Around 1960, African and Asian countries did not differ much in their level of development. The main gap – in terms of income, education and health – was running between the so-called „North“ and „South“. Half a century later, with the appearance of an international middle class, the dividing lines tend to run through the former South. At the same time, the divisions get more relevant and more regional.

What factors may explain this multi-speed development?

An anthropological view at the African and Asian countries direct to the concept of „long durée“, i.e. historical continuities where „old attitudes of thought and action, at times against all logic“ (Braudel), are shaping history.

Such factors are not inalterable, but they are still influential. Since the global competitive system of capitalism gives a premium to such contradictory attitudes as disciplined action and individual self-fulfilment, many people with a cultural heritage of low structural complexity and high social embeddedness cannot but perceive „national development“ as an alien project still.

The idea that the cultural heritage might be relevant for development may not sound very original. Yet submitting it to empirical testing is a difficult task. It requires answers to the following three questions:

  1. Description: How did precolonial social systems look like?
  2. Methodology: How to quantify and aggregate local structures on the national level?
  3. Theory: How strong is the explanatory power of the cultural heritage when integrated into econometric models?

In this website, all three questions will find an answer. The data are those of the Atlas of pre-colonial Societies (Atlas Vorkolonialer Gesellschaften), quoted as the ATLAS) and are based on many sources. The most important ones are the following:

Ethnographic Atlas (G.P. Murdock)
Human Relations Area Files (New Haven)
Atlas Narodow Mira (Moskau 1964) and (GIS (Geographic Information Systems) version of the atlas)
Atlas Languages of the World (Dallas 1988)
Country Study-Area Handbook-series (Washington).

ATLAS Summary (PDF, 100 KB)

So far, the results of social-anthropological research hardly gained access to quantitative studies about developing countries. One reason is that up to now it was not possible to link studies on ethnic societies with indicators of national development.

However, the Atlas of Precolonial Societies is permitting exactly this:

  1. Cultural traits of former ethnic societies are systematically organized by modern nation states.
  2. Ethnological codes and culture types are ranked and aggregated to national level. The resulting quantitative variables constitute indicators of the cultural heritage of nations.
  3. The new variables can easily get integrated in econometric studies. In this way, for the first time, social science will be able to empirically measure the weight of the past.

In addition, the anthropological data of a large number of local society in Africa and Asia throw new light to structural regularities in traditional societies in the process of cultural evolution.