Tyler Cowen has suggested that politics is mainly about raising or lowering the status of particular groups. If this is true then the identities of a country’s most admired people might tell us something more about what that society values. And this arguably has consequences. Compare a country where the people rate scientists to be their greatest citizens versus one whose greatest are pop stars. Wouldn’t we expect the first to be more successful than the second? At the least, we might learn something about a culture from the people that it puts on a pedestal.
I investigated this question through a series of TV contests to choose a country’s “greatest” individuals. The shows were based on a template developed by the BBC which back in 2002 conducted a telephone and online poll to choose the Greatest Britons. The resulting TV special with various presenters making the case for each of the top ten vote-getters was popular enough that the show was licensed to a number of other countries. It is these 30 different versions of the show that I compiled to produce the data that I analyze below. I’d note that the shows were of varying quality, popularity, and even format which likely had some influence on the vote (see methods appendix for details). Even though the votes are far from representative samples of the population, they may be interesting in their own right.
Some findings that stood out to me were the following:
The winners tended to be prominent politicians, particularly founding fathers but also some postwar politicians
Though politicians tended to be well-represented at the top of the lists, overall culture and sport were more strongly represented, especially in continental European countries
The greatest figures tended to be relatively contemporary with a median date of birth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries
Science and business, which might be considered the main sources of national prosperity, were relatively underrepresented though with differences across countries
Women are relatively underrepresented in these polls, making up around 13% of the total, lower for the top tens.
The winners of the contest tended to be political figures. A full 60% were politicians, 20% monarchs, 17% military professionals, 13% rebels, and 7% more general public affairs. That left only 7% for religious figures and 3% for humanitarians and intelligentsia. The numbers add up to more than 100% because I coded some figures in multiple categories (see the methodological appendix for more on the occupational categories).
In most cases, these were founding fathers of the country or leaders of modern independence movements. This includes:
Argentina: Jose de San Martin
Bengalis: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
Bulgaria: Vasil Levski
Czechia: Charles IV
Finland: C.G.E. Mannerheim
Greece: Alexander the Great
Japan: Oda Nobunaga
Netherlands: William of Orange1
Romania: Stephen the Great
Russia: Alexander Nevsky
Slovakia: Milan Rastislav Stefanik
South Africa: Nelson Mandela
Ukraine: Yaroslav the Wise
In other cases, as shown below, it was more current political figures, particularly those who made their names in WWII and its aftermath. These tended to be significant rulers for the baby boom generation and the “Thirty Glorious Years” that they enjoyed. When I lecture on postwar Europe, I note how France, Germany, and the UK chose leaders from this period as their greatest. The presence of two politicians (Douglas and Bevan) associated with the welfare state similarly might be an indication of the continued popularity of those policies.
Canada: Tommy Douglas (founder of the country’s welfare state)
Chile: Salvador Allende
Croatia: Josip Broz Tito
France: Charles de Gaulle
Germany: Konrad Adenauer
Ireland: John Hume (one of the main architects of peace in Northern Ireland)
Portugal: António Oliveira de Salazar
Spain: King Juan Carlos II
UK: Winston Churchill
USA: Ronald Reagan
Wales: Aneurin Bevan (founder of the country’s welfare state)
Exceptions to the focus on politicians were:
Belgium: Father Damien (Flemish) or Jacques Brel (Walloons)
Brazil: Chico Xavier
Italy: Leonardo da Vinci
New Zealand: Ernest Rutherford
I’m not certain if there is a way to predict why countries fell into these groups. The first group are mostly countries whose golden age lies further in the past (with Japan possibly an exception), whereas the second includes more countries who are successful in the present (with exceptions like Croatia and Iberia), though it would be easy to find more illustrious historical figures in the second group. The third group might be distinguished by the absence of good political choices, though that did not prevent places like Croatia and Portugal from choosing fairly problematic figures (Stalin placed third in Russia).
If we look further down the lists, we start to see occupations beyond politics. I coded 14 distinct occupations based on the source of the figure’s fame (see the appendix for details). Among the top tens, politics remains dominant with just short of 30% of the figures, followed by high culture with 15%. Rebels, scientists (labeled as STEM), public affairs, pop culture, and monarchs appear next making up between 9 and 12%. Religion and military come in at around 7%, intellect, sport, and humanitarians comprise about 5% and explorers and businesspeople are 1-2% of the top tens.
If we extend our glance more widely to the entire lists (and treat everyone equally), the big surprise might be the rise of popular culture to the top. One in five of the greatest were from this branch, which may be disappointing, though it testifies to the rise of this area of life (as confirmed in a recent study of figures on Wikipedia). Politics falls to second place on this longer list with 16% and high culture maintains its position with 15%. Other fields that drop considerably in the wider view are scientists (11% to 5%), rebels (12% to 5%), and monarchs (9% to 5%). The risers besides pop culture are sport (5% to 11%), and business (1% to 3.5%).
Action versus Culture?
One of my thoughts about these results is that there might be countries that prioritize cultures and ideas and others that prioritize action. For each figure, I coded them as action-oriented if they fit in the categories of politics, public affairs, rebel, monarch, explorer, or business. They were culture-oriented if they were coded as high or popular culture, sport, STEM, religion, or intellect. A few figures fit in both, so the percentages add up to more than 100.
Overall, there are more cultural figures in the full lists, but more action-oriented at the top. The breakdown between action and culture is 50% culture and 55% action for the top tens and 63% culture/40% action for the full lists. As mentioned above, the #1’s were almost entirely action-oriented.
The figure below shows the percentage of such figures among the full lists for each country (the figure looks similar for the top tens). The bottom right-quadrant of culturally-oriented places are mostly developed continental European countries (Italy, France, Belgium, and Germany stand out) along with Eastern European cases (Croatia, Czechia, and Slovakia) and Brazil. In the upper left quadrant are non-Western parts of the world and former colonies along with the English-speaking countries (plus Portugal, Bulgaria, and the Netherlands).
I would have to speculate a bit to explain this pattern. The strong representation of culture in continental Europe could be attributed to the excellence, quantity, and influence of its cultural production or as a consequence of its fall from political relevance (see Kagan 2003). Its political glories are long past and its 20th century politics were very checkered.
By contrast, the rest of the world had to engage in political struggles for independence relatively recently, producing more important politicians and rebels. The English-speaking world meanwhile is known for its business and technical orientation - England as the prototypical nation of shopkeepers. Those more familiar with work on cultural differences may be able to find more meaning here.
I also singled out a couple of occupations that I was curious about. Business tends to be neglected in the cultural imagination and the same is true in these rankings where overall 3.5% of those named were associated with business and only 0.6% of the top ten were businesspeople. Only two businesspeople made any top ten, Konosuke Matsushita, the founder of Panasonic (#4 in Japan) and J.R.D. Tata (#6 in India). Others who made into the top twenty were Gigi Becali (#13 in Romania), Robert Bosch (#14 in Germany), Ernest Solvay (#15 among Belgian Walloons), Anton Phillips (#17 in the Netherlands), Mark Shuttleworth (#18 in South Africa), Freddy Heineken (#18 in the Netherlands), and Bill Gates (#18 in the US).
The highest percentage of business figures was in India (~10%), followed by South Africa, the US, Belgian Walloons, Germany, Netherlands, Finland, and Belgian Flemish. On the other side, Russia, Italy, France, Croatia, Bengalis, and Argentina named no businesspeople in their lists. Not surprisingly, the postcommunist states all fell in the bottom half of the list whether due to the legacy of communism or the corruption of the transition. The other surprises near the bottom were Canada and France.
One could ascribe some significance to esteem for businesspeople and economic success. One sees a slight relationship between economic success and ranking businesspeople as among the greatest (though India is an outlier). Alternatively, we can imagine that for the general public, businesspeople already enjoy earthly rewards and perhaps do not need so much extra esteem.
Arguably societies would be better off if scientists enjoyed greater public esteem. On average scientists made up 9% of the figures (10% of the top tens), which was better than business, but on par with sports and less than both high culture and popular culture. The UK led the way with 18% of its top 100, followed by New Zealand, Flemish Belgians, Germany, Russia, Croatia, Wales, and Italy (then the US). Low scorers included Ireland, South Africa, Bulgaria, and Canada. The highest ranking STEM figures are listed below with Ernest Rutherford at the top of the New Zealand voting.
In terms of trends, some English-speaking democracies did quite well (UK, NZ, Wales, US), but others were near the bottom (Ireland, Canada, and South Africa). Given the communist-era emphasis on science and math education, it is not surprising that several postcommunist countries scored well (Russia, Croatia, Ukraine, and Romania). There seems to be a somewhat positive relationship between the frequency of Nobel Prize wins in the sciences (chemistry, medicine, and physics) and the percentage of STEM figures in these lists. A scatterplot below shows this relationship..
Sports and Pop Culture
I had assumed that it would be telling when a country chose a large number of pop cultural figures or sports stars for its greatest. A superficial public, right? It was hard, however, to find any patterns in these results (figure below). The percentages somewhat mirror those for the culture/action division discussed above with continental Europe scoring relatively well. And given its pop cultural and even athletic dominance, maybe we shouldn’t begrudge the US its scores (Elvis and Oprah are both in the top ten). I’m not sure what to say about the Walloons who put chansonnier Jacques Brel at the top, cyclist Eddy Merckx at #4, a comedian at #7, cartoonist Herge at #8, and detective novelist Georges Simenon at #10.
Among all the individuals in these lists, 12.8% were women. This was slightly lower in the top tens - only 9.1% were women. And none of the very greatest were women. The highest ranked were Kate Sheppard (New Zealand) at #2, Lady Diana (UK) and Mary Robinson (Ireland) at #3, Marie Curie (France), Sophie Scholl along with her brother Hans (Germany), and Queen Sophia (Spain) at #4, and Mother Theresa (India), Tarja Halonen (Finland), and Sister Emmanuelle (Belgium - Walloons) at #5.
Looking more broadly at the lists, Finland was the leader in gender equality with nearly 25% women in the top 100 and Brazil the lowest with around 2% which makes sense in terms of the relative gender equality of the two places. However these trends do not hold more generally. The figure below shows a scatterplot of the percentage of the top 100 who were women and the UN’s Gender Inequality Index from 2005. There is something of a negative correlation (r=-0.21) as one would expect though not a very strong one and the relationship is in the opposite direction (r=+0.20) if we isolate the proportion of women in the top ten. Some of the outliers include an above average proportion of greatest women in South Africa, Argentina, and Ukraine and a lower proportion in more gender equal Japan, Greece, and Ireland. A country’s culture may not be a good predictor of its valuation of eminent women.
In terms of occupations, women tended to be relatively underrepresented in politics (17% of men versus 10% of women), military (6%/2%), STEM fields (10%/2.5%), and intellectuals (5%/2%). By contrast, they were relatively overrepresented in public affairs (7%/16%) and pop culture (18%/27%). They were about equally represented in sport and high culture.
In historical terms, most countries chose from relatively contemporary figures. 56% were born in the 20th century and 40% of the top ten. The median date of birth for all figures was 1908 and for the top tens it was slightly earlier at 1880 (it was similarly 1884 for the #1s).2
The figure below presents a box plot of these dates of birth (excluding the votes in South Africa for Mrs. Ples, a 2 million-year-old fossil). (The selectors for Italy also excluded ancient Romans who presumably would have received some votes and voters in India were restricted to post-independence figures.) The figure is ordered by median date of birth. The oldest median was in Russia followed by Japan, the UK, and Greece. Countries with the most recent figures were South Africa, Ireland, Brazil, Canada, Slovakia, and the US. As expected, New World countries and colonies tended to have relatively recent figures.
I suppose the big question is not so much who citizens of different countries believe are the greatest but who they should think are the greatest. To return to the question at the start, whose prestige should be raised? I’ve suggested scientists above. Maybe other scholars. But then again I would benefit from that. Perhaps businesspeople who translate these ideas into something useful? I’ll leave that discussion to others.
As I mentioned, the data come from spinoffs of the BBC program Greatest Britons. Similar contests were subsequently aired in 30-some countries as summarized here. I was not able to track down data for several of the cases (Australia, Catalonia, Georgia, and Hungary). In certain cases, restrictions were put on candidates, particularly Germany (where Nazis were excluded) and India (where the contest focused on post-independence figures and excluded Gandhi who was considered a shoo-in if he were included).
In some countries, voters were given free rein and in others they were presented either with a list of candidates or with preset contests among smaller groups. I excluded Colombia and Uruguay because these restrictions were so severe that voters had very little choice (they were asked to choose between foursomes from sports, pop culture, current politics, and history). In some cases, rankings were only given for the top 10 and in others for the whole list. And while most countries featured a list of 100, others included fewer (20 for Bengalis, 40 in Ireland, 46 in Italy, 50 in India) or more (200 for Germany and the Netherlands). In Japan, voters could choose foreigners as well; I eliminated these choices, leaving 60 of the original 100. Finally, several polls were conducted among units not congruent with states (Wales, Belgian Flanders and Wallonia, and Bengalis).
Altogether this gives us 2,838 people to work with (2,638 if I drop those ranked 101 to 200 for Germany and the Netherlands). I added four pieces of information about each figure: date of birth, date of death, gender, and occupation. I coded the following occupations with a focus on the occupation(s) that best reflected the reason for the person’s fame. A few figures proved hard to code - for example, Anne Frank. The occupations I ultimately included were:
Politics: those who held a formal position like president or prime minister
Public affairs: those who influenced politics or society, but not as formal powerholders; for example, social movement leaders or journalists
Monarch: this includes formal monarchs and other high-ranking members of the aristocracy; I did not code these in the politics category.
Military: those who made their name as military professionals; it does not include the many monarchs or political leaders who led their country in wars
Rebel: those who led violent movements of national liberation or rebellion against the formal government.
Sport: those who distinguished themselves in some athletic endeavor (including chess) are included here.
High Culture: those who produced “high” art - that is, most writers, visual artists, and classical musicians (including Indian classical music).
Pop Culture: entertainers who achieved mass popularity; it mostly consists of actors, rock & pop musicians, filmmakers, comedians, and other celebrities.
STEM: mathematicians, scientists, engineers, and others who made significant contributions to the natural sciences
Intellect: important thinkers in areas besides the STEM fields, for example, philosophers, historians, economists, or political thinkers
Explorer: those who conducted voyages of discovery, including to the poles or outer space.
Religion: those whose main achievements were in leading a church or in producing new religious ideas; it does not include those who were priests or monks, but became famous for something else (eg, Gregor Mendel)
Humanitarian: those whose main achievement was in helping others, typically without a political agenda (eg, Florence Nightingale)
Business: those who founded or expanded businesses; if the business was based on a scientific or technical breakthrough by the same person, they were also listed in the STEM category
Pim Fortuyn was named the winner in the live broadcast, but supposedly William of Orange actually received more votes.
For a few older figures, Wikipedia listed a date of death but not a date of birth. In these cases, I assumed a lifespan of 50 years.