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Local Cultures

The cliché is that modern commerce, media, and travel have washed out local cultures. A mall anchored by a Bloomingdale’s in Massachusetts is just like one in Arizona. Starbucks here is like Starbucks there. Everyone coast to coast listens to the same songs and watches the same cable and streaming channels. Except for the weather, the American experience is just about the same.

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Curry, Baptism in Kansas, 1928

And yet: We repeatedly run into evidence that at some level, perhaps a quite deep level, America’s local cultures are persistently different, perhaps increasingly different. One example is politics. There is some evidence that Americans increasingly cluster by political leanings–gerrymandering aside–as they look to be among folks who share their tastes. Another example is how interracial and same-sex couples prefer to live in large center-cities. Localities thus become more culturally distinct because “birds of a feather” more easily flock together, sorting themselves into homogeneous enclaves. Beyond that process, however, there is evidence that localities themselves still–even in this globalized era–shape cultural tastes, actually “coloring” the birds’ “feathers.”

Two recent papers from different corners of the social sciences make bold claims about very long-lasting psychological effects of centuries-old local cultures. One study, published in a psychology journal, finds that residents of what were long ago coal-fueled industrial regions of Great Britain have especially “adverse” psychological profiles today because of that history. The second study, this by economists, finds that residents of what were long ago frontier counties of the United States are especially likely today to be “individualistic” and hostile to government because of that history.

Claiming that historical cultures reproduce themselves for generations is not new. Historian David Hackett Fischer (no relation), for example, argued in great detail in his 1989 book, Albion’s Seed, that regions in the U.S. vary culturally today in ways based on who settled them centuries ago. That the Puritans landed in New England and the Quakers in Pennsylvania still matters. Similarly, psychologists Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen argued in their 1996 book, Culture of Honor, that variations in local rates of lethal violence can be explained by where groups from particular places in the British Isles came ashore–specifically, that immigrants from highlands herding regions brought with them a predilection to respond heatedly to personal challenges which lasts to this day. Long stretches of generations begetting generations and yet cultural distinctiveness lasts.

The two new studies expand the claim.

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