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IDSS Distinguished Seminars

Understanding Cultural Persistence and Change

February 2, 2021 @ 3:00 pm - 4:00 pm

Nathan Nunn (Harvard University)


Nathan NunnAbstract:

We examine a determinant of cultural persistence that has emerged from a class of models in evolutionary anthropology: the similarity of the environment across generations. Within these models, when the environment is more similar across generations, the traits that have evolved up to the previous generation are more likely to be optimal for the current generation. In equilibrium, a greater value is placed on tradition and there is greater cultural persistence. We test this hypothesis by measuring the variability of different climatic measures across 20-year generations from 500–1900ce. Employing a variety of tests that use a range of samples and empirical strategies, we find that populations with ancestors who lived in environments with more cross-generational instability place less importance on maintaining tradition today and exhibit less cultural persistence.

About the speaker:

Nathan Nunn is Frederic E. Abbe Professor of Economics at Harvard University. Professor Nunn’s primary research interests are in political economy, economic history, economic development, cultural economics, and international trade. He is an NBER Faculty Research Fellow, a Research Fellow at BREAD, a Faculty Associate at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs (WCFIA), and a Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) in the Boundaries, Membership & Belonging program.

One stream of Professor Nunn’s research focuses on the historical and dynamic process of economic development. In particular, he has studied the factors that shape differences in the evolution of institutions and cultures across societies. He has published research that studies the historical process of a wide range of factors that are crucial for economic development, including distrust, gender norms, religiosity, norms of rule-following, conflict, immigration, state formation, and support for democracy.

Another stream of Professor Nunn’s research examines economic development in a contemporary context. He has published research examining the effects of Fair Trade certification, CIA interventions during the Cold War, foreign aid, school construction, and trade policy. He is particularly interested in the importance of the local context (e.g., social structures, traditions, and cultures) for the effectiveness of development policy and in understanding how policy can be optimally designed given the local environment. Specifically, he has studied the relationship between marriage customs and female education, generalized trust and political turnover, the organization of the extended family (lineage) and conflict, and traditional local political systems and support for democracy.

His current research interests lie in better understanding the importance of local culture and context for economic policies, particularly in developing countries.

Zoom meeting ID: 992 6583 2638
Join Zoom meeting: https://mit.zoom.us/nathannunn

Please contact sbergen@mit.edu to register for this meeting.

YouTube livestream: https://youtu.be/Mjb6Mq-I1ZE

MIT Statistics + Data Science Center
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307