Did rice production create collectivism? Evidence from within China

A new study in Science. Excerpts to give you the general idea:

Two of the most common subsistence cropsrice and wheatare very different, and we argue that they lead to different cultures.

…Because rice paddies need standing water, people in rice regions build elaborate irrigation systems that require farmers to cooperate.

…Paddy rice also requires an extraordinary amount of work. …To deal with the massive labor requirements, farmers in rice villages from India to Malaysia and Japan form cooperative labor exchanges.

…In economic terms, paddy rice makes cooperation more valuable.

…the results consistently showed that [college students] from rice provinces are more holistic thinking, interdependent, and loyal/nepotistic than participants from the wheat provinces.

…China’s rice regions [also] have several markers of East Asian culture: more holistic thought, more interdependent self construals, and lower divorce rates. The wheat growing north looked more culturally similar to the West, with more analytic thought, individualism, and divorce.

Very interesting.

A few thoughts. One is that it’s hard to say whether rice production fostered cooperation or whether rice production fostered something else (e.g. states) that shape behavior.

Also, they use rice suitability estimates to instrument for rice production. This requires us to believe that the things that determine suitability (soil type, climate, temperature, etc.) only affect social and economic development through their effect on rice production. This seems like a stretch (what about disease prevalence? frequency of shocks? general agricultural productivity?) If you read an instrumental variables paper and they do not mention the words “exclusion restriction”, exercise caution. This is the most mis-used identification strategy out there, possibly worse than the cardinal sin of matching.

Also, unless I’m mistaken, Confucius was born close to the wheat-producing region