In the Vicinity

Kevin Lewis

June 10, 2021

Culture, Institutions and Social Equilibria: A Framework
Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson
NBER Working Paper, May 2021


This paper proposes a new framework for studying the interplay between culture and institutions. We follow the recent sociology literature and interpret culture as a "repertoire", which allows rich cultural responses to changes in the environment and shifts in political power. Specifically, we start with a culture set, which consists of attributes and the feasible connections between them. Combinations of attributes produce cultural configurations, which provide meaning, interpretation and justification for individual and group actions. Cultural figurations also legitimize and support different institutional arrangements. Culture matters as it shapes the set of feasible cultural figurations and via this channel institutions. Yet, changes in politics and institutions can cause a rewiring of existing attributes, generating very different cultural configurations. Cultural persistence may result from the dynamics of political and economic factors - rather than being a consequence of an unchanging culture. We distinguish cultures by how fluid they are - whereby more fluid cultures allow a richer set of cultural configurations. Fluidity in turn depends on how specific (vs. abstract) and entangled (vs. free-standing) attributes in a culture set are. We illustrate these ideas using examples from Africa, England, China, the Islamic world, the Indian caste system and the Crow. In all cases, our interpretation highlights that culture becomes more of a constraint when it is less fluid (more hardwired), for example because its attributes are more specific or entangled. We also emphasize that less fluid cultures are not necessarily "bad cultures", and may create a range of benefits, though they may reduce the responsiveness of culture to changing circumstances. In many instances, including in the African, Chinese and English cases, we show that there is a lot of fluidity and very different, almost diametrically-opposed, cultural configurations are feasible, often compete with each other for acceptance and can gain the upper hand depending on political factors.

How Resource Scarcity Influences the Preference for Counterhedonic Consumption
Haiyang Yang & Kuangjie Zhang
Journal of Consumer Research, forthcoming


Eight studies show that resource scarcity can influence consumers’ preference for counterhedonic consumption, and that the sense of control is an underlying driver of this effect. Using a large-scale field dataset covering 82 countries over a 10-year period, study 1 showed that individuals from countries with greater resources consumed horror movies to a greater extent, but this pattern was not found for other movie genres such as romance or documentary. The remaining studies used diverse experimental approaches and counterhedonic consumption contexts (e.g., movie, novel, haunted house attraction, game) to provide causal and process evidence. Specifically, inducing perceived resource scarcity lowered participants’ preference for counterhedonic consumption (studies 2 A-2C). Consistent with the sense-of-control based mechanism, experimentally lowering participants’ sense of control or boosting it moderated the effect of perceived resource scarcity on their preference for counterhedonic consumption (studies 3 A-3B). The degradation of the sense of control due to perceived resource scarcity mediated the effect (studies 4–5). These results add to the literature on conterhedonic consumption as well as resource scarcity, and have important managerial implications.

High-Status People Are More Individualistic and Analytic-Thinking in the West and Wheat-Farming Areas, but Not Rice-Farming Areas
Haotian Zhang et al.
European Journal of Social Psychology, forthcoming


Previous studies have found that high-status people are more individualistic and think more analytically than people of lower social status. We find new evidence that this is not always the case. We tested a large sample (N = 1,418) of people across China on analytic thought and the friend-stranger distinction. In China's more individualistic wheat-farming regions, social status patterns replicated findings from the West: high-status people thought more analytically and drew smaller distinctions between friends and strangers. But in more interdependent rice-farming regions, high-status people thought more holistically and drew a larger distinction between friends and strangers. This suggests that culture shapes social status differences in thought style and individualism. The data also showed that STEM majors thought more analytically than non-STEM majors. STEM differences in thought style were larger among older students, which is consistent with the idea that STEM training encourages analytic thinking over time.

Peers, Buccaneers and Downton Abbey: An economic analysis of 19th century British aristocratic marriages
Mark Taylor
Economics Letters, forthcoming


The decline in late 19th century agricultural prices, reducing the incomes of aristocratic landed estates and of non-aristocratic landed families, led to richly dowried American heiress brides being substituted for brides from landed families in aristocratic marriages. This reflected a wider 19th century phenomenon of aristocratic substitution of foreign brides for landed brides and the substitution of daughters of British businessmen for daughters of landed families when agricultural prices declined. The results are consistent with positive assortative matching with lump-sum transfers (dowries), where landowning family dowries are cash constrained in periods of agricultural downturn.

Risk Attitudes, Investment Behavior and Linguistic Variation
Juliana Bernhofer, Francesco Costantini & Matija Kovacic
Journal of Human Resources, forthcoming


This paper explores the relationship between linguistic variation and individual attitudes toward risk and uncertainty. We propose an innovative marker that classifies languages according to the number of non-indicative moods in the grammatical contexts involving uncertainty. We find that speakers of languages that use these moods more intensively are on average more risk averse. Our marker is then used to instrument risk aversion in the model for financial asset accumulation. In addition, by using Chen (2013)’s FTR linguistic marker as a proxy for the subjective discount rate, we disentangle the effects of risk aversion and time preferences on asset accumulation.

Culture shapes emotion perception from faces and voices: Changes over development
Misako Kawahara, Disa Sauter & Akihiro Tanaka
Cognition and Emotion, forthcoming


The perception of multisensory emotion cues is affected by culture. For example, East Asians rely more on vocal, as compared to facial, affective cues compared to Westerners. However, it is unknown whether these cultural differences exist in childhood, and if not, which processing style is exhibited in children. The present study tested East Asian and Western children, as well as adults from both cultural backgrounds, to probe cross-cultural similarities and differences at different ages, and to establish the weighting of each modality at different ages. Participants were simultaneously shown a face and a voice expressing either congruent or incongruent emotions, and were asked to judge whether the person was happy or angry. Replicating previous research, East Asian adults relied more on vocal cues than did Western adults. Young children from both cultural groups, however, behaved like Western adults, relying primarily on visual information. The proportion of responses based on vocal cues increased with age in East Asian, but not Western, participants. These results suggest that culture is an important factor in developmental changes in the perception of facial and vocal affective information.

Global variation in subjective well-being predicts seven forms of altruism
Shawn Rhoads et al.
Psychological Science, forthcoming


The geographic prevalence of various altruistic behaviors (non-reciprocal acts that improve others' welfare) is non-uniformly distributed. But whether this reflects variation in a superordinate construct linked to national-level outcomes or cultural values is unknown. We compiled data on seven altruistic behaviors across 48-152 nations, and found evidence that these behaviors reflect a latent construct positively associated with national-level subjective well-being (SWB) and individualist values, even controlling for national-level wealth, health, education, and shared cultural history. Consistent with prior work, we found that SWB mediates the relationship between two objective measures of well-being (wealth and health) and altruism (N=130). Moreover, these indirect effects increase as individualist values increase within the subset of countries (N=90) with available data. Together, results indicate that altruism increases when resources and cultural values provide objective and subjective means for pursuing personally meaningful goals, and that altruistic behaviors may be enhanced by societal changes that promote well-being.

Individualism, Economic Freedom, and Charitable Giving
Meina Cai et al.
George Mason University Working Paper, May 2021


We investigate the role of individualistic social rules and norms in charitable giving. Individualism in market societies is often criticized as corrupting morality and discouraging charitable giving. We contest that view. We propose direct and indirect mechanisms through which that occurs. In the direct channel, individualism encourages self-interested giving. In the indirect channel, individualism contributes to charity by reinforcing economic freedom. We use evidence from a large cross-section of countries and several measures of individualism to investigate both channels. Our empirical findings confirm each channel and support the insights of classical liberals, such as Adam Smith and David Hume, and more recent studies in the humanomics tradition, which argues that there is virtue to individualism.

Culture, Capital, and the Political Economy Gender Gap: Evidence from Meghalaya’s Matrilineal Tribes
Rachel Brulé & Nikhar Gaikwad
Journal of Politics, forthcoming


What explains the gender gap in political engagement and economic policy preferences? Many scholars point to material resources, while others credit cultural determinants. We identify and test an important link between these factors: cultural lineage norms that structure entitlements to resources. Studying the relationship between culture and resources is challenging in societies where both disadvantage women. We analyze a unique setting: northeast India, where matrilineal tribes live alongside patrilineal communities. Patriarchal cultures and political institutions are shared, but lineage norms are distinct: patrilineal groups distribute inherited wealth through men, while matrilineal tribes do so via women. We conduct survey and behavioral experiments with representative samples of both communities, alongside extensive qualitative research, and find that the gender gap reverses across patrilineal and matrilineal groups. Our results indicate that lineage norms -- which determine who gets to make decisions about wealth and how -- are key determinants of the political economy gender gap.

Entrepreneurship, culture, and the epigenetic revolution: A research note
Zoltan Acs & Emma Lappi
Small Business Economics, April 2021, Pages 1287–1307


We show how the type of alcohol consumed is related to the type of entrepreneurship present for economies in Europe. We differentiate between beer-, wine-, and spirit-drinking countries and distinguish between productive, unproductive, and destructive entrepreneurship. The underlying links do not emerge from drinking per se but rather the drinking habits and taste for beverage types capture deep cultural features and cultural similarities amongst the countries. Societies that prefer to drink beer are closer to each other culturally than those which prefer drinking wine or spirits. Therefore, the taste for alcohol type is merely an instrument in explaining cultural and institutional differences across entrepreneurship. Broadly speaking, beer-drinking countries are characterized by higher shares of productive entrepreneurship, wine-drinking countries with unproductive entrepreneurship, and spirit-drinking countries with destructive entrepreneurship. We discuss mechanisms in which the results are found and highlight a new research agenda, emphasizing the potential role of epigenetics.

From parvenu to “highbrow” tastes: The rise of cultural capital in China’s intergenerational elites
Gordon Li
British Journal of Sociology, forthcoming


A new generation of elites distinguished by their cultural endowments has emerged in China. Unlike the older generation of elites who signaled status through the display of wealth but shared similar tastes, the new generation of cultured elites has sophisticated, often Western-oriented “highbrow” tastes in their cultural consumption. By comparing the upbringings and the tastes of interviewees from various backgrounds, this study suggests a widening taste-chasm between the elites and the underclasses in urban cities. The social process behind this is argued to be the rapid formation of cultural capital in China, in which parental privileges accumulated in the market economy converted into cultural privileges in the new generation of new elites.

“Little Fresh Meat”: The Politics of Sissiness and Sissyphobia in Contemporary China
Geng Song
Men and Masculinities, forthcoming


The proliferation of effeminate male images known as “little fresh meat” (xiao xian rou), or, more insultingly, “sissy pants” (niangpao) in film, TV, and advertisement has come in for heavy criticism in China. A number of “sissy” actors have even been blacklisted by the state media. Yet, despite this masculinist backlash, effeminate-looking stars and the aesthetic they embody are enjoying increasing popularity among high school students and other young people in urban China. The article situates the prevalence of male effeminacy and “sissyphobia” -- the fear or hatred of effeminate men -- in a wider social, cultural, and political background and adopts a culturally saturated and historically specific approach to queer masculinities in the Chinese context. By critical readings of recent TV/Web dramas featuring this type of male images, the article explores the disjuncture between urban youth culture and official attitudes and what the tension between them tells us about gender roles and subjectivity in contemporary China. And by discourse analysis of the debates in the media triggered by the images, the study examines how the effeminate male body is given affective interpretations and significances that are different from those in a Western context, and how the nation is imagined and articulated through embodied masculinity. Through an interdisciplinary approach, the article argues that the “little fresh meat” is part of a larger story of increasing diversity of gender presentations in postsocialist China and embodies shifting masculinity in a consumer society. The rise and popularity of such “sissy” actors need to be understood in the mechanisms of star making and the entertainment industry. At the same time, the debates on the standard of masculinities sparked by these images demonstrate distinctive interplay between manhood and nationhood and deep-seated anxiety over what an effeminate younger generation will mean for China.


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