How Nepotism Works

When Is Nepotism Good?

Jaden and Will Smith with Jaden and Will Smith with
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


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