Global versus Local

Kevin Lewis

April 18, 2024

Worldwide divergence of values
Joshua Conrad Jackson & Danila Medvedev
Nature Communications, April 2024

Social scientists have long debated the nature of cultural change in a modernizing and globalizing world. Some scholars predicted that national cultures would converge by adopting social values typical of Western democracies. Others predicted that cultural differences in values would persist or even increase over time. We test these competing predictions by analyzing survey data from 1981 to 2022 (n = 406,185) from 76 national cultures. We find evidence of global value divergence. Values emphasizing tolerance and self-expression have diverged most sharply, especially between high-income Western countries and the rest of the world. We also find that countries with similar per-capita GDP levels have held similar values over the last 40 years. Over time, however, geographic proximity has emerged as an increasingly strong correlate of value similarity, indicating that values have diverged globally but converged regionally.

History and cultural evolution: Measuring the relationship through the Wikipedia network
Matthew Histen
Journal of Institutional Economics, March 2024

Even at long time horizons, modern outcomes are in some sense bounded by history. Culture shapes how people interact and as it propagates across generations, groups with more common ancestors face less frictions to cooperation. This, in turn, affects institutional and technological diffusion, implying a society's history plays a crucial role in the causes of sustained long-run economic growth. To test this, we follow other studies by proxying for historical effects with genetic relatedness, which yields a temporal proportionality of shared common ancestry. Measuring cultural traits are more challenging. We develop a new systematic measure through network analysis of Wikipedia. Connectivity statistics over the encyclopaedia's hyperlink-directed network captures unique features of cultural relatedness. Further, as we index pages, we can coarsen the network into specific topics. The results show how history correlates broadly over a range of cultural factors. Differences across the coarsened networks demonstrate not simply that history matters, but where it matters less.

Conflict and Gender Norms
Mark Dincecco et al.
University of Michigan Working Paper, March 2024

We study the relationship between exposure to historical conflict involving heavy weaponry and male-favoring gender norms. We argue that the physical nature of such conflict produced cultural norms favoring males and male offspring. We focus on spatial variation in gender norms across India, a dynamic developing economy in which gender inequality persists. We show robust evidence that areas with high exposure to pre-colonial conflict are significantly more likely to exhibit male-favoring gender norms as measured by male-biased sex ratios and crimes against women. We document how conflict-related gender norms have been transmitted over time via male-favoring folkloric traditions, the gender identity of temple gods, and male-biased marriage practices, and have been transmitted across space by migrants originally from areas with high conflict exposure.

Beyond cultural norms: How does historical rice farming affect modern firms' family control?
Chenchen Fan, Mingming Jiang & Bo Zhang
Economica, forthcoming

The private sector contributes the majority of China's GDP, with family firms responsible for most of the contribution. Prior studies find that firms' family control is influenced by certain cultural norms, such as family ties. This study explores the underlying historical and agricultural roots of these cultural norms that influence modern businesses. Combining a set of high-quality, nationally representative Chinese firm and household surveys with prefectural data, we first show the positive impact of rice farming on family control of local firms. We establish robust causal inferences by exploring the impact of historical agricultural legacies and discussing alternative measures, spatial autocorrelations, omitted variables, instrumental variables and self-selection. More importantly, our results demonstrate that the rice cultivation practice enhances the local people's preferences for strong family ties. Instead of claiming a direct role of these cultural traits as in the existing literature, we recast them as cultural mediators and persistent channels through which historical rice farming can shape contemporary corporate structure.

The Global Temperament Project: Parent-reported temperament in infants, toddlers, and children from 59 nations
Samuel Putnam et al.
Developmental Psychology, forthcoming

Data from 83,423 parent reports of temperament (surgency, negative affectivity, and regulatory capacity) in infants, toddlers, and children from 341 samples gathered in 59 countries were used to investigate the relations among culture, gender, and temperament. Between-nation differences in temperament were larger than those obtained in similar studies of adult personality, and most pronounced for negative affectivity. Nation-level patterns of negative affectivity were consistent across infancy, toddlerhood, and childhood, and patterns of regulatory capacity were consistent between infancy and toddlerhood. Nations that previously reported high extraversion, high conscientiousness, and low neuroticism in adults were found to demonstrate high surgency in infants and children, and countries reporting low adult openness and high adult neuroticism reported high temperamental negative affectivity. Negative affectivity was high in Southern Asia, Western Asia, and South America and low in Northern and Western Europe. Countries in which children were rated as high in negative affectivity had cultural orientations reflecting collectivism, high power distance, and short-term orientation. Surgency was high in Southeastern and Southern Asia and Southern Europe and low in Eastern Asian countries characterized by philosophies of long-term orientation. Low personal income was associated with high negative affectivity. Gender differences in temperament were largely consistent in direction with prior studies, revealing higher regulatory capacity in females than males and higher surgency in males than females, with these differences becoming more pronounced at later ages.

The influence of community structure on how communities categorize the world
Shiri Lev-Ari
Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, forthcoming

Categorization is the foundation of many cognitive functions. Importantly, the categories we use to structure the world are informed by the language we speak. For example, whether we perceive dark blue, light blue, and green to be shades of one, two, or three different colors depends on whether we speak Berinmo, English, or Russian, respectively. Different languages, then, differ by how granular their categories are, but the source of these differences is still poorly understood. Understanding the source of cross-linguistic differences in linguistic categorization is important because categorization influences communicative efficiency and cognitive performance. Here we use computational simulations to show that community structure and specifically community size and community interconnectivity influence the categorization systems that communities create. In particular, the simulations show that the obstacles for diffusion that large communities encounter push them to develop categorization systems that are more expressive and better understood, but only if they have sufficiently long memory to do so. The simulations also show that larger communities are better at creating useful references to rarely communicated meanings, thus further boosting communication in these cases. These findings demonstrate how taking social structure, and especially community size, into account can illuminate why languages evolved to have their current forms. They further show how social constraints, such as those encountered by large communities, can drive the creation of better and more robust systems. As categorization is a building block for many cultural products, these results also have implications for our understanding of cultural evolution more broadly.

Human languages with greater information density have higher communication speed but lower conversation breadth
Pedro Aceves & James Evans
Nature Human Behaviour, forthcoming

Human languages vary widely in how they encode information within circumscribed semantic domains (for example, time, space, colour, human body parts and activities), but little is known about the global structure of semantic information and nothing about its relation to human communication. We first show that across a sample of ~1,000 languages, there is broad variation in how densely languages encode information into words. Second, we show that this language information density is associated with a denser configuration of semantic information. Finally, we trace the relationship between language information density and patterns of communication, showing that informationally denser languages tend towards faster communication but conceptually narrower conversations or expositions within which topics are discussed at greater depth. These results highlight an important source of variation across the human communicative channel, revealing that the structure of language shapes the nature and texture of human engagement, with consequences for human behaviour across levels of society.

Hedging desperation: How kinship networks reduced cannibalism in historical China
Zhiwu Chen, Zhan Lin & Xiaoming Zhang
Journal of Comparative Economics, forthcoming

Survival cannibalism persisted across human societies until recently. What drove the decline in cannibalism and other forms of violence? Using data from the 1470–1910 period, this paper documents that in historical China, the Confucian clan -- an institutionalized kinship network -- acted as an informal internal market to facilitate intra-clan resource pooling and risk-sharing, thus reducing the need for cannibalism during times of drought-related famine. The risk mitigation role of the clan remains robust after controlling for economic development and other factors and ruling out alternative channels. Thus, kinship networks and their associated culture contributed to human civilizational development before the advent of formal markets.


from the


A weekly newsletter with free essays from past issues of National Affairs and The Public Interest that shed light on the week's pressing issues.


to your National Affairs subscriber account.

Already a subscriber? Activate your account.


Unlimited access to intelligent essays on the nation’s affairs.

Subscribe to National Affairs.