Being as cultural change largely consists of social learning and persuasion, cultural entrepreneurs, like today’s celebrities and social media influencers, can be effective cultural change agents. According to Mokyr (2016), “cultural authorities (or celebrities) often have no special expertise and yet somehow become the source of authority or focal points in cultural choices.”
“Intergenerational transmission of human traits, particularly culturally transmitted traits, has led to divergence between populations over the course of history”, which in turn has “introduced barriers to the diffusion of technologies across societies.” Knowledge and experiences are easily and often first shared between peoples who are closely related in culture, language, and habits. In other words, the success of a developed country is closely related to the practices of its ancestral population or its cultural proximity to a developed one. As “historical and cultural variables affect the propensity of the citizens of a country to trust the citizens of another country”, “perceptions rooted in culture are important determinants of economic exchange.” Still, while ancestry matters, it is not insurmountable for disadvantaged populations, if the barriers to “communication and interaction across cultures and societies” are addressed. Still, the intercultural exchange required to overcome these disadvantages must be deliberate and focused.
Does that then mean contemporary development policies are efforts in futility? Spolaore & Wacziarg (2013) argue they are not. An understanding of a people’s history and culture allows for the identification of the barriers to the spread of knowledge and innovation they create and thus allow solutions to be fit-for-purpose and effective. And there are examples of these. For instance, “Japan is geographically, historically and genetically distant from the European innovators, but it got the Industrial Revolution relatively early” (Spolaore & Wacziarg, 2013). And because of Japan’s success, South Korea and later other Asian nations were able to also climb the economic ladder. (Japan “became a cultural beachhead”.) Hong Kong was similarly a “beachead” through which modernity spread to China. “Southern Chinese cities or special economic zones developed largely as the result of having generalised what had worked in Hong Kong” (Spolaore & Wacziarg, 2013). This view underpins how special economic zones are today used to accelerate economic development around the world.
In the current era of globalisation and high-speed innovation, these hitherto high barriers are easier to scale. “There is still room for development policies to reduce barrier effects and to accelerate the spread of ideas and innovations across populations, especially in the context of an increasingly globalised world where barriers to the diffusion of development can be brought down more rapidly” (Spolaore & Wacziarg, 2013). There is evidence that technology adoption is faster nowadays. Still, while “adoption lags have converged across countries over the last 200 years”, “penetration rates have diverged.” This is what explains why despite the ubiquity of new technologies, the income gap between poor and rich countries remains wide.
Being as cultural change largely consists of social learning and persuasion, cultural entrepreneurs, like today’s celebrities and social media influencers, can be effective cultural change agents. According to Mokyr (2016), “cultural authorities (or celebrities) often have no special expertise and yet somehow become the source of authority or focal points in cultural choices.” Mokyr further argues that when knowledge is effective (that is, when techniques or predictions based on this knowledge work well), beliefs can change quickly: Once people see an airplane fly, they will accept the propositional belief that objects heavier than air can actually defeat gravity.”
Rafiq Raji, a writer and researcher, is based in Lagos, Nigeria. Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji
References are available at https://rafiqraji.com/2019/10/31/culture-development-the-case-of-africa/