Symposium: Defining a Model of Cultural Change

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Spring 2020, Vol 32. Issue 1

Book Symposium: A Culture of Growth (2018, Princeton)

Joyce Burnette
Professor of Economics,
Wabashi College

Joel Mokyr tackles big historical questions.  His work as a whole tells the story of how Europe, and Britain in particular, became the location where modern economic growth first erupted.   

We have already heard about the development of the important technologies (Lever of Riches), the importance of useful knowledge for economic growth (Gifts of Athena), and the role of the enlightenment in encouraging the development of such knowledge (The Enlightened Economy).  A Culture of Growth adds to the story the role of culture.  

When I was in graduate school, economists were reluctant to use culture as an explanation for economic phenomena, seeing cultural explanations as not falsifiable and thus not useful. Since then, economists have been more open to the idea that culture might provide an explanation for what we observe. (See, for example, Fernandez and Fogli 2009;  Alesina, Giuliano and Nunn 2013; Alesina and Giuliano 2015) A Culture of Growth contributes to this trend by providing a clear definition of culture and a model of cultural change.  The book examines the role of cultural entrepreneurs by examining in detail two of them, Bacon and Newton.  The book also examines aspects of the European “culture of progress” that encouraged the creation of useful knowledge and economic growth.

This symposium is a summary of a session held at the Social Science History Association meetings in Chicago on November 22, 2019. 


Alesina, Alberto and Paola Giuliano, 2015, “Culture and Institutions,” Journal of Economic Literature, 53(4):898-944.

Alesina, Alberto, Paola Giuliano and Nathan Nunn, 2013, “On the Origins of Gender Roles: Women and the Plough,”  Quarterly Journal of Economics, 128:469-530.

Fernandez, Raquel, and Alessandra Fogli, 2009, “Culture: An Empirical Investigation of Beliefs, Work, and Fertility,” American Economic Journal:  Macroeconomics, 1:146-177

Friedel, Robert. 2007. A Culture of Improvement: Technology and the Western Millennium. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 

Hills, Richard L. 1989. Power from Steam: A History of the Stationary Steam Engine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Slack, Paul. 2015. The Invention of Improvement: Information and Material Progress in Seventeenth- Century England. Oxford: Oxford University Press.