The Imperative of Understanding the Role of Institutions, Culture, and History in Economics

I recently read an article by Dr. Avner Greif of Stanford University titled, “Cultural Beliefs and the Organization of Society: A Historical and Theoretical Reflection on Collectivist and individualist Societies.” While it is a somewhat dated article being published in 1994 (see citation below), Dr. Greif’s conclusion struck me as being very important and still applicable to understanding economic development and economics in general today. I think his concluding remarks are also important to take into consideration when one is attempting to apply economics in the making of public policy or just trying to understand a certain issue or event.

Here are the highlights I took from Dr. Greif’s conclusion.

…This paper points to factors that make trajectories of societal organization – and hence economic growth – path dependent. Given the technologically determined rules of the game, institutions – the nontechnological constraints on human interactions – are composed of two interrelated elements: cultural beliefs (how individuals expect others to act in various contingencies) and organizations (the endogenous human constructs that alter the rules of the game…). Thus the capacity of societal organizations to change is a function of its history, since institutions are combined of organizations and cultural beliefs, cultural beliefs are uncoordinated expectations, organizations reinforce the cultural beliefs that led to their adoption, and past organizations and cultural beliefs influence historically subsequent games, organizations, and equilibria.

Understanding the sources of institutional path dependence indicates the factors that forestall successful intersociety adoption of institutions for which there are many historical and contemporary examples…The view of institutions developed in this paper indicates why it is misleading to expect that a beneficial organization of one society will yield the same results in another. The effect of organizations is a function of their impact on the rules of the game and the cultural beliefs of the society within which this game is embedded. Analyzing economic and political institutions and the impact of organizational modifications requires the examination of the historical development and implications of the related cultural beliefs.

Past, present, and future economic growth is not a mere function of endowment, technology, and preferences. It is a complex process in which the organization of society plays a significant role. The organization of society itself, however, reflects historical, cultural, social, political, and economic processes. Comparative historical analysis is likely to enhance our comprehension of the evolution of diverse societal organization, since this process is historical in nature. Furthermore, such an analysis provides the historical perspective and diversity required to examine institutional evolution and the interrelations between culture, the organization of society, and economic growth (Greif 1994, 943-944).

What this means to me is that if we are truly going to understand economics, the process of economic development, and the functioning of economies, we have to also understand the related historical, political, social, cultural, and institutional elements. We can’t only rely on mainstream economic theory. The culture and institutions that are embedded within an economic system are vitally important to fully understanding how that economy functions at a macro level, as well as gaining a full understanding of the economic behavior at the micro level.

Furthermore, since history (along with culture) plays a key role in determining the path dependence of the economy’s institutions, it is imperative to understand the historical context of an economy in order to be able to appropriately apply economic theory to the development and implementation of effective policy. Institutions, culture, and history matter, but yet, we ignore them, for the most part, in mainstream economics…much to the detriment of society.


Greif, A. (1994). Cultural beliefs and the organization of society: A historical and theoretical reflection on collectivist and individualist societies. Journal of Political Economy, 102, 5, 912-950.




Network Technologies Drive the Economy

I am reading the book, The Microeconomics of Complex Economies: Evolutionary, Institutional, Neoclassical, and Complexity Perspectives by Wolfram Elsner, Torsten Heinrich, and Henning Schwardt, and I came across this statement:

“Network technologies with their network externalities in use have thus come to govern largely the dynamics of the economy, and an efficient individualistic (i.e., autonomous) maximization is becoming a near-to-irrelevant exemption, as it would fail to take the decisions of others and the external effects of one’s own and the others’ choices into account (see, e.g., Hutter, 2001; Nagler, 2008).”

I think they are exactly right, and while the book focuses on macroeconomics, network externalities are very important (maybe more important) in understanding the functioning of macroeconomics at any level. In actuality, the distinction between the relevance in microeconomics vs. macroeconomics may be a false dichotomy, but either way, it is imperative that network effects become more of the mainstream in both broad branches of economics.

By the way, while I am only on chapter 4 of the book, I have found it to be excellent. It is very well written and thought-provoking. If you have any interest in these topics, I highly recommend you give it a read.