A recent strand of the economics literature tried to understand the origin of cultural norms and beliefs. Different studies have documented the continuity of cultural norms over remarkably long periods of time.
In her first of two lectures she recently gave at briq, Paola Giuliano (UCLA Anderson School of Management) reviewed work on the origin of differences in gender norms, with particular emphasis on differences in agricultural technologies. Look to history and you will find plenty of examples of farming communities where women worked as much as men. But in plough-intensive societies, where cultivation and planting relied on physical strength, men were the primary farmers. Today many of these societies still show the same division of labor.
Paola Giuliano reviewed her work which shows that at present the descendants of societies that traditionally practiced plough agriculture have lower rates of female participation in the workplace, in politics and in entrepreneurial activities, as well as greater prevalence of attitudes favoring gender inequality, and even a higher male-to-female sex ratio in every age group.
In the same lecture she more broadly reviewed the most recent empirical evidence on various historical determinants of contemporary difference in gender roles and how these differences are transmitted from parents to children and therefore persist until today. This included work on female labor force participation, fertility, education, marriage arrangements, competitive attitude and even domestic violence.
Although cultural beliefs can be quite persistent, there are also many examples of dramatic changes. This raises the natural question: When does culture change and does it persist? In particular, what determines a society’s willingness to adopt new customs and beliefs rather than hold on to traditions?
In her second lecture, Paola examined a determinant that has been put forth in the anthropology literature to answer this question: the variability of the environment from one generation to the next. She shows that populations with ancestors who lived in an environment with more stability from one generation to the next not only place a greater importance on maintaining tradition today, but they also exhibit more persistence in their traditions over time.