Does Culture Matter For Development?, By Rafiq Raji
Mokyr (2016) establishes a strong link between culture and development. He argues that the unprecedented and sustained technological progress in the West stems from a significant change in “cultural beliefs about the natural world and the diffusion of knowledge” in 17th to 18th century Europe.
A significant body of research identifies “intergenerationally transmitted” biological and cultural characteristics that affect economic development. Why are some countries rich and others poor? Significant and persistent long-run effects of geographical, historical and cultural factors on productivity are attributed. And despite the broad consensus that favourable geography, strong free markets and property rights institutions contribute to development, there is evidence that these factors are by themselves inadequate. In other words, countries with strong institutions and geographical advantages could still flounder. Why? Culture is attributed.
According to Boas (1911), culture is “an integrated system of symbols, ideas and values that should be studied as a working system, an organic whole”. Another definition, by Bates and Plog (1990) posit that culture is “the system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviours, and artifacts that the members of society use to cope with their world and with one another, and that are transmitted from generation to generation through learning.” Development, on the other hand, is the “process of creating and utilizing physical, human, financial, and social assets to generate improved and broadly shared economicmwell-being and quality of life for a community or region”, as Seidman put it in 2005.
Mokyr (2016) establishes a strong link between culture and development. He argues that the unprecedented and sustained technological progress in the West stems from a significant change in “cultural beliefs about the natural world and the diffusion of knowledge” in 17th to 18th century Europe. A contrast is made between the cultural evolution in Europe, where it was dynamic, and in China, where it was relatively static. An openness to new knowledge in the West encouraged the continued challenge of old beliefs with evidence. In the East, however, awe for long-held beliefs engendered conservatism. Put simply, the West encouraged new ideas and adopted them once they passed the test of rigorous scrutiny. On the other hand, the East largely held on to its orthodoxies.
…the reason Europe had an industrial revolution and China did not, is that in addition to a radical change in culture that allowed scientific inquiry and innovation to thrive, there was no truncation in the trend on the occasion of conflict or politics.
Does China’s later economic success challenge this view? Not necessarily. China’s rise is relatively recent. And even to this day, it lags the West with respect to technological innovation. Its early history suggests this should not have been the case, however. In Mokyr’s (2016) account, science and technology flourished in China during the rulership of the Tang (618-907 CE) and Song (960-1279 CE) dynasties but subsequently declined and stagnated during the Ming (1368-1644 CE) and Qing (1644-1911/12 CE) dynasties. Thus, the reason Europe had an industrial revolution and China did not, is that in addition to a radical change in culture that allowed scientific inquiry and innovation to thrive, there was no truncation in the trend on the occasion of conflict or politics.
It is not suggested that there was no resistance by conservative forces in Europe to such liberalism. What differed in Europe from China and the Islamic world, where science and innovation initially thrived, was that the conditions, environment and politics, coupled with the determination of its elite, allowed for liberalism to prevail over conservatism. Europe was also more receptive to and adopted new technologies far quicker than China. For instance, owing to the printing press, far more books were published in Europe than in China, where “movable type printing” only took off from 1800 (Mokyr, 2016).
A contemporary case is the contrast in the economic evolution of mainland Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai and Hong Kong, which was a British protectorate until 1997. Lately, there has been sustained protests by the Hong Kong youth against the increasing exercise of power by the mainland Chinese government over its special administrative region. Clearly chagrined by the prolonged protests, Chinese authorities have happened on a likely culprit: Culture. Why do the youth in Hong Kong behave differently from those in Beijing or Shanghai? They are educated differently. In mainland China, the young are indoctrinated with patriotic zeal at formative ages, via rote learning. In Hong Kong, the young are deliberately taught to think independently and critically. Thus, mainland Chinese youth are not as likely to challenge the government as their counterparts in Hong Kong.
…that communications and international collaborations are easier now and yet technological progress remains skewed towards Western nations is perhaps evidence of the robustness of the cultural argument.
Malcolm Gladwell devotes a chapter to culture and air transportation safety in his 2008 book Outliers: The Story of Success. Gladwell posits that Korean Air had the most plane crashes in the 1990s because of its hierarchical culture: co-pilots had difficulty pointing out errors by their captains because of the airline’s (and the broader Korean) culture of deference to elders. A culture of deference is also attributed to the 2013 Asiana 214 plane crash. Analysis of aviation accidents in sixty-eight countries supports the hypothesis that culture plays a role in safety. Enomoto and Geisler (2017) find that the higher the GDP per capita and culture of individualism in a country, the lesser the number of plane accidents. Conversely, they also find that the higher the number of flights and power distance scores, the higher the number of plane accidents.
Citing Pinker (2018), Spolaore (2019) argues that the cultural thesis of “open science” based on Robert Merton’s scientific virtues of communalism, universalism, disinterestedness, and organised scepticism and “inclusive institutions” for European progress in Mokyr (2016) presupposes that the current era of fast and seamless global communications should see unprecedented levels of progress across the world. Is that the case, though? Not entirely. Because even as global communications are easier and faster than ever, technological progress remains uneven. Put another way, that communications and international collaborations are easier now and yet technological progress remains skewed towards Western nations is perhaps evidence of the robustness of the cultural argument.
Rafiq Raji, a writer and researcher, is based in Lagos, Nigeria. Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji
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