How Nepotism Works

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.

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