Historical Subsistence Strategies and Culture

The link between the climate and culture has been examined in a variety of contexts.  A recent post by Volha Charnysh discusses various examples, such as the relationship between seasonality and the adoption of agriculture (Matranga, 2019), climatic risk and cooperation (Buggle and Durante, 2021), and exposure to adverse natural shocks and religiosity (Bentzen, 2019). In this post I explore the related hypothesis of how the particular demands of historical subsistence strategies shape cultural outcomes and how this persists overtime. I focus on the growing literature on the effects of pastoralism, which is the reliance on animal herding for economic production and norms associated with a culture of honor, violence, restrictive gender norms, and trust.

A Culture of Honor

A well-known hypothesis is that pastoralist societies facilitated the development of a “culture of honor” (Nisbett and Cohen, 1996). In culture of honor societies, people, particularly men, feel obligated to protect their reputation by responding to insults or threats with violence and a willingness to take revenge. A reliance on animal herding may have shaped this particular bundle of cultural traits because herders constantly face a constant of others trying to steal their animals and tend to live in areas with minimal state presence. Thus, their reputation – particularly for violence and willingness to defend themselves and their herd – is an important deterrent.

Cattle, Goats, and Sheep with Three Herdsmen, one Drinking. 1654. (Nicolaas Pietersz Berchem, 1620-1683)

Pauline Grosjean (2014) empirically examines the hypothesis that a culture of honor leads to higher levels of violence in the context of the US South. In the 18th century, much of the US South was settled by Scots-Irish, herders from the Scottish Highlands. These areas were historically reliant on pastoralism and were known for high levels of lawlessness and violence. Pauline establishes a relationship between greater Scots-Irish presence and higher homicide rates in the South. Strikingly, a one percentage point increase in the share of Scots-Irish in the 1790 population is associated with a 25 percent higher homicide rate among white offenders. She suggests that this culture of honor was particularly persistent in the South, relative to the North of the US, because formal institutions remained weaker in the South, and thus the culture of honor continued to provide benefits.

Cao et al. (2020) provide broader evidence that societies that historically relied on herding activities do indeed exhibit a bundle of cultural traits associated with a culture of honor. They first examine conflict levels by matching data from the ethnographic atlas (Murdock, 1967), which has measures of historical reliance on pastoralism, with data on conflict outcomes between 1989 and 2016 from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program. They find a significant relationship between historical reliance on herding and contemporary conflict.

They then turn to the psychological and cultural factors that may support a culture of honor, such as negative reciprocity. Negative reciprocity is the willingness to punish someone who has treated others unfairly and to take revenge. Using data from the Global Preferences Survey (Falk et al. 2018), which has survey based measures of negative reciprocity, the authors find that reliance on herding is associated with greater willingness to punish others or take revenge.

Pro-longed Male Absence and Restrictive Gender Norms

Anke Becker (2019) provides evidence that historical reliance on herding affects gender norms. In pastoralist societies, men tend to be in charge of managing the herds and can be away from the home for extended periods of time. Because paternal certainty tends to be much lower than maternal certainty and investment in children is costly, pro-longed male absence may have led to the development of cultural norms that are designed to constrain women’s sexuality. Specifically, it may lead to greater use of female genital cutting and norms that prohibit women’s sexuality and mobility.

Note: This is from Becker (2019), Figure 1.

Using data from Murdock (1967) to construct a measure of reliance on animal husbandry combined with data from Demographic and Health Surveys, she finds that greater reliance on pastoralism leads to higher rates of the most extreme form of female genital cutting. Additionally, women from pastoralists groups are more likely to believe that women should wait until marriage to have sex and support norms that restrict women’s mobility – e.g. that the husband should provide permission for the wife to visit family or that domestic violence is acceptable if a woman leaves the house without telling her husband.

Mobile Pastoralism and In-Group Trust

In recent work, Etienne Le Rossignol and I (2021) explore how historical reliance on mobile pastoralism has shaped in-group relative to out-group trust. Mobile pastoralism is characterized by reliance on raising livestock in highly difficult environments, mobile settlement patterns, and threats to the animals from pests or raids from other groups.  Anthropologists had suggested that the demands of mobile pastoralism may have led tosar higher levels of in-group trust and cooperation. In their ethnographic study in Africa among pastoralists and farmers, Edgerton (1971) conclude that pastoral groups are “more independent-minded in their behavior” and “display more cohesiveness despite their greater independence of actions” than nearby farmer groups.

We modify Becker’s (2019) measure of reliance on pastoralism to account for a group’s mobility. Using data from the World Values Survey and the European Values Survey, we examine how mobile pastoralism has affected levels of trust in the in-group (e.g. family members, neighbors, other people known by respondent) relative to the out-group (i.e. people you meet for the first time, people of another religion, foreigners). We find a positive and significant relationship between reliance on pastoralism and in-group trust bias (greater in-group relative to out group trust). This pattern holds across countries, within countries, among second generation migrants, and using an IV strategy.

We also examine the economic implications of greater in-group trust bias for firm growth. Recent work on firm size has suggested that limited managerial capacity and reliance on family members to run firms may be a constraint on the development of larger firms. We find evidence in favor of this hypothesis; firms in countries with greater historical reliance on pastoralism tend to be smaller and rely on less objective criteria for promotion.

These papers all provide evidence on how the specific requirements of subsistence strategies – in this case, pastoralism – have shaped culture. They also suggest that these traits can be highly persistent, even among second generation migrants, and that they have important implications for violence, firm growth, and the well-being of women. The studies raise the interesting question of under what circumstances these cultural traits are more likely to persist.


  • Sara Lowes

    I am an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of California, San Diego. I graduated from Harvard University in May 2017 with a Ph.D. from the Political Economy and Government program. I am a Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), a CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar with the Institutions, Organizations & Growth research program, and an Affiliate of the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR). My research interests are at the intersection of development economics, political economy, and economic history. Many of my on-going projects are in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Leave a Reply