What Explains Cultural Transmission across Generations?

Research in historical political economy has demonstrated that cultural norms and values often outlive the events, institutions, and policies that generated them. The very definition of culture emphasizes persistence and intergenerational transmission (see this related post by Jared Rubin).[1] Socialization by parents, peers, and opinion leaders is one of the key mechanisms invoked in studies that link events in the distant past to contemporary outcomes.

In this post, I discuss recent empirical work on the channels of cultural persistence. These projects analyze the role of families, peers, and environment in the transmission of culture and ask why some cultural traits are more durable than others.

The Apple Does Not Fall Far from the Tree

Parental socialization is the main workhorse in the literature on intergenerational persistence. In a typical setup, parents derive utility from socializing the child in their own image, but take the environment into account. Families are consequential, in part, because they make decisions about where children live and who they spend time with, thus indirectly shaping other channels of value transmission. Parents can also modify their socialization behavior in response to environmental influence and other socialization channels.

Many papers that invoke family transmission study immigrants, in an attempt to hold the external institutional context constant. For example, Alberto Simpser’s recent article demonstrates the persistence of corruption culture among second-generation immigrants in the European Social Survey. In this work, transmission is assumed based on the similarity of values between immigrant respondents and respondents in their countries of origin. Limitations of this approach include the unrepresentativeness of immigrants as a population and lack of information about their local environment. Researchers have also explored the correlations between the values of parents and children using the Youth-Parent Socialization Panel Survey in the US; the German Socio-Economic Panel Study; the Parent-Child Socialization Study in Belgium; the Trajectories and Origins Survey that samples first-generation migrants and their descendants in France; and other datasets.

In a study that spans three generations of Crimean Tatars deported by Stalin to Central Asia in 1944, Noam Lupu and Leonid Peisakhin track the transmission of victim identities using an original face-to-face survey of 300 families. The researchers began with a stratified sample of settlements that were at least 10% Tatar and randomly sampled Tatar respondents aged 73 or older. Next, they randomly selected two children of their first-generation respondents for the second-generation sample and two children of each second-generation respondent for the third-generation sample. Lupu and Peisakhin show that descendants from families that had lost a relative during the deportation have stronger victim identities and ingroup attachment, are more hostile toward Russia, and are more likely to participate in politics. Within families, they observe 30-50% correlations in ingroup attachment, victim identity, and threat perception. They also show that intergenerational persistence is higher in families that discuss the deportation.

Parental socialization has proved remarkably effective at preserving culture even in the face of hostile institutions. Avner Greif and Steven Tadelis theorize that this is possible because individuals can decouple their moral beliefs from observable behavior, practicing what they call crypto-morality. In this way, parents can transmit their secret morality to children, while practicing a different morality in public. For example, during the Inquisition in Spain, most Jews behaved as Christians in public but maintained crypto-Judaism within families. Relatedly, discriminatory policies against minorities sometimes backfire by increasing parental efforts at transmitting their identities and values to children. For example, Vicky Fouka shows that barring German language from US schools after WWI heightened the ingroup attachment among the German minority, inducing individuals to marry within their ethnic group and to choose German names for their offspring.

A key challenge when researching family socialization is accounting for the influence of biological and genetic factors. The contributions of nature and nurture are difficult to separate using the standard tools of social science. Research in other fields suggests that the biological effects of past trauma are transmitted across generations. For example, Mallory Bowers and Rachel Yehuda find that the descendants of Holocaust survivors have different stress hormone profiles than their peers, which makes them more vulnerable to stress and anxiety disorders. Interdisciplinary research on twins also suggests that some cultural traits are genetically transmitted. Shared genetic makeup may explain, for instance, why parents and children have similar priorities and political orientations. At the same time, genes seem irrelevant for the transmission of generalized trust, one of the key traits linked to cooperation and economic development.

It Takes a Village to Raise a Child

Communities also play a role in the transmission of cultural norms and values. In fact, during the so-called impressionable years of 18 to 25, when individuals are more likely to change their norms and values, young adults look up to their peers and role models other than parents. Isolating the effect of peers from the effect of families is empirically challenging because parents can influence their children’s networks by sorting into culturally similar communities and by choosing schools and activities that will complement their efforts at imparting their values. Parents can also adapt their socialization efforts within the family in response to the quality of socialization outside the family.

To investigate the role of communities in the intergenerational persistence of cultural traits, Leonid Peisakhin and I leverage a natural experiment in Poland. We surveyed the descendants of forced migrants from the territory transferred from Poland to Ukraine after the war, who were  resettled into the region Poland acquired from Germany in 1945 (read more about the population transfers in this territory here). At the heart of our research design is the quasi-random assignment of migrant families into different types of communities in southwest Poland. Due to a highly disorganized resettlement process, some families from Western Ukraine came to comprise the majority in their new villages, others the minority. As we show using data from pre-WWII census, there were no statistically significant differences in political attitudes and behavior between settlements from which forced migrants originated before they were settled in majority and minority communities. Majority and minority destination settlements were also comparable on observable socio-economic characteristics immediately before the war.

As shown on the map, we sampled the descendants of forced migrants in majority and minority villages as well as the population that was not resettled just west of the post-war border between Poland and Ukraine to evaluate the persistence of traits associated with the legacies of the Austro-Hungarian empire in Poland: religiosity, patriotism, and turnout. In selecting these traits, we build on earlier research on discontinuities at the former partition borders within Poland. We find that the descendants of migrants from the former Austrian partition who wound up in the majority in their new villages are today considerably more religious and patriotic and more likely to turn out to vote than their counterparts whose families wound up in minority settlements. On these traits, they resemble the Polish population just west of the Polish-Ukrainian border, which shares the Austro-Hungarian institutional legacies but did not experience resettlement after the war.

Resettled and non-resettled villages sampled for the survey on the persistence of Austro-Hungarian legacies.

Our analysis demonstrates that communities and peer networks affect value transmission above and beyond the influence of parental socialization. Preserving higher levels of religiosity, patriotism, and political participation was often as simple as finding oneself among peers from the same region.

Poland’s political system has changed dramatically over time, so intergenerational transmission of partisanship is unlikely. However, religiosity and patriotism influence contemporary voting preferences in the Polish context, where the right-wing Law and Justice Party positions itself as a defender of Polish national identity and Christian values. We found no statistically significant differences in the electoral preferences of the descendants of forced migrants in majority and minority communities. One possible explanation for the null finding is strategic voting, since the Law and Justice candidates are significantly less likely to win in western Poland.

Community elites, religious leaders, politicians, military heroes, and film actors are all relevant when it comes to the persistence and change of cultural norms. So are the mothers of one’s classmates. Claudia Olivetti, Eleonora Patacchini, and Yves Zenou follow a sample of US teenagers over time to understand the relevance of adolescent peers in the decision of young women to work. They conclude that the mothers of high school peers also influence this decision-making, in addition to the effects of vertical transmission.

A Cost-Benefit Perspective

An important question in the persistence literature is why some traits endure longer than others. A possible answer lies in the interaction of vertical (family) and horizontal (community) transmission mechanisms. Francesco Giavazzi, Ivan Petkov, Fabio Schiantarelli theorize that assimilation to community norms is more beneficial for traits related to cooperation, such as trust and redistribution attitudes. It is more beneficial for individuals to adjust to the level of trust in their community as it affects economic and social interactions with others. By contrast, moral values and religious attitudes are less consequential for interpersonal interactions and, at the same time, more important for one’s family ties. Such traits may be more likely to persist in a new environment. Giavazzi et al. find support for this hypothesis using data on the values of four generations of US immigrants from the General Social Survey. Trust and cooperation attitudes are the fastest to converge, whereas attitudes towards politics, sexual mores, and religious values are slower to converge. Attitudes towards gender roles occupy an intermediate position.

The benefits of preserving the culture of the previous generation may also depend on the external environment. Paola Giuliano and Nathan Nunn demonstrate that climate variability influences our beliefs about the importance of preserving the culture of one’s ancestors. They find that World Value Survey respondents place lower importance on maintaining tradition when they live in environments with higher variability of temperature, measured across 20-year generations in the timespan 500–1900. Strikingly, they find that children of US immigrants are more likely to marry within their group of origin and speak their native language at home if they come from countries with more historically stable climates.

This brief overview shows that scholarship on the persistence and change of culture is fundamentally interdisciplinary. The first models of cultural evolution came from genetics, and there are numerous parallels between the evolution of genes and culture. Understanding the interaction between genes, the external environment, and parental and peer socialization is a new frontier in this line of research.

As my Broadstreet colleagues have discussed in other posts, the persistence and change of culture are important factors in research on social change, economic development, identity politics, and the (limited) power of persuasion. Advancing our understanding of how values and norms evolve in the long run is also crucial for the credibility of historical political economy as a discipline.

[1] For example, Guiso et al define culture as “those customary beliefs and values that ethnic, religious, and social groups transmit fairly unchanged from generation to generation.”


  • Volha Charnysh

    Charnysh is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She studies political attitudes and behavior in culturally diverse societies using micro-level historical data. She is particularly interested in the legacies of displacement, repression, and genocide. Her regional focus is Europe and Eurasia. She is currently working on a book about the enduring political and economic consequences of one of the largest episodes of forced migration in history: post-WWII population transfers in Central and Eastern Europe. Her work has been published or is forthcoming at the American Political Science Review, Comparative Political Studies, British Journal of Political Science, and European Journal of International Relations. Charnysh received a PhD in Government from Harvard University in 2017.

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