Understanding Cultural Persistence
341 Eggers Hall
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Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs
Trade, Development and Political Economy
Frederic E. Abbe Professor of Economics
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.
Nathan Nunn is Frederic E. Abbe Professor of Economics at Harvard University. Professor Nunn was born in Canada, where he received his PhD from the University of Toronto in 2005. Professor Nunn’s primary research interests are in economic history, economic development, cultural economics, political economy and international trade. He is an NBER Faculty Research Fellow, a Research Fellow at BREAD, and a Faculty Associate at Harvard's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs (WCFIA). He is currently a co-editor of the Journal of Development Economics.
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Sponsored by: Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs, Trade, Development and Political Economy Series
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