Historically Rice-Farming Societies Have Tighter Social Norms in China and Worldwide

Talhelm, T., & English, A. S. (2020). Historically rice-farming societies have tighter social norms in China and worldwide. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

56 Pages Posted: 15 Sep 2020

See all articles by Thomas Talhelm

Thomas Talhelm

University of Chicago Booth School of Business

Alexander English

Shanghai International Studies University

Date Written: July 31, 2020

Abstract

Data recently published in PNAS mapped out regional differences in the tightness of social norms across China. Norms were tighter in developed, urbanized areas and weaker in rural areas. We tested whether historical paddy rice farming has left a legacy on social norms in modern China. Pre-modern rice farming could plausibly create strong social norms because paddy rice relied on irrigation networks. Rice farmers coordinated their water use and kept track of each person’s labor contributions. Rice villages also established strong norms of reciprocity to cope with labor demands that were twice as high as dry-land crops like wheat. In line with this theory, China's historically rice-farming areas had tighter social norms than wheat-farming areas, even beyond differences in development and urbanization. Rice-wheat differences were just as large among people in 10 neighboring provinces (N = 3,835) along the rice-wheat border. These neighboring provinces differ sharply in rice and wheat, but little in latitude, temperature, and other potential confounding variables. Outside of China, rice farming predicted norm tightness in 32 countries around the world. Finally, people in rice-farming areas scored lower on innovative thinking, which tends to be lower in societies with tight norms. This natural test case within China might explain why East Asia — historically reliant on rice farming — has tighter social norms than the wheat-farming West.

Keywords: tightness-looseness, social norms, rice theory, agriculture, subsistence style

JEL Classification: Z1

Suggested Citation

Talhelm, Thomas and English, Alexander, Historically Rice-Farming Societies Have Tighter Social Norms in China and Worldwide (July 31, 2020). Talhelm, T., & English, A. S. (2020). Historically rice-farming societies have tighter social norms in China and worldwide. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences., Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3417582 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3417582

Thomas Talhelm (Contact Author)

University of Chicago Booth School of Business ( email )

5807 South Woodlawn Avenue
Chicago, IL 60637
United States

HOME PAGE: http://www.chicagobooth.edu/faculty/directory/t/thomas-talhelm

Alexander English

Shanghai International Studies University ( email )

1550 Wen Xiang Rd.
Songjiang District
Shanghai, Shanghai 201620
China

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