Your Brain on Politics

Politics, not as we know it

Can Geography Fuel Ideology?

One domain where nurture clearly trumps nature

This is a guest post by Jon Winsor

In his book, Chris discusses a series of studies of identical and fraternal twins--research suggesting that "40 percent or more of the variability in our political outlooks is ultimately attributable to genetic influences." That's a big number. But it still leaves 60 percent un-accounted for, meaning that there must be many additional factors that shape our ideologies. That includes one very little discussed one: geographic region. Where we're born greatly contributes to the culture we grow up experiencing--in a way that goes far beyond which bumper stickers and lawn signs we see when driving around our neighborhoods.

At the outset, let me say that my thinking about this topic was triggered by Chris's recent Point of Inquiry interview (about 26 minutes in) with psychologist Arie Kruglanski, who pioneered research on the "need for closure." In the middle of the interview, Kruglanski discussed how different cultures have different needs for firm structures and strong social norms--a clearly "environmental" influence on our ideological outlooks.

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This dovetails with my own recent reading on US regional cultures, particularly the work of historian Colin Woodard. Building on the work of academics such as Wilbur Zelinsky (The Cultural Geography of the United States) and David Hackett Fischer (Albion's Seed), and political authors like Michael Lind (Made in Texas) and Kevin Phillips (The Emerging Republican Majority), Woodard's North American Nations argues that our current notions of political regions are unhelpful. Our real cultural boundaries, he argues, don't follow state lines or our vague notions of the south, midwest, northeast, etc. (Here's a recent interview with Woodard on PBS.)

Woodard cites Zelinsky's "Doctrine of First Effective Settlement" as a key source for his work. Zelinsky's doctrine states that "Whenever an empty territory undergoes settlement, or an earlier population is dislodged by invaders, the specific characteristics of the first group able to effect a viable, self-perpetuating society are of crucial significance for the later social and cultural geography of the area, no matter how tiny the initial band of settlers may have been."  

Zelinsky's argument, therefore, is that early history inevitably shapes cultural geography. An example might be an area like New York. The Dutch population in today's New York is almost nil. But arguably the Dutch influence on greater New York City has been huge. For instance, New York is mercantilist, tolerant, and has free inquiry as a cultural hallmark, much like its Dutch founders. Upstate New York (north and west of the Hudson Valley) has a very different character--but this makes sense, given that it was settled by New Englanders. The fact that the two groups find themselves within the same political boundaries is in some sense arbitrary--although it's highly consequential to what happens in New York state politics

Now back to Kruglanski: one of Kruglanski's University of Maryland colleagues, cross cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand, argues that nations can develop "tight" cultures as a result of certain stresses and "loose" cultures without those stresses. Cultures, it would seem, adapt to their environments. Political, economic, and environmental stresses are crucial to the kinds of cultures that nations develop, even in cases in which those stresses happened centuries ago. Individuals in "tight" cultures are more self-monitoring and their cultures make them more accountable--including, in some cases, bestowing harsh punishments for violations of social norms. "Loose" cultures make less of these kinds of demands. Each of the two kinds of cultures has strengths and weaknesses. Tight cultures get more predictable behavior from their members and individuals tend to have similar life experiences, facilitating group cohesion. Loose cultures are more innovative and open to change, with members tending to have more diverse experiences. 

Gelfand's most recent study (PDF) states that her theory would expect to find a correlation between a culture's tightness or looseness, on the one hand, and its degree of "conservatism (i.e.,emphasis on maintaining status quo, group solidarity and traditions) and hierarchy (i.e., more accepting of unequal distribution of power and resources)." And interestingly for this blog, the study of tightness-looseness includes its subjects' "epistemic needs," which can take the form of a "need for structure": "Individuals who have a high need for structure prefer an ordered environment and rely on formalized social scripts in their interactions with others. Such tendencies are adaptive to strong situations with high censoring of behavior."  

Gelfand's method involves asking a set of questions about what is appropriate to do in day-to-day life, and avoids asking subjects self-assessing questions of "values" (you can view the list questions that are asked here). Incidentally, the applications of Gelfand's work are not just limited to nations; the research has implications for industry as well. Different companies can have tight or loose cultures, and may have trouble joining forces due to their differing levels of tightness-looseness. One company may misunderstand or distrust the practices of another, resulting in serious friction if one or both companies feels that their culture is threatened. This seems to be a micro example of what can happen at a macro level (when large groups such as nations misunderstand each other, leading to large scale conflict). 

Gelfands's current research (PDF) moves from studying tightness-looseness of nations and begins "zoom[ing] in within countries to see how we can use that theory to identify regions or groups that are particularly tight or loose," with the idea being that "while you can characterize societies as generally tight or loose... all societies probably have some domains and/or regions that are tighter or looser than others."

I'm wondering if this opens the possibility of combining a historical approach, like Zelinsky's and Woodard's, with a social science approach like that of Gelfand and Kruglanski. Gelfand and two other researchers (PDF) propose that the study of tightness-looseness could include "Qualitative research, which examines public symbols, including popular heroes, proverbs, literature, music, art, and fashion....For example, popular books, heroes, and proverbs are likely to reflect an emphasis on abiding by norms in tight societies versus tolerance for deviance in loose societies." I'd argue that Woodard, Zelinski and David Hackett Fischer's work is full of this kind of qualitative information, and perhaps does it one better by tracing these elements back to their historical origins.  

Now, there's lots of room for debate here--for instance, about where the boundaries between cultural regions are. And Woodard's cultural maps would seem fuzzy in some sense, more like topographical maps with peaks and valleys than political maps with clearly defined boundaries. Also, I have some arguments about whether our cultural differences are as significant as Woodard makes them out to be. Nonetheless, these are both really interesting lines of research, and it would be fascinating (and perhaps helpful, as far as our political divisions go) to see these lines of research converge and complement each other.

Because let's face it: Any such analysis is likely to find that the U.S. is comprised of very different cultural regions, in a way that compounds our political difficulties. Every time we look at a red and blue political map--and they're everywhere these days as the 2012 election nears--that's something to keep in mind.

Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist. He is the author of four books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science.

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