Chapter Summary

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, students will be able to:

  • Define and explain the different types of social identity;
  • Describe the structuralist and primordial approaches to identity;
  • Describe and evaluate the arguments that claim cultural factors cause underdevelopment;
  • Describe and evaluate the arguments that claim cultural diversity causes underdevelopment.

Chapter Summary

This chapter provides potential answers to the question of what impact culture and identity has on development. Culture is commonly defined as the shared set of norms, beliefs and recurring practices of people in a society.

An important component of culture is also group identity. Social identity is an individual’s self- understanding related to their membership in a group that is larger than the family. Social identity includes race, ethnicity, nationality and religion. Different theories exist related to social identity. The first is primordialism which views identity as something one gain at birth or childhood that does not change throughout one’s lifetime. The second theory is constructivism which states that identity is often changeable because it is socially created. For example traditionally race was viewed as primordial but now scholars view race in constructivist terms—not because someone can change their skin color but because it is society that attributes meaning to skin color rather than the color of our eyes or hair.

Ethnicity is a group identity rooted in shared history, values and practices. Frequently language is a key marker for ethnicity. Nationality combines a group identity with a political or legal claim like a claim to self-determination. Religion is a set of beliefs, moral codes, rituals, symbols and organizations relating to spirituality.

How do these social identities influence development? One set of theories, the culturalist school, believes that the content of these shared values and beliefs is an important influence on economic development. One is example is the research of the sociologist Max Weber in the early 1900s. Weber’s influential work explained differences in economic development between countries as related to the different values found in the predominant religions in each society. For example Protestant countries like Britain and Germany were believed to have stronger economic systems because their religion was said to promote work and savings. Catholic countries, such as Spain, Italy and Latin America were said to be less developed because their religion valued conformity and tradition rather than innovation.

Another culturalist argument can be seen in modernization theory. This theory believed that less developed traditional societies were characterized by ascriptive social status, limited social contacts beyond the family, hierarchical power structures with arbitrary decision-making processes. Modern societies were the opposite: they had meritocratic social structure, webs of social contacts, participatory political structures where rule of law prevails. To move from traditional to modern, societies need to change their values and beliefs. To put it more bluntly, traditional societies were underdeveloped because they had the wrong culture.

A third culturalist approach is related to the notion of social capital. Social capital is the level of trust and cooperation members of a society feel toward each other. The more trust that exists, according to the theory, the more efficiently an economy can operate because people are more able to do complex transactions such as loans, business partnerships and other exchanges with a wide group of individuals. In low trust societies, economic transactions are more costly because extra effort must be made to check the trustworthiness of others and to ensure security.

A fourth approach, a more modern variant on Weber’s theory, focuses upon the cultural values of delayed gratification and thriftiness. Cultural values that encourage savings enable the accumulation of financial capital to establish and expand businesses. Societies that look down upon individual extravagance are more likely to experience economic growth.

Other culturalist approaches specifically criticize Islam, Latin America or African religions on several bases. The criticisms relate to values that make people reluctant to change, or passive and accepting of the status quo.

Social scientists have many criticisms of these culturalist approaches. One criticism is that the kind of culture a society develops may not be a cause of economic development but a result of it. In societies where there is less economic prosperity, poor people may become fatalistic. Likewise, if there are many poor people, society is likely to have little in savings.

Another response to culturalist arguments is that people in LDCs cannot be said to lack a “work ethic” when their daily routines are actually analyzed. Many people work longer days with more physical labor than is required in the West.

Finally, any culturalist argument leaves too many cases unexplained. There are too many situations where two countries share similar cultures but have different experiences related to economic development to accept these culture-based arguments as presented.

Culture may affect economic development in another way. Instead of focusing on the content of specific cultures, some analysts focus upon the fact that some states must deal with high levels of cultural diversity. Many LDCs have high levels of cultural diversity and there seems to exist a statistical association between high diversity and economic underdevelopment. Analysts propose several reasons for this.

When there is high cultural diversity it may be difficult (or at least more expensive) for governments to provide necessary public goods such as roads, clinics and schools. Different social groups are likely to have different priorities for which goods should be provided where. In addition, diversity may lower public trust, leading to all the problems of insufficient social capital.

Governance in more diverse societies may also be poorer. Politicians, if they are supported by certain social groups, are likely to promote policies that reward their own supporters at the expense of opponents. Indeed politicians may find it advantageous to foment social distrust to mobilize their own ethnic base in elections.

Additionally, in diverse societies pernicious stereotypes may be common. This can have negative psychological effects that can become internalized and can impact national productivity.

The cultural diversity explanations also have attracted criticism. Again, cultural diversity may be a consequence of underdevelopment rather than a cause of it. Identities may tend to become more fixed and more significant in a poor society than in a prosperous one. Also, the establishment of an effective national system of education that can encourage national unity may be more expensive than what a poor country can provide.

Iraq is presented as a case study to explore some of these themes. Specifically, Islam’s impact upon women, the fact that Iraq is a low trust society, and ethnic divisions within in Iraq are some of the factors examined. At the same time, Iraq’s creation during British colonialism, which gave the country its current demography, is analyzed.