Cultural Transmission and Social Norms Workshop

Dr David Hugh-Jones
University of East Anglia
Dr Fabian Winter
Max-Planck-Institut für Gemeinschaftsgüter


Several factors have made norms and culture practically important to Western societies: the failure of democratization in Iraq and the Middle East; Europe’s migrant crisis and issues of social integration; the loss of trust and social capital;  the emergence of populist politicians challenging what seemed to be consensus values; and domestic policy issues with a “behavioural” and normative dimension, such as obesity, savings, and environmental behaviour.

At the same time, social scientists have developed a renewed interest in social norms and their cultural transmission. Experimental economists and psychologists have studied norms using laboratory and field experiments; evolutionary theorists have developed theories of cultural transmission; within economics, culture has returned as an explanation for differences in economic performance. Cultural transmission also underlies the twin concepts of the “industrious revolution” – an early modern change in worker behaviour, leading to higher European productivity – and of “social discipline,” the post-Reformation process by which societies reshaped their members’ preferences and beliefs.

Building on the success of last year’s workshop (CTSN 1), CTSN 2 will bring together excellent researchers on these topics across disciplines, in order to cross-fertilize ideas and provide a forum for new work.

Our societies have a pressing need to develop an accurate understanding of their cultural heritage, with the perspectives of modern social science. The ultimate goal of this research is to provide that.

The Research Idea

Social norms are rules of behaviour which are enforced by social groups. Norms can work where laws and contracts may fail, in areas like the provision of high quality education or health; or in areas where state regulation would be oppressive, like personal morality. As they are enforced by society, norms have to be culturally transmitted within society, among peer groups, from influential role models (like Lady Gaga standing up for gay rights) or across the generations. Norms can also be bad: discriminatory, harmful, or too conservative.

We propose a cross-disciplinary workshop on cultural transmission and social norms, bringing together top scholars around the world from economics, psychology, history and sociology. These disciplines have all recently developed new perspectives, but are often unaware of each other’s work. We already have acceptances from some very high calibre researchers, including Felix Warneken recently of Harvard, and Pete Richerson, co-writer of the groundbreaking book Culture and the Evolutionary Process. Bringing these people together will help to cross-fertilize ideas and generate new collaborations.


Social scientists have recently brought new perspectives and tools to social norms. At micro level, experimental economists and psychologists have used laboratory experiments, and have taken normative behaviour into the field in scalable policy interventions.

At macro level, evolutionary theorists first formalized key cultural transmission processes, such as prestige- and majority-biased transmission. Simultaneously, historians proposed two early modern revolutions: an “industrious revolution”, a  change in European work and savings habits, leading to increased output; and a revolution in “social discipline” – changing people’s preferences by intense education and social control, linked to post-Reformation changes in religion. Lastly, new computational techniques and data sources give us the exciting possibility of the quantitative study of culture as text – sometimes called “culturomics”.

These people are talking about the same thing, but in very diverse disciplines. Last december, the first Cultural Transmission and Social Norms workshop (CTSN) was run, providing a venue for excellent scholars from these fields to present new work in an open and informal atmosphere. Funding came from David Hugh-Jones’ existing ESRC grant. We had 18 presentations from economics, history, psychology and sociology. Attendees were enthusiastic, rating the workshop 4.7 out of 5 in our survey. (Some comments: “high quality work and a small enough crowd of people that we could really dig into the meat of things”; “I would definitely come again!”; “One of the best workshops I’ve attended in recent years”; “terrific”; “Honestly, it was a great workshop.”)

The Focus

Culturally transmitted norms have recently become salient in public debate and policy-making, for several reasons. Worries about a clash of civilizations resurfaced in the context of the so-called War on Terror. The failure of institution-building in Iraq after the 2003-8 war, and of the Arab Spring since 2011, made people consider the informal institutions and cultural beliefs that complement formal institutions. Europe’s migrant crisis has led to discussions about the cultural integration of new arrivals. Concerns about the loss of trust and social capital in Western societies have come home to roost with the eruption of populism. Lastly, domestic policy issues, including obesity and public health, savings and insurance, and environmental behaviour, have a “behavioural” dimension, which is not adequately addressed by standard economic models, and where changing social norms may be important.

At the same time, the social scientific understanding of “Western culture” remains tentative. In the 1980s evolutionary theorists developed concepts of cultural transmission, but these ideas have rarely been applied to Western societies. Our ultimate goal is to help develop a historically and scientifically accurate understanding of our cultures. This is important to forestall nostalgic, naïve readings of national culture.

Individual presenters will also have their own practical agendas: for example, last year saw presentations by Nick Bardsley on “Food Norms in Schools”,  aimed at encouraging young people’s healthy eating, and by Erez Yoeli of Harvard on using observability to lower people’s energy use.

Theoretical Novelty

The innovation is the interdisciplinarity. Although there are conferences on these topics within each individual discipline, we know of no other venue which brings this range of disciplines together. We are particularly keen to bridge the divide between historians of social discipline and confessionalization, and social scientists studying norms, culture and cultural transmission. These disciplines are working in parallel on closely related topics, but with little communication between them. A rare counter-example is Mokyr (2016), which uses cultural evolutionary theory as a background for his study of the European roots of modern economic growth and the “great divergence”. We hope to make people aware of relevant work and encourage cross-fertilization.


Researchers at the workshop will be from different disciplinary backgrounds with their own very different methodologies, and we have no plans to impose a straitjacket. There is an underlying shared commitment to theoretically-informed empirical enquiry.

The format will have a mix of about 16 invited and a limited number of submitted speakers, to keep quality high. Talks will last roughly 45 minutes, including time for audience questions during and/or after presentations. We will use a single venue with no parallel sessions.

The first CTSN workshop created an informal, give-and-take atmosphere with strong audience participation, where work in progress could be presented in depth, speakers could be challenged in debate. We will strive to keep this approach for CTSN 2.

As of today we have 7 acceptances including Felix Warneken, Erin Krupka, Roberto Weber, Simon Gaechter, Abigail Barr and Alexander Kappelen (plus ourselves as hosts), and a provisional yes from Jeremiah Dittmar. We aim to invite 5-7 further speakers, mainly from the UK and EU, over the next two months, and to invite open submissions in September.

Work Plan

October 2017

Participants and topics finalized; venue, accommodation and restaurant booked; workshop publicized for non-speaking attendees

October – December 2017

Workshop programme printed, meals booked, information sent to participants

Thurs December 14 2017

Workshop day 1: registration, introduction, speakers

Fri December 15 2017

Workshop day 2: speakers, conference dinner

Sat December 16 2017

Workshop day 3: speakers, depart in afternoon

Outputs: a workshop with about 18-24 presentations of new papers.


Our goal is to make the CTSN workshop a regular series. The next workshop could be held in Bonn at the Max Planck Institute – we are particularly keen to build Anglo-German connections, since German researchers are doing interesting work on social discipline and confessionalization. We will probably shift the funding basis towards a mix of invited and submitted talks, so as to retain the small group atmosphere and high quality of the existing setup.

In the long run, on the academic side, the goal is to bridge the gap between disciplines. For example, we’d like theorists of cultural evolution to engage with specific historical transmission technologies, such as the printing press; conversely, for historians to be able to use such theories as a background for their work.

On the practical side, we want this work to feed through to citizens and policy-makers, giving them a more informed sense of the place of culture in our societies. Snyder (2017) has warned of two current dangers – the “politics of inevitability” where technocrats impose free trade and one-size-fits-all institutions, and the resulting, reactionary “politics of eternity” which hark back nostalgically to good old days of national unity. Better social scientific understanding of our own cultural history can help us steer between these dangers.



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Cavalli-Sforza, L.L., Feldman, M.W., 1981. Cultural transmission and evolution: a quantitative approach. Princeton University Press.

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Mokyr, J., 2016. A culture of growth: the origins of the modern economy. Princeton University Press.


Snyder, T., 2017. On tyranny: Twenty lessons from the twentieth century. Tim Duggan Books.