Growing collectivism: irrigation, group conformity and technological divergence


This paper examines whether collaboration within groups in pre-industrial agriculture favored the emergence of collectivist rather than individualist cultures. I document that societies whose ancestors jointly practiced irrigation agriculture historically have stronger collectivist norms today. This finding holds across countries, sub-national districts within countries, and migrants, and is robust to instrumenting the historical adoption of irrigation by its geographic suitability. In addition, I find evidence for a culturally-embodied effect of irrigation agriculture on economic behavior. Descendants of irrigation societies innovate less today, and are more likely to work in routine-intensive occupations, even when they live outside their ancestral homelands. Together, my results suggest that historical differences in the need to act collectively have contributed to the global divergence of culture and technology.

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  1. 1.

    A priori, the effect of collectivist values on long-run economic growth might be ambiguous. As Gorodnichenko and Roland (2011a, 2017) argue, while collectivist cultures emphasize conformity and are likely less innovative, their strong sense of collaboration and coordination can be advantageous for organizing production. This is in line with the recent rapid economic growth of several Asian countries, including China, that has been based on technological adoption and imitation, coupled with large savings, investments and a reorganization of production, see Liang (2010).

  2. 2.

    Already Marx, in his description of the “Asiatic Mode of Production”, stressed how irrigation agriculture affected the structure of a society, tying the individual to the community and restricting his autonomy (Lubasz 1984; Marx 1939). Marx noted that the irrigation communities of Asia operated under “the presupposition that the individual does not become independent vis-a-vis the community”, thereby stifling individualism and social change (Marx 1939).

  3. 3.

    Related, Olson (1965) argued that collective action is easier in small groups.

  4. 4.

    This study differs from Bentzen et al. (2017) in two important aspects. First, my main measure of irrigation builds on ethnographic data. Second, I compute irrigation suitability in the historical homelands of contemporary societies, rather than in the localities in which societies reside today. This allows the separation of a culturally-embodied effect of past irrigation from the effect of local irrigation suitability. In a horse race, I find that the ancestry-based measure of irrigation suitability predicts autocratic institutions more strongly than local suitability. This is consistent with the view that collectivism and autocratic institutions are complements (Gorodnichenko and Roland 2015).

  5. 5.

    This analysis follows the epidemiological approach of Fernández (2008), Fernandez and Fogli (2009).

  6. 6.

    A large literature outside of economics documents the negative effects of collectivist norms on creativity and idea creation (e.g., Nemeth and Staw 1989; Dollinger et al. 2007; Kasof et al. 2007; Leung and Wang 2015).

  7. 7.

    See for example Ashraf and Galor (2013), Comin et al. (2010), Guiso et al. (2008), Michalopoulos and Papaioannou (2013), Nunn and Wantchekon (2011), Putterman (2008), Putterman and Weil (2010), Spolaore and Wacziarg (2009). For overviews of these literatures see Nunn (2012) and Spolaore and Wacziarg (2013).

  8. 8.

    Theoretical and empirical contributions on the persistence of cultural traits include Bisin and Verdier (2001), Dohmen et al. (2012), Voigtländer and Voth (2012).

  9. 9.

    The findings of this paper also speak to previous theoretical and empirical work on cooperation in the management of common pool resources, in particular irrigation networks, such as Ostrom (1990), Weissing and Ostrom (1991), Bardhan (2000).

  10. 10.

    Related to collectivism, the origins and consequences of variation in the strength of family and kinship ties have been explored by Banfield (1958), Alesina et al. (2013a, 2015), Enke (2019), Greif and Tabellini (2017), de la Croix et al. (2018), Schulz (2016).

  11. 11.

    Scholarly interest in analyzing the extent to which individuals are independent from or embedded in various groups goes back at least to the classical works of Durkheim (2014), Weber (1958), and Tönnies (2012).

  12. 12.

    In a similar vein, Schwartz (1994) refers to individualism-collectivism as autonomy versus embededdness, where the former pronounces independence and the latter conformity.

  13. 13.

    More generally, cultural norms can be defined as “rules of thumb” that guide behavior in uncertain situations. Boyd and Richerson (1988, 2004) model the emergence of culture as an evolutionary process that selects those behavioral norms that maximize the chances of survival in a given environment. Over time, these behavioral norms become more widespread and establish themselves as culture.

  14. 14.

    See for example Triandis (1994) and Varnum et al. (2010), the latter discuss the literature that associate non-sedentary herding and hunting societies with higher independence compared to fishers and farmers. Rodin et al. (2013) describe fishing, hunting, and gathering societies as more individualistic, while Pelto (1968) argues that these societies are also more tolerant of norm deviations.

  15. 15.

    For example, a typical coordination problem concerns the optimal control of pests across connected fields (Janssen 2007). Pests are most efficiently kept under control if all farmers harvest simultaneously. However, a joint harvest implies a common planting date, in turn increasing the risk of water shortages. To balance the risk of pests and water shortages, coordination on an exact planning of the planting and harvest date is necessary.

  16. 16.

    Many anthropologists argue that often the despotic state preceded the construction of irrigation facilities rather than following from them (Adams 1960; Lanning 1967). However, evidence in support of Wittfogel’s hypothesis is provided by Bentzen et al. (2017), who document a positive association between irrigation suitability and the degree of contemporary autocracy across countries.

  17. 17.

    Perhaps the most sophisticated and well-studied stateless irrigation system is the Subak system in Bali (Lansing 2009). Dating back more than a thousand years, it is composed of about 1300 farming communities (Subaks). Each community manages the water supply to a block of rice fields using a complex planting schedule and a network of water temples for coordination across Subaks.

  18. 18.

    Why does this study focus on the impact of historical rather than contemporary irrigation? Besides the fact that cultural evolution is a slow process, the nature and extent of cooperation required in irrigation agriculture has changed dramatically due to modern technologies, such as more efficient water allocation systems, the transfer of management and control of water from the village to central governments, and the increased use of hired labor from outside the village (Barker et al. 2014; Barker and Molle 2004). Barker and Molle (2004), for example, discuss the impact of government interventions in contemporary Asia: “Governments had tried to build irrigation from top down. The norms of cooperative behavior, community organization, and sense of community ownership that accompanied the successful long-enduring communal irrigation systems described earlier had no chance to evolve.”

  19. 19.

    Already Hume (1985) linked social conformity to the stagnation of Chinese scientific progress: “None had courage to resist the torrent of popular opinion. And posterity was not bold enough to dispute what had been universally received by their ancestors. This seems to be one natural reason why the sciences have made so slow a progress in that mighty empire.”

  20. 20.

    While I focus empirically on knowledge creation, a second important channel is the diffusion of knowledge. Relative to group based societies, in which knowledge is transmitted only across group members, interactions between independent individuals allow for a wider diffusion of knowledge (see e.g., de la Croix et al. 2018).

  21. 21.

    See Gorodnichenko and Roland (2017) for a formalization of this idea. In their model collectivist societies have a coordination advantage that results in a higher (initial) level of development. Individualist societies create more innovations which increases their growth rate, allowing them to overtake in the long-run. A related argument has been made by Ashraf and Galor (2011a). They document a trade off between cultural assimilation and diffusion, where the former increased efficiency in agricultural economies, but the latter eased technological adoption when technological change was rapid.

  22. 22.

    See Sect. 3 of the Online Appendix for additional details on the mapping between ethnic groups and modern populations. Figure A1 contains a visualization of the four different maps used and the areas that they cover. Figure A2 illustrates the matched ethnic groups exemplary for Mexico. The basic matching procedure follows Fenske (2013) with corrections and adjustments.

  23. 23.

    An important implicit assumption of this procedure is that individuals that reside within the boundaries of an ethnic group, as drawn by the maps of ethnicities today, are of this ethnicity.

  24. 24.

    The results are very similar if the non-agricultural societies are dropped from the analysis, since these societies only make up about 6% of all ethnic groups in my sample, and only 2% of contemporary societies descend from a non-agricultural group. In the main analysis and robustness work, I show that the findings are unchanged when controlling for the historical dependence of groups on agriculture, and when taking into account their reliance on other subsistence modes, such as fishing, hunting, and gathering.

  25. 25.

    Cross-validating my measure of ancestral irrigation with the one based on the methodology by Alesina et al. (2013b) shows a very strong correlations (\(\rho = .97\)). See Fig. A14.

  26. 26.

    A number of caveats with the measure of ancestral irrigation use are aggravated on the district level. First, the methodology assigns ethnicity by the location of residence of individuals within ethnic boundaries. However, even if one assumes that spatial boundaries of ethnic groups are drawn accurately, it does not account for adjustments in spatial boundaries of ethnic groups resulting for example from migration. Second, for several regions information on ethnic groups is only available for a small fraction of the population. Since uncovered areas are coded as missing, the method produces measurement error which can be severe for sub-national regions for which only few data points are available. Consequently, most of the variation in the ancestral measure is at the macro level. A similar issue has been discussed in Alesina et al. (2013b) in the case of ancestral plow use.

  27. 27.

    All variables are from the taken from the Ethnographic Atlas. Political institutions are measured by the number of jurisdictional hierarchies beyond the local community following Gennaioli and Rainer (2007) and Michalopoulos and Papaioannou (2013), and others. Settlement patterns, a proxy for historical socio-economic development, are coded on a scale from 1 to 8 and range from nomadic or fully migratory to complex settlements. The mean size of local communities, a proxy for the degree of historical urbanization, measures whether societies were organized in cities or rural communities. The variable is coded into eight classes, ranging from populations of fewer than 50, to cities of more than 50,000.

  28. 28.

    The FAO assessment of irrigation suitability does not quantify the availability of water that can be used for irrigation, but assumes that “water resources of good quality are available, and that irrigation infrastructure is in place” (Fischer et al. 2002).

  29. 29.

    See Fig. A5 for a spatial illustration of irrigation impact classes.

  30. 30.

    The construction of irrigation suitability follows Bentzen et al. (2017), who were the first to use the FAO data on irrigation suitability. However, rather than using only impact class 5, I find that combining classes 4 and 5 predicts ancestral irrigation—as constructed from the Ethnographic Atlas—better. In addition, I use an ancestry-adjusted measure of irrigation suitability rather than the unadjusted (local) country average. Parts of the empirical analysis compare the effects of the ancestry-based to the local measure of irrigation suitability.

  31. 31.

    Hofstede’s measure has been widely used in both the economic literature (Gorodnichenko and Roland 2011b, 20122017) and in cross-cultural research (e.g., Chiao and Blizinsky 2010; Fincher et al. 2008). It measures the degree of group integration. Hofstede originally created several indicators of national cultures from surveying IBM employees between 1967 and 1973. Later the data was enlarged using survey responses of a range of professionals from pilots to students.

  32. 32.

    The prevalence of malaria has been linked to the emergence of irrigation and damn constructions (Keiser et al. 2005).

  33. 33.

    Table B8 replicates Table 1 reporting the coefficients of all controls.

  34. 34.

    See also Nisbett (2010) for a description of topic- (subject) prominence in collectivist (individualist) societies.

  35. 35.

    For illustration, consider Australia as an example—one of the most individualist countries. Since Australia is mostly populated by descendants from Britain that traditionally used rain-fed agriculture, the ancestral irrigation suitability variable for Australia is zero, while the local suitability for irrigation in Australia is very high (about 67 % of the soil).

  36. 36.

    Moreover, Table B7 shows the first-stage relationship across ethnic groups of the Ethnographic Atlas. Consistent with the cross-country results, I find that ethnic groups in environments with a higher suitability for irrigation are significantly more likely to have adopted irrigation.

  37. 37.

    Table B22 documents robustness of the 2SLS results to alternative definitions of the instrument. Using an instrument that puts even more weight on extremely suitable areas (impact class 5) increases the 2SLS coefficient further, while using an instrument that uses the average over all classes reduces the 2SLS coefficient.

  38. 38.

    However, the specifications with country fixed effects cannot rule out that time-varying differences in national institutions and differences in local institutions are associated with past irrigation use and collectivism.

  39. 39.

    The WVS/EVS is a collection of representative national surveys conducted in almost 100 countries on all continents of the world. The first survey was conducted in 1981 and the data has been extended to a total of six waves until 2014 (WVS), and four waves until 2008 (EVS). WVS/EVS districts vary in size, but most of them could be matched to the first administrative division of each country, as shown in Fig. A6.

  40. 40.

    Triandis (2001, p. 912), for example, notes: “In collectivist cultures, child rearing emphasizes conformity, obedience, security, and reliability; in individualist cultures, child rearing emphasizes independence, exploration, creativity, and self-reliance.”

  41. 41.

    The differentiation between obedience and cooperation dovetails with vertical and horizontal collectivism (Triandis and Gelfand 2012). Cooperation is crucial in farmer-managed irrigation for collective action, including the maintenance of the irrigation network and the punishment of deviators. In particular, farmers need to trust others to stick to the rotation schedule and not to free-ride. Surveys of farmer in the communally managed Balinese Subaks document that more than two-thirds have high trust in others (Sedana et al. 2014) .

  42. 42.

    It is important to note that irrigation societies display on average lower levels of trust compared to other forms of subsistence. Table B28 establishes a negative relationship between past irrigation and generalized trust. It also reveals that irrigation societies have higher levels of in-group trust.

  43. 43.

    Similar results are found when looking at the interaction between irrigation suitability and measures of state centralization, as well as the average size of local communities, as reported in Table B32. The table reports that irrigation suitable environments with centralized political organization favored the acceptance of authority, as measured by a preference for obedience, and by preferences for strong leaders in the political sphere. Moreover, Table B33 investigates differential effects by the size of rivers. It documents that irrigation suitable environments with large rivers favored vertical collectivism, but not so environments with small rivers.

  44. 44.

    Since migrants are not a random subset of a home country’s population, selection could bias coefficients away from zero if more individualistic people were more likely to migrate from individualist home countries, and more collectivist people from more collectivist home countries. As Knudsen (2017) shows using data from Scandinavian countries during the Great Migration, more individualistic persons are more likely to migrate. If this is true for all home countries along the distribution of individualism-collectivism, then selection should not bias the estimated coefficients away from zero. In fact, it is very likely that people migrating from collectivist countries are among the most individualist and non-conformist people that break with established conformist rules by leaving the group.

  45. 45.

    Results are robust to using only the father’s or mother’s country of origin, as reported in the Appendix.

  46. 46.

    The conditional OLS relationship between collectivism and ancestral irrigation is illustrated in Fig. A10.

  47. 47.

    The sample size is reduced for regressions with sub-national districts because only waves 5 and 6 of the ESS have a consistent classification of sub-national regions.

  48. 48.

    The increase in the effect between first and second generation migrants is most likely due to the smaller size of the sample of second-generation migrants. Similarly, when adding sub-national fixed effects the sample sizes decrease, while the estimated coefficients of ancestral irrigation increase.

  49. 49.

    Additionally, Table B35 documents robustness of the 2SLS results to controlling for home country characteristics, in particular income, institutions, and ethnic fractionalization. Table B36 shows that the results are robust to defining ancestry of migrants by either their father’s or mother’s country of birth.

  50. 50.

    See Tables B37–B40 that explore further the role of economic shocks, institutions, education, and openness to trade and immigration in the persistence of collectivism.

  51. 51.

    Figure A11 displays the cross-country relationship between ancestral irrigation and innovation conditional on geographic and ethnographic controls, as well as region fixed effects.

  52. 52.

    As above, the larger magnitude of the IV coefficient can be explained by the fact that the IV represents a local average treatment effect for sub-populations that adopted irrigation because of the large geographic benefits. The IV results are robust to alternative definitions of the instrument, see Table B44. The IV coefficient increases when defining the IV only for highly suitable environments.

  53. 53.

    Tables B42–B45 document robustness of the cross-country results to additional country controls.

  54. 54.

    There are obvious caveats with using scientific productivity as measure of innovation that are pronounced at the sub-national level. While the within-country analysis mitigates concerns that differences in publishing are driven by English language capacity, in the age of mobile researchers, scientific communities today are very international and made up of people with very different background. However, I view the measure of scientific productivity is as a proxy for the existence of a local research and innovation culture, such as in the Silicon Valley, that was started by the native population, but later also attracts outsiders with the same mindset and skills.

  55. 55.

    The effects are robust to controlling for the importance of agriculture around a city, measured by the share of land around a city that is cropland, see Table B56. Table B57 investigates the effect of irrigation on city-level night-time luminosity.

  56. 56.

    Since the main independent variables are adjusted for ancestry, I also use the ancestry adjusted measures of technological sophistication from Comin et al. (2010) that take into account post 1500 population flows. This fixes the population composition of countries to its contemporary composition.

  57. 57.

    Importantly, measures of past technology computed by Comin et al. (2010) do not include the adoption of irrigation, but whether agriculture existed, how important it was, and whether the plow was used.

  58. 58.

    Going beyond the pre/post 1500 comparison, Table B50 reports coefficients from flexible estimates that interact ancestral irrigation with each time period. The results document that the decrease of technology in irrigation societies started around the year 1500. The coefficients from the flexible estimations are illustrated in Fig. A13. A number of robustness checks validate further the observed reversal of technology in irrigation societies. Table B49 document robustness to restricting the sample to the old world, to countries outside Europe, and to controlling for interactions of continental dummies with the pre-and post 1500 periods. Tables B51 and B52 show results from DiD and flexible estimates using the technology index that is unadjusted for migration, while Tables B53 and B54 estimates computed excluding historical military technology that is not part of the current technology index. Table B55 addresses concerns about the data quality in very early periods, and restricts the panel to the periods 1500 and 2000.

  59. 59.

    The survey evaluates economic outcomes of college graduates, particular those in science and engineering. It has been used in previously in the migration-innovation literature by Hunt and Gauthier-Loiselle (2010).

  60. 60.

    The regression model is similar to the migrant analysis using ESS data in Eq. (3). Macro-regions are the smallest administrative level on which respondents are observed.

  61. 61.

    In addition, Table B59 shows that OLS results are robust to controlling for home country controls such as per capita incomes and political institutions, Table B60 explores robustness to including continent fixed effects, and Table B61 to controlling for additional respondent characteristics. Interestingly, Table B62 document that the negative effects irrigation on innovativeness and preferences for independence are mitigated in migrants that completed parts of their education in the US. While this result does not allow a causal interpretation, it suggests that education could play an important role in overcoming deep-rooted beliefs and calls for further investigation.


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Correspondence to Johannes C. Buggle.

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This Project has benefited from conversations with Philippe Aghion, Yann Algan, Quamrul Ashraf, Sascha Becker, Taha Choukhmane, Mathieu Couttenier, Ruben Durante, Elena Esposito, James Fenske, Vicky Fouka, Oded Galor, Matthias Krapf, Steven Nafziger, Nathan Nunn, Stelios Michalopoulos, Louis Putterman, Alessandro Saia, Seyhun Orcan Sakalli, Jonathan Schulz, Mathias Thoenig, Stephanos Vlachos, Hans-Joachim Voth, David Weil, and participants at ASREC Boston (2017) and Copenhagen (2016), University of Basel, University of Bonn, Brown University, Copenhagen Business School, EHA Boulder, HEC Lausanne Macro Lunch and Behavioral Economics Seminar, LMU Munich, SITE, the SSES Annual Congress 2017, and Williams College. I am grateful to James Fenske, Matthias Meyer-Schwarzenberger, and Jonathan Schulz for sharing data. Financial support from the ERC Starting Grant GRIEVANCES-313327 is acknowledged. All remaining errors are my own.

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Buggle, J.C. Growing collectivism: irrigation, group conformity and technological divergence. J Econ Growth 25, 147–193 (2020).

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  • Agriculture
  • Culture
  • Collectivism
  • Persistence
  • Innovation
  • Job tasks

JEL Classification

  • N00
  • N50
  • O10
  • O30
  • Z10