Abstract: Cultural Obstacles to Economic Development Often Transitory by Timur Kuran

Posted on October 19, 2011 by


Abstracted by Brian J. Delas Armas

According to economist Timur Kuran, culture can often be an obstacle to economic growth and developments.  He opines that “cultural lock-in” or the idea that people are “trapped” in their cultural beliefs and communities is among the causes of persistent underdevelopment.”  He assumes that with this “cultural lock-in”, there is a consequent communal solidarity, which he believes facilitates the production of collective action.  The focus on collective action may constrict economic growth and distance themselves from outsiders.

Kuran launches an attack on multiculturalists and the rhetoric of “cultural preservation,” which he sees as serving only a minority of individuals, rather than a broad category.  He says that with a strong interdependence, there is largely no resistance to these activists’ rhetoric.  He voices a support for “people speaking for themselves” rather than spokespersons.

He suggests that cultures’ normal models may also be ill-suited to economic growth. As an example, he brings up India’s caste system.   According to Kuran, India’s system promotes a notion of hereditary inequality that dampens the aspirations of the “ritually impure,” limits occupational choice, and hinders individual efforts to escape from poverty (Ghurye 1961; Human Rights Watch 1999). This limits economic growth, which in turn shapes Indian beliefs, preferences, and behaviors.

He says that any loss in “culture” could easily be replaced by economic growth.  The economic growth would then lead to new beliefs and preferences.  For example, he suggests that there is a new habit of drinking carbonated drinks, which has displaced homemade beverages such as tea.  The market demand has effectively superceded any cultural preference for tea, and that if cultures really wanted to go back to tea, then tea would become an emerging market and the demand would outpace that of carbonated drinks.  He states that if cultural loss is a concern, a new institution could simply be grafted into an old one, making the transition easier.

He argues that how cherished a cultural trait is arbitrary and largely dictated by social pressures.  “The perceived payoffs of a given cultural trait may be clouded by political rhetoric and by social pressures that discourage honest expression. So public opinion on any given cultural matter—the distribution of public cultural preferences—may misrepresent the community’s genuine attitudes regarding cultural preservation. A related problem is that private opinion—the distribution of private and usually unobserved cultural preferences—is itself influenced by the factors that shape public opinion.”  The informational distortions that accompany intimidation and propaganda campaigns rarely leave popular perceptions untouched.

He argues that privately, people will have their preferences, and the way to measure that is through their participation in the market economy.  Their participation in the market economy precludes any debates and are quietly enables them to advance their individualistic objectives. Their individual purchases are largely not contested and therefore represent their real opinions.

With this anonymity as the ideal scenario for understanding “true” preferences and beliefs on sensitive subjects, he suggests three approaches: 1)  a hypothetical scenario experiment, 2)  a biased interviewer experiment, and 3)  close observation done by Anthropologists.  The hypothetical scenario features a humiliated individual. An experimenter then asks subjects to speculate on what a scolded individual said to provoke retaliation — the respondents would then produce their own analysis, which voids them of taking responsibility from taking a particular viewpoint.  The biased interviewer experiment utilizes interviewers who look committed to a social agenda. If the responses vary, then they know that a question is sensitive.  The final method he suggests is based on the close observational methods of Anthropology, in which the trust of the community is gained and researchers do not take expressions at face value.