“What is the story behind your name? Turn to your neighbor and tell them how your parents chose your name,” I say at the start of class1. Students love answering this question. When I ask if anyone wants to share a flurry of hands go up.

The story behind every students name is a 100% personalized one. Sometimes it’s a simple story (e.g. named after a TV character their mother adored) and sometimes its a complex Rube Goldberg like series of events that lead to their naming. Regardless of how their parents came to their name, the students present their naming as a completely individual choice made by their parents2. No one ever says, “Lindsey was really popular at the time of my birth and my parents just wanted to fit in”

To hear students tell it the child naming process is unique from one family to the next. They seem to have perceived their relationship with their parents as one of a kind and wholly removed from the larger society. This is exactly why using child naming as an example of culture and social forces. Research by Stanley Lieberson in the book A Matter of Taste (summarized well in this NYT article) suggests that parents balance the desire to have a unique name for their child with the desire to not have a name that is wildly divergent from the rest of children in their culture. Most parents wouldn’t name there child alkdjfsoic. However, parents want their child to be recognized as special or as a unique human being, so they also don’t want to name their child something too generic or too common.

What emerges from this naming process is a trend. Many names go in and out of fashion; trending up in popularity and then back down. An easy way of illustrating this to your students is to use the US Social Security Administration’s “Popular Baby Names” database. This easy to use website allows you to search any name and see how it ranks against the 1000 most popular baby names. For most students their names go from out of fashion in the decades before their birth, then they become popular right around their birth, and then fall out of popularity again. Below are some examples from 3 friends of SociologySource. Thanks to @soziologikus (aka Werner), @danielledirks, @sober_sociology (aka Paula), and @yogspiers (aka Eugene).

NOTE: The Y Axis is the rank order of the name.
Lower values equal more popularity.

Danielle's Name Over Time

Eugene's Name Over Time

Paula's Name Over Time

You are a savvy sociologist so you are probably thinking, “But wait, what about the times it doesn’t work?” Indeed you are right. It doesn’t always work, as Werner (i.e. @soziologikus) shows us. Werner was not inside the 1000 most popular US names3. When the database doesn’t register a name it provides us with an opportunity to teach students about social demographics and data collection.

I ask my class to break up into small groups to critically think about how the data was collected and how that might impact the ranking of the name in question. Students are quick to point out that if this database contains the first names of all the people in the United States, then it has a bias toward white Americans. This discovery affords us the opportunity to talk about oversampling and also the changing demographics of the United States.

What I want my students to take away from this activity is not that there are rules that everyone follows verbatim when naming children, but rather I want them to see how a personal choice is guided by social forces. The fact that at times this database provides contradictory evidence only demonstrates the complexity of human behavior.


1. I learned about this excellent ice breaker from April Schueths. Thanks.

2. There is one big exception to this rule. Some African American students in my classes report that their parents selected their name so that, “people couldn’t tell I was Black until they saw me in person.” I typically talk about name discrimination on job applications and resumes during my section on racial and ethnic discrimination, but the findings suggest that name discrimination is a very real problem in the United States. It’s interesting, however, that when I ask these same students to tell me how their parents ultimately selected their name students tell a very personalized narrative. So even for students who have seen how larger social forces (e.g. racism) affect personal decisions, the final decision stills focuses on individual level variables.

3. Werner was not born in the United States, so this probably explains his absence from the top 1000 most popular baby names.