Culture: persistence and evolution


This paper documents the speed of evolution (or lack thereof) of a range of values and beliefs of different generations of US immigrants, and interprets the evidence in the light of a model of socialization and identity choice. Convergence to the norm differs greatly across cultural attitudes. Moreover, results obtained studying higher generation immigrants differ from those found when the analysis is limited to the second generation and imply a lower degree of persistence than previously thought. Persistence is also country specific, in the sense that the country of origin of one’s ancestors matters for the pattern of generational convergence.

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  1. 1.

    See Putnam (1993), Guiso et al. (2006, 2008, 2016), Tabellini (2008a, b, 2010), Alesina et al. (2013), Durante (2009), Roland (2004), Voigtländer and Voth (2012) and Alesina and Giuliano (2015) for a recent review.

  2. 2.

    See Gruber and Hungerman (2008), Alesina and Fuchs-Schuendeln (2007), Tella et al. (2007), Giuliano and Spilimbergo (2014), Fernandez (2011), Fehr (2009), and Bowles (1998).

  3. 3.

    The transmission that occurs from a member of the previous generation who is external to the family to a member of the present generation is often called oblique. We consider it as a part of horizontal transmission.

  4. 4.

    See Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) and (2001, ch.6), Boyd and Richerson (1985, 2005).

  5. 5.

    See Fernandez (2008).

  6. 6.

    See the seminal paper by Lazear (1999) on the incentives to and conditions for integration in heterogeneous populations and the inter-temporal extension in Konya (2005). Bisin and Verdier (2000, 2001) provide conditions under which heterogeneity in cultural values may be a stable equilibrium in an optimizing model of cultural transmission under imperfect parental empathy. See also Bisin et al. (2004), Tabellini (2008b), and Bisin and Verdier (2010) for a review. See also Guiso et al. (2008) for a model of transmission of beliefs, Fernandez (2013) for a model of beliefs formation, Doepke and Zilibotti (2008) and Doepke and Zilibotti (2017) for a model, respectively, of endogenous preference formation and one that mixes paternalism and altruism in preference transmission.

  7. 7.

    One may wonder whether US Census or CPS data could be used to investigate the convergence of attitudes over multiple generations. The answer is unfortunately no. When using these data sets one could think, for instance, of focusing on the effect of the country of origin on female labor force participation (an outcome of cultural attitudes about gender roles, in addition to other factors). In the Census or the CPS, however, one can identify, at best, only the birthplace of the respondent and of her parents (available in the Census only up to 1970 and in the CPS from 1971 to 1975). This gives us information on the country of origin of the first and second generation immigrants. In order to identify the birthplace of the ancestors of third or higher generation immigrants, one must rely on self reported ancestry (available in the Census since 1980 and in the CPS since 1994). Note that the periods for which ancestry information is available together with information on the respondent’s and her parents’ birthplace are not overlapping, making an investigation of convergence across multiple generations (first, second, third and beyond) not possible even for this single outcome.

  8. 8.

    Earlier contributions in the sociological literature used early waves of the GSS, and focus on the assimilation process of specific groups, such as Italian immigrants in Greeley (1974, ch.4) and Alba (1985, ch.6). The results in Greeley are based on a sample of males only. Both studies emphasize the change, as opposed to the persistence of cultural attitudes, but do not distinguish among different generations.

  9. 9.

    Voigtländer and Voth (2012) document the persistence of anti-semitic traits in German cities over centuries. Rice and Feldman (1997) distinguish the level of civic attitudes for Italian immigrants on the basis of the number of grandparents born in the US and reach the surprising conclusion that the descendants of earlier immigrants are more likely to give less civic responses than the descendants of later immigrants. Desmet, Ortuñ o-Ortín and Wacziarg (2015) investigate whether ethnic, linguistic and religious identities are “constructed” or reflect “primordial” differences between different groups of humans. They find that ethnicity is indeed associated with fundamental differences in values, attitudes and preferences, however, there are many other sources of variation in culture, not associated with ethnic identity.

  10. 10.

    See also Pichler (2010), Vaughan (2013), and Panebianco (2014).

  11. 11.

    See also the seminal paper on identity choice by Akerlof and Kranton (2000), as well as Bisin et al. (2011).

  12. 12.

    See Konya (2005) for a dynamic extension.

  13. 13.

    We could allow \(\varphi \) to depend linearly upon the intensity of socialization, but this would complicate the exposition with no substantive gains.

  14. 14.

    Abramitzky et al. (2016), studying the cultural assimilation of immigrants to the U.S. during the Age of Mass Migration, also highlight empirically the tradeoff that immigrant families face between maintaining their cultural identity and assimilating into society at large. They focus on naming patterns and find that giving one’s child an ethnic-sounding name to enhance self-identification with an ethnic group results in less favorable educational and economic outcomes.

  15. 15.

    Note that for concavity of the objective function \(\frac{\partial ^{2}w}{ \partial \tau ^{2}}=-c+\frac{\beta d^{2}}{\overline{z}-\underline{z}}<0\) and hence the denominator in (3) is positive. We also assume that \( \varphi -\beta [(1-q)\theta ^{M}V-q\theta ^{m}-\underline{z} ]\geqslant 0\) to guarantee that the parent’s effort is non negative.

  16. 16.

    The remaining comparative static is somewhat more complicated. The effect of the discount factor \(\beta \) is ambiguous as it enhances both the transaction benefits of assimilation \(((1-q)\theta ^{M}V-q\theta ^{m}\)) and the switching cost of assimilation (\(d\tau +z_{i}\)). For a given spread of the distribution, \(\overline{z}-\underline{z}\), a decrease in \(\underline{z} , \) that generates a leftward shift of the distribution, decreasing its mean, but keeping the variance constant, is associated to a decrease in \( \tau ^{*}\). This is because the probability of assimilation increases, which increases the penalty for the child of dropping the family trait, a penalty that is greater the larger the parent’s educational effort. Given \( \underline{z}\), an increase in \(\overline{z}-\underline{z}\) has the opposite effect by a similar logic.

  17. 17.

    We assume that no member of the majority has an incentive to adopt the minority trait.

  18. 18.

    If \((1-q(0))V\theta ^{M}-q(0)\theta ^{m}V-d\tau ^{*}>\bar{t}\) , the model would generate an uninteresting and implausible dynamics with instantaneous full assimilation.

  19. 19.

    Define \(\gamma \)\(=\frac{\pi }{q}\). Then \(\gamma \) can be thought of as an inverse index of spatial segregation. We assume that \(\gamma \) is exogenous and constant and \(\pi <\gamma \le 1\) with \(\gamma =1\) representing the case of an evenly spread minority. \(\pi <\gamma \) guaranties that q does not exceed one. Then the equation of motion for the proportion of the population with the minority trait becomes \(\pi _{t+1}-\pi _{t}=-\frac{[(1-(\pi _{t}/\gamma )]\theta ^{M}V-(\pi _{t}/\gamma )\theta ^{m}V-d\tau _{t}^{*}- \underline{z}]}{\overline{z}-\underline{z}}\pi _{t}\) The proportion of the population with the minority trait at which there is no gain in assimilating now equals \(\widetilde{\pi }=\gamma \frac{\theta ^{M}V-\frac{\varphi d^{2}}{ c(\overline{z}-\underline{z})}-\underline{z}}{\theta ^{M}V+\theta ^{m}V}\) which is increasing in \(\gamma .\)

  20. 20.

    In our model the decision whether or not to assimilate is studied along a single dimension/attitude. The results however extend to the contemporaneous choice of more than one trait, provided we exclude interactions across attitudes. Assume there are two traits \(a=1,2,\) each one of them dichotomous. Assume that costs and benefits are additive and that there is no interaction between the two traits, that is socialization costs are \( \frac{c}{2}\tau _{1}^{2}+\frac{c}{2}\tau _{2}^{2}\) for the parents and direct socialization benefits are \(\varphi _{1}+\varphi _{2}\). Assume that switching costs are also additive for the child, (\(d\tau _{1}+z_{1})+(d\tau _{2}+z_{2})\), and that the two stochastic terms \(z_{1}\) and \(z_{2}\) are independent. Finally assume that the net benefits associated with each attitude are \(\theta _{a}^{M*}(1-q_{a})V_{a}-\theta _{a}^{m*}q_{a}V_{a}-d(\tau _{a})-z_{a},\)\(a=1,2\) again assuming lack of interaction. In this simple case the conditions for \(\tau _{1}^{*}\) and \(\tau _{2}^{*}\) are identical to those we have derived and simply need to be indexed by \(a=1,2\). Of course the model would be more complicated if we allowed for cross affects across attitudes, but this is not central to our paper and is left for future research.

  21. 21.

    In their model, in the pre-demographic transition period, income and fertility rates are positively correlated and Malthusian pressure confers an evolutionary advantage to those people with a preference biased towards child quality versus quantity. Once the economic environment improves, the opposite is the case. Empirically, during the period covered by our investigation there is negative association between fertiity and income ( Jones and Tertilt (2008)).

  22. 22.

    The acquisition of new values may also occur through vertical transmission, with parents actively encouraging “new” values (or refraining from insisting on “old” one) in response to changes in the social environment as suggested by Doepke and Zilibotti (2008).

  23. 23.

    For the choice of groups, we have followed one of the available codebooks for the GSS. See Muennig et al. (2011).

  24. 24.

    It would be very interesting to investigate the evolution of cultural traits that capture long term orientation. Unfortunately, a crucial component of long term orientation is “thrift” as a desirable characteristic of children (see, for instance, Hofstede and Minkov (2010), Galor and Ozak (2016) and Figlio et al. (2016)). This variable unfortunately, is not available in the GSS (while it is in the World Value Survey). Neither is the importance of service to others, also commonly used.

  25. 25.

    For other Southern and Eastern European countries and for the French we do not have enough observations to reliably estimate country-generation-cohort specific effects.

  26. 26.

    See Algan and Cahuc (2010).

  27. 27.

    Responses to each of the GSS questions are re-coded to produce a binary outcome (see Table 1). For a bit more than half the questions there is a gradation of responses. We have decided to treat all the questions in a uniform fashion and to use a simple and easily interpretable binary representation of the responses. In doing this we also follow a common practice in the literature that uses the GSS.

  28. 28.

    See also Algan and Cahuc (2007, 2010) and Giavazzi et al. (2013). We also present results with two alternative sets of controls: one including only age, age squared, year of the survey, gender, regional indicators, education and income; the other more limited one also excludes education and income.

  29. 29.

    We present results obtained using alternative definitions of the “norm” in the robustness section. One might also consider using a region-specific definition of the norm: e.g.Texan culture for immigrants that live in Texas, Californian for those that live in California, etc. Unfortunately data limitation prevent us from running this experiment.

  30. 30.

    In our analysis we focus on the evolution in the country of origin cohort-generation specific effects. We recognize that there is heterogeneity in attitudes across individuals within each ethnicity and this is why we introduce controls in the Probit model. For a different approach in measuring the role of ethnicity as a determinant of culture that takes account of heterogeneity across individuals see Desmet et al. (2017) and Desmet and Wacziarg (2018).

  31. 31.

    One could also analyze the process of convergence between the first and third generation by comparing \(\widetilde{\beta }_{o,1,1892}\) to \(\widetilde{ \beta }_{o,3,1942}\). We choose to focus on evolution between the first and fourth generation in order to allow as much time as possible for attitudes to evolve further, beyond the change that occurs between the first and second generation.

  32. 32.

    See, in particular, Figure 1.4 on p. 25.

  33. 33.

    See the discussion and references in the Introduction.

  34. 34.

    Summary statistics for the estimated fixed effects from the probits, on which our analysis is based, are contained in Table A1 of the On Line “Appendix 1”. The table reports the median and standard deviation for each attitude of the country specific fixed effects for each generation of our synthetic dynasty. The resulting estimated deviations from the norm are reported in Table A2 and in Figures A1a and A1b.

  35. 35.

    Inglehart and Baker (2000), using the World Value Survey (WVS), suggest that economic development is associated with shifts away from absolute norms and values toward more rational, tolerant, trusting, and participatory ones. However, they argue that cultural change is path dependent and is affected by the broad religious and cultural heritage of a society. Notice that many of the values and attitudes that we identify as slow moving are considered by Inglehart and Baker (2000) as characteristics that distinguish preindustrial from industrial societies.

  36. 36.

    The idea of attitudes towards cooperation as an important ingredient and lubricant of economic activity is a very old one and has received great attention recently. See, for instance, Fehr (2009) and the references therein on theoretical, econometric and experimental evidence on the consequences and determinants of trust. There is also an extensive literature on the role of schools in shaping attitudes towards cooperation. See, for instance, Algan et al. (2013). Note that in deriving the country-generation effects we control for education of the respondent and of his/her parents.

  37. 37.

    In our model we do not allow for learning. See, however, Fogli and Veldkamp (2011) and Fernandez (2013) for models of beliefs formation in which people update their views about the implications for children’s welfare of women working outside the home on the basis of the experience of previous generations. These models are used to rationalize the S-shaped form of women labor force participation rate over time.

  38. 38.

    See Jesus et al. (2014) and Greenwood and Guner (2010) on modelling the evolution of sexual practices and attitudes. The Jesus et al. (2014) analysis rationalizes why change in sexual attitudes may lag the change in sexual practices. See also Gruber and Hungerman (2008) on the evolution of church attendance in response of to economic influences such as changes in the opportunity cost of church-going following changes in shops’ opening hours. Our church attendance variable, however, does not change any faster than other religious attitudes.

  39. 39.

    The standard deviation here refers to the distance between country attitudes and the norm. Faster moving attitudes are defined as those with a convergence rate of 71% or higher and the slower moving ones those with convergence rates of 43% or lower.

  40. 40.

    See Section 2.1.2 for details and Fig. 1 for the ranking of countries.

  41. 41.

    The GSS includes a series of questions that identify the respondent’s vocabulary ability.

  42. 42.

    See Borjas (1995), Table 2. We use the measure based on the percentage of first and second generation immigrants in the neighborhood of the same ethnicity as a first-generation immigrant. Similar results are obtained using figures for the second generation.

  43. 43.

    The results that follow are not sensitive to the choice of the controls.


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We would like to thank four anonymous referees, Alberto Alesina, Alberto Bisin, Oded Galor, Rossella Greco, Luigi Guiso, Claudia Olivetti, John Seater, Andrei Shleifer, Guido Tabellini and participants to the BC Macro Lunch and the NBER Political Economy Program Spring 2014 Meeting, in particular Paola Giuliano, for very useful comments and suggestions. We also thank Julia Schiantarelli for providing inspiration for this paper through her Junior Thesis at Newton North High School, Marco Enrico, and Hayley Huffman. Finally, we gratefully acknowledge the support of the Italian Ministry for Universities, PRIN grant 2010T8XAXB_008.

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Giavazzi, F., Petkov, I. & Schiantarelli, F. Culture: persistence and evolution. J Econ Growth 24, 117–154 (2019).

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  • Culture
  • Values
  • Beliefs
  • Transmission
  • Persistence
  • Evolution
  • Immigration
  • Integration

JEL Classification

  • A13
  • F22
  • J00
  • J61
  • Z1