Measuring culture

Culture is something like the “final frontier” for the most empirically-minded social scientists.  International migration provides interesting evidence and proxies for beliefs, social capital, and similarly “unobservable” factors.  When you (or your parents) migrate, you bring along your human capital, but most social capital stays behind in your home country… unless you settle in an ethnic neighborhood. 

“Culture: An Empirical Investigation of Beliefs, Work and Fertility”
RAQUEL FERNANDEZ, New York University
ALESSANDRA FOGLI, New York University
Date: May 2005

We study the effect of culture on important economic outcomes by using the 1970 Census to examine the work and fertility behavior of women 30-40 years old, born in the US, but whose parents were born elsewhere. We use past female labor force participation and total fertility rates from the country of ancestry as our cultural proxies. These variables should capture, in addition to past economic and institutional conditions, the beliefs commonly held about the role of women in society, i.e., culture.

Given the different time and place, only the beliefs embodied in the cultural proxies should be potentially relevant to women’s behavior in the US in 1970. We show that these cultural proxies have positive and significant explanatory power for individual work and fertility outcomes, even after controlling for possible indirect effects of culture (e.g., education and spousal characteristics). We examine alternative hypotheses for these positive correlations and show that neither unobserved human capital nor networks are likely to be responsible. We also show that the effect of these cultural proxies is amplified the greater is the tendency for ethnic groups to cluster in the same neighborhoods.