Proposal preview

The Causes and Consequences of Historic Differences in Cultural Values

Presenters

Samuel Bazzi (Boston University): “Cultural Persistence: The History and Legacy of the American Frontier”

Nathan Nunn (Harvard): “Understanding Cultural Persistence and Change”

Jeanet Bentzen (University of Copenhagen): “The Power of Religion: Resource Inequality and Religion Across the Globe”

Eric Chaney (Harvard University) “Religion and the Rise and Fall of Islamic Science”

Abstract

Theories on the causes and consequences of cultural values are numerous with scholars from sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science contributing greatly. Empirical research on the topic, though, has long been restricted by data availability and methodology. Recently, the empirical investigation of the causes and consequences of cultural values has spurred due to increased availability of data on cultural values and historic factors in general. For instance, Chaney (Econometrica 2013) shows that deviant Nile shocks increased the political power of religious leaders, which helps explain the historical resilience of autocratic institutions. Butler, Giuliano, and Guiso (JEEA 2014) show that both too little and too much trust can hamper individual income as much as foregone college education. Andersen, Bentzen, Dalgaard, and Sharp (EJ 2017) document that the cultural values that Max Weber stressed as originating with the Protestant Reformation had a pre-reformation origin; the Catholic Order of Cistercians established in 1100. These contributions are all authored or co-authored by presenters of the current panel, but the literature of course extends beyond these panel presenters, illustrated by the various papers summarizing the literature on the causes and consequences of cultural values within economics (e.g., Guiso et al 2006, Fernandez 2011, Nunn 2012, Alesina and Giuliano 2015, Becker et al 2016).

The persuasiveness of the empirical investigations greatly depends on the authors’ creative ability to seek out information on historic cultural values from various available sources, but also on the methodology used to establish causality. This session presents new techniques to reach both goals. For instance, Chaney measures historic scientific output by the proportion of books dedicated to scientific topics and shows that this proportion has fallen over the period 1100-1800. He then documents that the fall coincides with the establishment of religious schools (madrasas), both across time and geographic space. Giuliano (together with Nathan Nunn) uses the Ethnographic Atlas gathered by ethnographers to construct a database of characteristics of the ancestors of the world’s populations. The Ethnographic Atlas holds information on 1265 primitive societies scattered across the globe measured before European contact. The information ranges from societal complexity, over resource dependency to the degree of religious beliefs. Giuliano and Nunn link ethnographic atlas to current language groups and thus are able to extend the information from the Atlas to the entire globe. Bentzen (together with Gunes Gokmen) uses the Ethnographic Atlas to show that the prevalence of powerful elites made beliefs in high Gods more likely to occur in historic societies. To establish causality, Bentzen and Gokmen exploit findings by Bentzen et al (JEEA 2017) that specific past agricultural practices increased the emergence of powerful elites. Fiszbein (together with Bazzi and Gebresilasse) combines historic census data from the US with GIS techniques to identify the impact of being located on the frontier splitting the US into inhabited lands and no mans’ lands between 1790 and 1890. They find evidence that longer frontier exposure is associated with higher individualism both historically and today as theorized by Turner (1893). Measuring individualism is based on the share of unique names among children (a technique used by Knudsen, 2017) and revealed behavior.

The four papers in this session attempt to take the empirical literature further by providing new techniques and inspiration to investigate the causes and consequences of cultural values. All presenters and discussants have agreed to participate.

Organizer(s)

  • Jeanet Bentzen University of Copenhagen jeanet.bentzen@econ.ku.dk Denmark

Session members

  • Eric Chaney, Harvard University
  • Nathan Nunn, Harvard
  • Jeanet Bentzen, University of Copenhagen
  • Samuel Bazzi, Boston University

Discussant(s)

  • Nathan Nunn Harvard University nnunn@fas.harvard.edu
  • Francesco Cinnirella University of Southern Denmark cinnirella@sam.sdu.dk
  • Sascha Becker Warwick University S.O.Becker@warwick.ac.uk
  • Jared Rubin Chapman University jrubin@chapman.edu

Papers

Panel abstract

Theories on the causes and consequences of cultural values are numerous, but empirical investigation has long been restricted by data availability. The four papers in this session show new techniques to investigate the topic empirically. Chaney shows that scientific output fell during 1100-1800 in Istanbul and documents the role of religion as one explanatory factor. Giuliano constructs a database of the ancestors of the world’s populations by linking the Ethnographic Atlas to language groups. Bentzen combines the Ethnographic Atlas and data on religious laws with GIS techniques to show that beliefs in high Gods were more likely to emerge in places where the elite had incentives to use religion for power purposes. Fiszbein matches historic US census data with GIS techniques to show that individuals living in frontier lands between 1790 and 1890 were more likely to leave a legacy of higher individualism.

1st half

Frontier Culture: The Roots and Persistence of "Rugged Individualism" in The United Statess

Samuel Bazzi, Martin Fiszbein, and Mesay Gebresilasse

In a classic 1893 essay, Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the American frontier promoted individualism. We revisit the Frontier Thesis and examine its relevance at the subnational level. Using Census data and GIS techniques, we track the frontier throughout the 1790-1890 period and construct a novel, county-level measure of historical frontier experience. We document skewed sex ratios and other distinctive demographics of frontier locations, as well as their greater individualism (proxied by infrequent children names). Many decades after the closing of the frontier, counties with longer historical frontier experience exhibit more prevalent individualism and opposition to redistribution and regulation. We take several steps towards a causal interpretation, including an instrumental variables approach that exploits variation in the speed of westward expansion induced by national immigration inflows. Using linked historical Census data, we identify mechanisms giving rise to a persistent frontier culture. Selective migration contributed to greater individualism, and frontier conditions...

In a classic 1893 essay, Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the American frontier promoted individualism. We revisit the Frontier Thesis and examine its relevance at the subnational level. Using Census data and GIS techniques, we track the frontier throughout the 1790-1890 period and construct a novel, county-level measure of historical frontier experience. We document skewed sex ratios and other distinctive demographics of frontier locations, as well as their greater individualism (proxied by infrequent children names). Many decades after the closing of the frontier, counties with longer historical frontier experience exhibit more prevalent individualism and opposition to redistribution and regulation. We take several steps towards a causal interpretation, including an instrumental variables approach that exploits variation in the speed of westward expansion induced by national immigration inflows. Using linked historical Census data, we identify mechanisms giving rise to a persistent frontier culture. Selective migration contributed to greater individualism, and frontier conditions may have further shaped behavior and values. We provide evidence suggesting that rugged individualism may be rooted in its adaptive advantage on the frontier and the opportunities for upward mobility through effort.

Understanding Cultural Persistence and Change

Nathan Nunn

We examine a determinant of cultural persistence that has emerged from a class of models in evolutionary anthropology: the similarity of the environment across generations. Within these models, when the environment is more similar across generations, the traits that have evolved up to the previous generation are more likely to be optimal for the current generation. In equilibrium, a greater value is placed on tradition and there is greater cultural persistence. We test this hypothesis by measuring the variability of different climatic measures across 20-year generations from 500–1900. The first part of our analysis uses climate data with global coverage to examine variation across countries, ethnic groups, and the descendants of immigrants. We find that populations with ancestors who lived in environments with more cross-generational instability place less importance in maintaining tradition today and they also exhibit less cultural persistence over time. The second part of our analysis examines the...

We examine a determinant of cultural persistence that has emerged from a class of models in evolutionary anthropology: the similarity of the environment across generations. Within these models, when the environment is more similar across generations, the traits that have evolved up to the previous generation are more likely to be optimal for the current generation. In equilibrium, a greater value is placed on tradition and there is greater cultural persistence. We test this hypothesis by measuring the variability of different climatic measures across 20-year generations from 500–1900. The first part of our analysis uses climate data with global coverage to examine variation across countries, ethnic groups, and the descendants of immigrants. We find that populations with ancestors who lived in environments with more cross-generational instability place less importance in maintaining tradition today and they also exhibit less cultural persistence over time. The second part of our analysis examines the persistence of tradition among indigenous populations from the United States and Canada. The more-narrow geographic coverage allows us to use higher quality climate data that are available at a much finer spatial and temporal resolution. We show that our findings are robust to controlling for annual variability, and to the use of an alternative instability measure that considers the cross-generational instability of the second moment (rather than the first moment) of climate.

2nd half

The Power of Religion: Resource Inequality and Religion Across the Globe

Jeanet Sinding Bentzen and Gunes Gokmen

The major religions of today are highly hierarchical and centralized, but it has not always been this way. We test the idea that the major religions were more likely to emerge in societies that were already stratified in various ways. To solve obvious endogeneity problems, we exploit exogenous variation in the degree of inequality in agriculture. We find that past resource inequality increases the likelihood of adopting hierarchical religions across 750 historical ethnographic societies and across 109 contemporary countries. Our results contribute to our understanding of the major role played by religion historically and in some countries also today.

The major religions of today are highly hierarchical and centralized, but it has not always been this way. We test the idea that the major religions were more likely to emerge in societies that were already stratified in various ways. To solve obvious endogeneity problems, we exploit exogenous variation in the degree of inequality in agriculture. We find that past resource inequality increases the likelihood of adopting hierarchical religions across 750 historical ethnographic societies and across 109 contemporary countries. Our results contribute to our understanding of the major role played by religion historically and in some countries also today.

Religion and the Rise and Fall of Islamic Science

Eric Chaney

Why did the surge of scientific production in the medieval Islamic world dwindle? To explore this question, I gather data on intellectual production from Harvard’s library collection and a catalog of books from seventeenth century Istanbul. I document that the proportion of books dedicated to scientific topics declined in the medieval period, noting that the empirical patterns are most consistent with theories linking the decline to institutional changes. I discuss the role religious leaders played in generating these developments, concluding that the evidence is consistent with the claim that an increase in the political power of these elites caused the decline in scientific output.

Why did the surge of scientific production in the medieval Islamic world dwindle? To explore this question, I gather data on intellectual production from Harvard’s library collection and a catalog of books from seventeenth century Istanbul. I document that the proportion of books dedicated to scientific topics declined in the medieval period, noting that the empirical patterns are most consistent with theories linking the decline to institutional changes. I discuss the role religious leaders played in generating these developments, concluding that the evidence is consistent with the claim that an increase in the political power of these elites caused the decline in scientific output.