of kin selection is that we don't have some built-in way of knowing which people we're closely related to. For thousands of years, the shortcut was to simply consider everyone who grew up near where you grew up a relative. But humanity is a lot more mobile these days, which defeats the shortcut. People end up instinctively considering anyone who looks generally like them to be "related," which leads to ethno-nationalism and outright racism. That doesn't in any way suggest that racism is natural — maybe by understanding nepotism as one of racism's root causes we can be better equipped to fight it.

Related Articles

Sources

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