Putting The Culture In Agriculture

The Economist highlights research suggesting that agricultural techniques are the reason “psychological studies conducted over the past two decades suggest Westerners have a more individualistic, analytic and abstract mental life than do East Asians”:

The West’s staple is wheat; the East’s, rice … Before the mechanisation of agriculture a farmer who grew rice had to expend twice as many hours doing so as one who grew wheat. To deploy labour efficiently, especially at times of planting and harvesting, rice-growing societies as far apart as India, Malaysia and Japan all developed co-operative labour exchanges which let neighbours stagger their farms’ schedules in order to assist each other during these crucial periods. Since, until recently, almost everyone alive was a farmer, it is a reasonable hypothesis that such a collective outlook would dominate a society’s culture and behaviour, and might prove so deep-rooted that even now, when most people earn their living in other ways, it helps to define their lives.

A research team “gathered almost 1,200 volunteers from all over China and asked them questions to assess their individualism or collectivism”:

There was a striking correlation … with whether it was a rice-growing or a wheat-growing area. This difference was marked even between people from neighbouring counties with different agricultural traditions. His hypothesis that the different psychologies of East and West are, at least in part, a consequence of their agriculture thus looks worth further exploration.