Paper published in PLOS ONE

Forget Social Networks, our names link us together in cultural and ethnic communities worldwide

“Our forenames and surnames are connected into distinct global networks of cultural, ethnic and linguistic communities” ( ). These are revealed for the first time y a team of geographers in a paper published in Public Library of Science (PLoS ONE) 

Mateos, P., Longley, P.A. and O’Sullivan, D. (2011) Ethnicity and Population Structure in Personal Naming Networks. PloS ONE (Public Library of Science) 6 (9) e22943 [article]

The network shows a selection of surnames in the city of Auckland (NZ)
using data from the 2006 Electoral Register. Each node represents a unique
surname and the links are common forenames shared between a surname pair.
The network’s topological structure reveals clear clustering in Auckland’s
naming practices, reflecting closely-knit social networks and ethno-cultural
customs that prevent cross-cultural (fore-)naming. For example the bottom third
of the figure contains a subnetwork of names that are Tongan, Samoan and other
Pacific Islanders. The full version of this network including the actual surnames
can be visualized in an online version available at  This Figure can be navigated with full panning and
zooming capabilities for flexible exploration. For more details on how the
network was built see Mateos et al. 2011.



Figure: A naming network built from publicly available telephone directories and population registers

The apparently innocent decision of naming a newborn baby anywhere in the world, actually hides a heavy cultural baggage reflecting social norms and ethno-cultural customs that have developed over generations.

Through extensive academic research in 17 countries collecting the names of 118 million individuals in telephone directories and electoral registers, a team of Geographers at University College London and the University of Auckland reveal for the first time how ‘naming networks’ of forenames and surnames provide a valuable representation of cultural, ethnic and linguistic population structure around the world.

Dr. Pablo Mateos, Lecturer at Department of Geography in University College London (UCL) who led the research, says: “what really stroke us was to find clusters of social and ethno-cultural communities that simply ‘emerge’ from the aggregation of millions of individual parental decisions on giving names to their children across the world, without introducing any prior knowledge about a name’s origins”.

This article clearly shows that the way in which we choose our names is far from random, rather reflecting stark identity affiliations, geographical origins and social strata even in today’s highly interconnected world.

This innovative method of community assignment helps to reveal the degree of isolation, integration or overlap between population groups in our rapidly globalising world. As such, this work has important implications for research in population genetics, public health, and social science adding new understandings of migration, identity, integration and social interaction across the world.


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