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The Economics of Religion and Culture

Paper Session

Friday, Jan. 6, 2023 8:00 AM - 10:00 AM (CST)

New Orleans Marriott, Balcony I
Hosted By: Association for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Culture
  • Chair: Jared Rubin, Chapman University

Culture, Institutions and Social Equilibria: A Framework

Daron Acemoglu
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
James A. Robinson
University of Chicago


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 and entangled attributes in a culture set are. We illustrate these ideas using examples from African, 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.

The Seeds of Ideology: Historical Immigration and Political Preferences in the United States

Paola Giuliano
University of California-Los Angeles
Marco Tabellini
Harvard Business School


We study the long run effects of immigration on American political ideology. Exploiting cross-county variation in the presence of European immigrants between 1900 and 1930, we document that historical European immigration is associated with stronger preferences for redistribution and a more liberal ideology among Americans today. We show that this result is driven by immigrants with a longer exposure to social-welfare reforms in their countries of origin prior to emigration. Our evidence suggests that the vertical transmission of preferences within immigrant enclaves was complemented by horizontal socialization that promoted the spillover of ideology from immigrants to natives. This process was reinforced by immigrants' political incorporation in the Democratic voting bloc and by the election of legislators who were more likely to support pro-redistribution bills

Economic Interests, Worldviews, and Identities: Theory and Evidence on Ideational Politics

Elliott Ash
ETH Zurich
Sharun Mukand
University of Warwick
Dani Rodrik
Harvard University


We distinguish between ideational and interest-based appeals to voters on the supply side of politics, and integrate the Keynes-Hayek perspective on the importance of ideas with the Stigler-Becker approach emphasizing vested interests. In our model, political entrepreneurs discover identity and worldview “memes” (narratives, cues, frames) that shift beliefs about voters’ identities or their views of how the world works. We identify a complementarity between worldview politics and identity politics and illustrate how they may reinforce each other. Furthermore, we show how adverse economic shocks may result in a greater incidence of ideational politics. We use these results to analyze data on 60,000 televised political ads in U.S. localities over the years 2000 through 2018. Our empirical work quantifies ideational politics and provides support for the key model implications, including the impact of higher inequality on both identity and worldview politics.

Raquel Fernandez
New York University
Leah Boustan
Princeton University
Erzo F.P. Luttmer
Dartmouth College
JEL Classifications
  • Z1 - Cultural Economics; Economic Sociology; Economic Anthropology
  • Z0 - General