Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Doug North on "Culture"

Economists generally don't like dealing with culture; it's messy, difficult to analyze, and difficult to model. Mostly, they deal with it by ignoring it, which hardly contributes to the social fit of their models. Unlike many of his fellow economists, Doug North does not shy away from dealing with culture. At the pre-conference dinner Sunday evening, Doug provided a potentially useful definition of "culture" (which I hope I am quoting accurately here): culture is a set of (presumably shared) "beliefs from the past that constrain the present choice set."  I'm not sure how much this eases the problem of modeling culture; and I'm pretty sure that I would want to replace "constrain" with "affect" in order to provide for the possibility that some cultures (e.g., a "culture of entrepreneurship" or a "culture of scientific inquiry") could actually enhance or expand the choice set. However, Doug's definition seems to me a definite step in the right direction for social scientists thinking about culture.

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