Cultural Diversity, Economic Development and Societal Instability

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Most of you in the science blogosphere have probably come across Razib’s recent post on linguistic diversity and poverty. The basic argument being that linguistic homogeneity is good for economic development and general prosperity. I was quite happy to let the debate unfold and limit my stance on the subject to the following few sentences I posted previously:

From the perspective of a linguist, however, I do like the idea of really obscure linguistic communities, ready and waiting to be discovered and documented. On the flip side, it is selfish of me to want these small communities to remain in a bubble, free from the very same benefits I enjoy in belonging to a modern, post-industrialised society. Our goal, then, should probably be more focused on documenting, as opposed to saving, these languages.

Since then, the debate has become a lot more heated, with Neuroanthropology wading in against Razib, which, in the second-half of the post at least, is worth reading just to get the general flavour of the other side in this debate. Having said that, I wasn’t convinced by the evidence Greg Downey used to dismiss Razib’s hypothesis, so I decided to actually look at the literature on the subject. The first paper I found upon searching was one by Nettle et al, in which they examine the relationship between cultural diversity and societal instability using a large cross-national data set of 212 nations. Importantly, they look at cultural diversity in the context of three areas: linguistically, ethnically and religious affiliation. Also, they draw a distinction between within-nation (alpha) diversity and between-nation (beta) diversity. Lastly, unlike other studies on the subject, where simple regression or correlation methods are used, the current study employs structural equation modelling (SEM):

SEM is a multiequational modeling system suitable for asking complex questions about the responses of systems to interconnected sets of explanatory factors [9,10]. Using SEM we probed the contributions of multiple cultural diversity measures to international variations in economics and societal instability. We evaluated the direct and indirectly-mediated effects of linguistic, religious, and ethnic diversity (both within-nations and across-nations) on indicators of societal instability while controlling for the correlated effects of population size and number of borders.

Looking at these factors, rather than using economic performance, the current study’s key finding is that more diversity is associated with more instability. What’s really interesting, however, is that different types and domains of diversity have interacting effects. As Razib predicted, linguistic diversity does have a negative effect on economic performance — and it is through this economic mechanism that societal instability increases. This is true for both within and between measures of diversity. On the other hand, religious diversity between-nations produces the opposite effect: it reduces instability. Now, the surprising part is that religious diversity is especially effective at reducing instability in the presence of high linguistic diversity.

But why should large religious variability between neighbours produce this stabilizing effect? The authors offer one interesting solution:

Alexander [19] argued that religions are cultural inventions which function to extend nations, suggesting that the unit of a ‘nation’ is an emergent property of unifying distinctive belief systems. It therefore may be that a shared religious or moral system within a country which differs from those surrounding countries leads to a sense of shared identity, common purpose or harmony.

I don’t expect this to be the final say on the matter, and, like all studies looking at such a complex subject matter, there are limitations to the scope of current study (some of which are noted in the paper). It also doesn’t really solve the question as to why linguistic diversity is correlated with poor economic performance. This is clearly a job for economists. Though, for now at least, I’m reasonably convinced by Razib’s take on the matter.

Citation: Nettle, D et al. (2007). Cultural Diversity, Economic Development and Societal Instability. PLoS One, 2(9) PMID: 17895970.

14 Comments

  1. three quick comments here

    1) my opinions as to the fact of particular correlations are provisional and subject to correction. i’m weak on the empirics, aside from what i know in my head, but i think my theoretical reasoning was robust

    2) i think too often those of us interested in culture and history and anthropology, broadly construed, have been scared off by the jargon and normative framework ascendant in modern american cultural anthropology. my post, and my snark and frank unpleasantness, comes from having to deal with the fact that i’m a person interested in ethnography and cultural variation who has to run into a mound of totally unintelligible “discourse.” i’m interested in naturalistic anthropology in the tradition of sperber, and modeling in the tradition of boyd and richerson. but this mode of analysis is pretty alien to most anthropologically interested people.

    3) i’ll have more to say in the near future. i have decided that i’m not going to shut up about this topic.

  2. In genetics an odd gene is useful when a disease comes through and kills everyone without that gene. The rare gene or mutation acts as an evolutionary safety net. I have been trying to imagine a lingustic crisis in which a rare language would the key to survival. I first I thought of war, but seems more related to location than language. Could there be a brain disease that would only attack those brains formed by certain languages? If we had bionic computer-brain interfaces, could a softward virus or glitch kill off only those of a certain language? Maybe some rare language would be significantly more effective in using the bionic interface and those people would rule. What if I told the funniest joke in the world and everyone died laughing, except for those who did not understand? Has there every been a lingustic crisis in which language was the savior? Can anyone imagine a scenario in which a certain rare language might act as a mutant survival gene?

  3. I know this is not what you meant, dr Howard, but the only example of a rare language functioning as a survival net that I can think of was the use of the word “amkha” (Hebrew for “your/our people”), which European Jews used during the holocaust to confirm each other’s identity as Jews without being overheard/understood by others.

  4. Hi – you need to look at this books – even just browse itat Amazon.com. Culture Matters. It’s a bit of a collection from a symposium, and there is a bit of diversity in the opinions. BUT – mmost participants are persuaded that there are aspects of Culture which are friendly to “development”, and aspects which are decidedly unfriendly. “Development” being economic progress, life expectancy, food and water, etc.

    For example, a culture that has a primarily fatalistic outlook – someone else is in charge, the deity did it, it’s all luck, you need the king’s ok, etc. – has a very poor record of any progress in either democracy or economics.

    Same thing for a culture that sees all goods are limited – in short supply. If you have a lot that means I have few, etc. The developed nations tend to see goods as something we make up, or create! Less developed nations see everytying as a competition for the few goods out there – like gold and diamonds, oil, etc.

    Just at thought. Thanks for the ideas.

  5. In the end all of the components in this model point in one direction: if trust levels are diminished by any combination of factors, poverty will be the result. If trust levels are enhanced; higher levels of prosperity will follow. Linguistic diversity can lead to lower trust levels if it leads to the conclusion that “I can’t trust those people who use a different language.” Linguistic diversity is an ‘in your face reason’ to make it difficult to extend truth.
    Fear is the ultimate killer of inter-group, inter-region, inter-community economic exchange.
    Shared beliefs (my chosen truths) leads to the desire to extend trust to those who claim to adhere to the same chosen truths. OR: the level of ‘extending trust’ is proportionately higher within a community that upholds the same chosen truths than between communities that do not uphold the same chosen truths.
    at the same time: some religious belief systems in combination with their cultural expression do not naturally teach their followers to extend trust to others but rather teach that trust is always earned (eg: this is why inter-region trade in the Middle East is lower than anywhere else in the world).

  6. “Maybe some rare language would be significantly more effective in using the bionic interface and those people would rule. What if I told the funniest joke in the world and everyone died laughing, except for those who did not understand? Has there every been a lingustic crisis in which language was the savior? Can anyone imagine a scenario in which a certain rare language might act as a mutant survival gene?”

    I can imagine a book about this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snow_Crash

  7. “Linguistic diversity can lead to lower trust levels.”

    Yes, I believe that’s true.

    I’d add that if you are going to push for trust and better communication via linguistic homogeneity, the lingua franca that works best is:

    - one that is easy to learn
    - one in which the speakers tolerate and can understand imperfect speaking

    I’m thinking of situations in history where there were insiders and outsiders based on one’s complete mastery of a difficult to learn language (Attic Greece, for instance.) The increasing number of outsiders who could not speak Attic Greek undermined trust of the greater society of Classical Greece.

  8. “the lingua franca that works best is: – one that is easy to learn – one in which the speakers tolerate and can understand imperfect speaking”

    There are folks who claim that such a lingua franca has already evolved within the community of people working for multinational corporations and doing business internationally, in the form of English with a restricted vocabulary and simplified syntax (“Globish”). There’s a book, web site, etc.

  9. For those of you interested in a related, albeit fictional, look at linguistic diversity, then check out Desperanto — a sci-fi story by one of my former lecturers, Prof Jim Hurford.

  10. Thanks Bayes, very nice story, Jim Hurford website also has a few interesting papers.
    To me the most interesting part isn’t the unlearnability conjecture nor the ethical problem but the supposed inability of the lators to translate emotional content.
    Though this is arduous translating poetry isn’t impossible and probably no more fraught with irreducible approximations than sophisticated scientific discourse.
    It only means that a purely logical “deep” representation (as assumed in Desperanto) does not capture all significant correlations between word meanings, an illustration of this came as a very opportune counter example at the most improbable yet relevant place (Standard Upper Ontology Working Group).
    In the same vein do you know of this maverick linguist Alex Gross?

  11. “There are folks who claim that such a lingua franca has already evolved within the community of people working for multinational corporations and doing business internationally, in the form of English with a restricted vocabulary and simplified syntax (“Globish”).”

    Yes, of course, it’s English, at the moment. I don’t think it’s just confined to multinational corporations. Most university educated Europeans and Asians speak it as a second language. English is considered to be one of the easiest languages to learn to speak, at least to a functional level.

    I do think that there is a compromise to be made for less common languages. It’s to have an easy to learn language like English (or Spanish) that everyone can learn and then to leverage the prosperity that comes from having a common language to promote more traditional languages.

    You see this in Canada with French and in Scotland with Scots Gaelic, for instance. There is a limit however, and it is not for free. To be successful, countries do have to decide which languages they are going to promote and finance.

    “It only means that a purely logical “deep” representation (as assumed in Desperanto) does not capture all significant correlations between word meanings.”

    Yeah. I agree. For instance, it’s often hard to translate irony.

  12. Razib – exceptionally well put. Thanks mate. Fan from Australia! :-)

  13. this was not my post :-)

  14. “it is selfish of me to want these small communities to remain in a bubble, free from the very same benefits I enjoy in belonging to a modern, post-industrialised society.”

    You deceive yourself.

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