How culture evolves

By Charles Kenny, Foreign Policy, Aug 8 2011

The baggage we carry from our ethnic and national backgrounds can keep people poor — but it can also change, and faster than you’d think.

As hundreds of same-sex couples swapped vows two weeks ago on the day that their weddings became legally recognized in New York, commentators took the opportunity to marvel once more at the dramatic change in U.S. public attitudes toward gay marriage over the past decade, with support climbing from less than one-third to more than half of the public in just seven years. It is usually thought that such rapid shifts in cultural values are very rare — which can be a problem when the cultural shift you’re talking about is a much-needed evolution in attitudes toward class or race, the sort of thing that can bring entire populations out of a discriminatory economic sinkhole. But actually, rapid cultural change isn’t nearly as unusual as people think.

Culture is intimately connected with development outcomes, affecting everything from the way people do business to the way they interact with disenfranchised groups. For example, groups that enjoyed high literacy rates and good political institutions in the 19th century aremore likely to enjoy higher incomes in the 21st. The social and political traits of pre-colonial ethnic groups that dominated particular areas of Africa may matter more to current income levels in those areas than which modern country they are found in. That’s in part because culture can upset efforts to reform economic systems. When states try to impose institutions like land titling, for instance, in areas where there are strong traditional rules about how such things work, New York University economist William Easterly suggests the traditional rules often win out. And culture’s deep roots can have more pernicious effects as well: Economists Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Vothobserve that if your ancestors persecuted Jews in the 14th century, you were more likely to be a Nazi in the 1920s and 1930s.

And then there’s India’s caste system, one of the world’s most powerful and oft-cited examples of culturally imposed inequality. The Dalit caste, traditionally known as “untouchables” and historically relegated to “unclean” work such as leatherwork and handling feces, makes up a little under one-sixth of India’s population. Discrimination on the grounds of caste was banned by the country’s 1950 post-independence constitution, and the government has created numerous programs since then to ensure low-caste political representation and improve Dalit social and economic status. But despite all best intentions, Dalits still remain less well-off across a range of measures.

Indians still overwhelmingly choose to marry within caste. Teachers given performance incentives based on student test scores spend less time trying to teach low caste students. Even low-caste teachers in India mark student tests lower when they know the students are low-caste, and Dalit students themselves perform worse on tests when reminded of their status beforehand. After they leave school, low-caste graduates with the same qualifications earn less money. And Dalits are disproportionately poor and in bad health.

The good news is that even cultures with 1,000-year roots can alter dramatically under the right circumstances. Research by development economists Devesh Kapur, Lant Pritchett, Chandra Bhan Prasad, and Shyam Babu suggests that discrimination against the low caste, while still potent, is considerably on the wane. A survey designed and led by members of the Dalit community in two areas of Uttar Pradesh found that attitudes and behaviors related to the low status of Dalits had been widely tempered or abandoned over the last 20 years. Dalit respondents report that since 1990, they are far more likely to sit next to high-caste guests at weddings rather than being seated separately, they are no longer expected to handle the dead animals of other castes, and non-Dalit midwives will attend births in Dalit households. They have moved in large numbers into nontraditional professions like tailoring and driving, and almost none still work as indentured servants for high-caste patrons, as was once common.

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