Mumbai: A recent research paper published in the prestigious Science journal seems to have created a stir by suggesting that people from rice-growing regions tend to be more inter-dependent and less individualistic compared to others.

The study, co-authored by social psychologist T. Talhelm of the University of Virginia, with colleagues from the University of Michigan, the Beijing Normal University, and the South China Normal University, found that ‘rice-growing southern China is more interdependent and holistic-thinking than the wheat-growing north’ ( A history of cultivating rice, which requires farmers to pool resources and co-operate with each other to improvise irrigation channels, makes people from the rice-growing regions less individualistic and self-centred, the researchers contend. People from wheat-growing regions are less culturally attuned to co-operate with others and hence tend to be more individualistic.

The researchers used psychological tests to measure attributes such as individualism and loyalty to friends. For instance, one test of individualism involved asking the people sampled to draw a diagram of their social networks, including them and their friends represented by circles. A prior study found that Americans draw themselves about 6mm bigger than they draw others, Europeans draw themselves 3.5mm bigger, and Japanese draw themselves slightly smaller. In this study, people from rice-growing regions drew themselves smaller than those from wheat-growing regions. Talhelm and his co-researchers also examined divorce rates to find that rice-growing regions have significantly lower divorce rates compared with their wheat-growing counterparts, even after controlling for other variables such as the level of affluence.

“China’s rice regions have several markers of East Asian culture: more holistic thought, more interdependent selfconstruals, and lower divorce rates," the researchers conclude. “The wheat-growing north looked more culturally similar to the West (western countries), with more analytic thought, individualism, and divorce."

In a similar (unpublished) study conducted in India, Talhelm found even sharper differences between India’s rice-growing south and wheat-growing north than in China, Mint columnist Samar Halarnkar wrote recently, based on an email interaction with Talhelm. “People in the wheat parts of India were more likely to think analytically and punish their friends for bad behaviour," Talhelm wrote. “People in the rice parts of India were more likely to think holistically and not punish their friends for bad behaviour."

Talhelm is not the first researcher to link deep-rooted socio-cultural traits with historical cropping patterns and cultivation techniques. A long and illustrious line of social scientists has stressed the importance of rice cultivation in particular, and cultivation practices in general, in shaping social outcomes.

In a 1974 Economic and Political Weekly article, Pranab Bardhan, the California University emeritus professor of economics, first pointed to the possible role of rice cultivation in producing more gender-equal outcomes in the eastern and southern parts of the country compared with the wheat-growing parts -of north-west India. Bardhan argued that the greater skew in sex ratio and lower chances of female survival in the north and west of India were perhaps because women were less valued economically in these parts of the country.

“In all the states of East and South India (except Karnataka) the predominant crop is paddy which—unlike wheat and other dry-region crops—tends to be relatively intensive in female labour. Transplantation of paddy is an exclusively female job in the paddy areas; besides, female labour plays a very important role in weeding, harvesting and threshing of paddy," wrote Bardhan. “By contrast, in dry cultivation and even in wheat cultivation, under irrigation, the work involves more muscle power and less of tedious, often back-breaking, but delicate, operations (of which transplantation is an example). Could it be that, in areas with paddy agriculture, the economic value of a woman is more than in other areas—so that the female child is regarded less of a liability than in, say, North and North-West India?"

At that time Bardhan had posited his hypothesis as a ‘wild guess’ but later researchers found merit in his insights. Their research showed that higher female participation in the agrarian economy of East and South India was a key reason for the better status of women in these societies. In an important 1993 research paper published in the American Sociological Review, sociologist Sunita Kishor showed that rice cultivation was a strong predictor of the sex ratio across Indian districts, and that its positive impact on female survival rates was independent of the contemporary female labour force participation rates across the districts. The explanation for this, which other researchers have written about, is perhaps that contemporary values about women in a society are not shaped by how much they work or earn today but by cultural norms shaped over a long stretch of time in that society. As Talhelm notes in his research paper, people from rice-growing regions exhibit traits of a ‘rice culture’ even when they are not rice cultivators any more.

As I had shown in an earlier piece using maps from census 2011, the difference in sex ratios between the North and West on the one hand and the South and the East on the other is quite stark even today. The differences in the child sex ratio between these two halves of the country are even more dramatically different.

A few years before Bardhan’s paper, it was the pioneering feminist economist Ester Boserup who provided substantive links between agricultural production norms and gender inequality. In her seminal 1970 work on women’s role in economic development, Boserup argued that gender inequality differed widely within the developing world because of historical differences in agricultural practices. Where women had greater role in farming activities, such as in Africa, they also enjoyed greater freedom and better life prospects. Boserup observed that societies which practised shifting cultivation and eschewed the use of the plough in the past had fairer gender outcomes. Other researchers have corroborated Boserup’s thesis in a wide variety of settings since then.

Research by the Harvard University economist Alberto Alesina using long time-series data and ethnographic evidence shows that traditional agricultural practices influenced the evolution and persistence of gender norms across societies.

“We find that, consistent with existing hypotheses, the descendants of societies that traditionally practised plough agriculture, today have lower rates of female participation in the workplace, in politics, and in entrepreneurial activities, as well as a greater prevalence of attitudes favouring gender inequality," wrote Alesina in a 2011 research paper co-authored with economists Nathan Nunn and Paola Giuliano.

To check whether differing agricultural practices influenced gender outcomes by directly shaping cultural attitudes about the role of women or whether they influenced the formation of institutions and market norms which may have been less conducive to the participation of women in those societies, Alesina and his colleagues investigated the trends in female labour participation rates across second-generation immigrants in the US. Even among this group of immigrants in the US who faced the same set of institutions today but whose ancestors practised agriculture differently, the labour-force participation rates for females are significantly lower for immigrant groups with a history of using the plough as against those who practised shifting hoe cultivation, the researchers found.

Perhaps gender inequality is a difficult nut to crack precisely because its roots lie so deep in our agrarian past.

Talhelm’s research does not focus specifically on gender but on wider societal norms. Nonetheless, the linkages he identifies are similar to what social scientists engaged in gender research have identified. Agricultural practices in the distant past seem to have a profound impact on contemporary differences in cultural norms and gender attitudes.

It is likely that the last word on this subject has not been said yet, but Talhelm’s fascinating work will perhaps drive greater research into how exactly past-production technologies affect contemporary social outcomes.

At the very least, Talhelm’s provocative findings will provide you some food for thought the next time you are savouring that plate of fried rice!

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