Examining every county in the U.S. from 1850 to 1940, researchers find evidence that “surname diversity” is a strong driver of economic innovation

The results of this study support the theory that social interactions between diverse individuals were key drivers of innovation in U.S. counties from 1850 to 1940. The authors relied on surname diversity to quantify the level of diversity within specific counties and measured innovation through the number and quality of patents produced by people in that location.  While counties might not reflect the full range of interactions occurring in American society, they provide, according to the authors, “a reasonable approximation in the pre-1950 context.” The authors use two different patent measures to test the quantity and quality of innovation occurring in each county: the total number of patents per capita over a 5 or 10-year period and the number of “breakthrough patents” produced in that location. Although migration is a key driver of surname diversity, it doesn’t always produce this outcome, especially if there is a movement of people who are culturally and genealogically related to the dominant groups within a particular county. The authors believe that their research confirms a host of other studies that demonstrate how forms of diversity contribute to economic prosperity. They are also keen on the use of surname diversity as an effective way of measuring diversity within local communities.

Surname Diversity, Social Ties and Innovation,
Social Science Research Network, September 21, 2023, 92 pp.
Authors: Max Posch et al