Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Social and cultural distance is endogenous

In this paper presented last week in Bristol, it is shown that agents in charge of promoting developing programs can overcome social distance if they receive incentives to do so. That is, poor citizens who distrust government agents because they may be from different social groups (such as castes in India, or different language or religious groups) may overcome this lack of confidence if there is some action that reduces the cultural distance. This is very important, because there is a whole branch of research in development economics that takes cultural heterogeneity as exogenous, and then makes explicit or implicit policy recommendations based on these exogenous distances. For example, some take language differences as a proxy for cultural distance between homogeneous groups. Although the mother tongue of someone is of course exogenous to the individual, the impact of this initial language trait on cultural distance is largely endogenous. That is, there is no necessity in language initial distances implying cultural distances. People can learn other languages, the language of the neighbours for example, or they can all learn some lingua franca that helps reduce cultural distance. Or translators can be used and do business based on the fact that language diversity has never been an impediment to trade and collective action. Of course, there will always be entrepreneurs of hate that benefit form exacerbating cultural conflicts and divisions. These cleavages are instrumental in preventing majorities from aggregating in social or economic dimensions such as income and wealth. The nationalistic right has always known this very well, and the internationalist left has since Jean Jaurès struggled to fight them successfully.

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