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Culture is the product of strategic decisions

2021-04-15 by Li Bennich-Björkman, an English translation of the 2021 Skytte Prize announcement article

Large Russian minorities had been living for decades in many of the republics that became independent states when the Soviet Union went to its grave in 1991. Many had migrated into the republics in conjunction with Soviet occupation and widespread industrialization, but had never learned the local language and relied on the lingua franca – Russian.

Russia was the heart of the Soviet empire, but how would linguistic development be shaped now, in a time of nation-building and cries for stronger national identity in the new states? The local languages, including Kazakh, Estonian, Latvian and Ukrainian, became official languages. But why should Russian speakers – who could make themselves understood to hundreds of millions of others – bother to learn Estonian, for example, which is spoken by only about one and a half million? One of the few to ask that question early on, and to do so using hard-nosed game theory, was David Laitin. Laitin made his way to what was then an insecure and unstable but exciting part of the world, where he lodged with a Russian family in Estonian Narva. He had devoted the past twenty years to understanding the interplay between language, religion and politics by living in Somalia, Ilé-Ifè in Yorubaland, Nigeria, and Barcelona in the autonomous Catalonia. When the results of his post-Soviet analysis came out in book form in 1998, Identity in Formation: The Russian-Speaking Populations in the Near Abroad indicated that Russian speakers and their children in Estonia would find it worthwhile to learn the difficult Estonian language. And so it came to be, just as Laitin predicted. 

The Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science, known by many as the “Nobel Prize in Political Science,” is being awarded for the 27thconsecutive year. This year’s recipient is David D. Laitin, for his “original and objective explanation of how politics shapes cultural strategies in heterogeneous societies.” Laitin has made “culture,” often the junk drawer of political science studies, studiable and concrete by identifying various cultural components of a nation’s inner life; language is one aspect of culture, religion another, art and literature a third, how private family life is organized a fourth. Central to his thinking is that these cultural components do not have to easily reinforce each other or pull in the same direction. These “spheres” can co-exist without coinciding.

Identity in Formation is both a chronicle and an analytical tour de force, revolving around four states and their Russian-speaking populations: Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. In a time when many scholars were asking questions about how the majority populations in these and other countries would govern politically in their new independence, how the economy would develop and how “nation-building” would play out, Laitin resolutely turned the perspective inside out. What did this life-changing process look like from the “losing side,” to those who had previously been the culturally and perhaps economically privileged? What kind of politics could move their linguistic strategies towards supporting homogenization?

In the aftermath of WWII, the Peace Corps became the American attempt to harness the idealism of youth to help make a better world. For Americans who had rarely been outside U.S. borders – many of the young academics of the time among them – the Peace Corps was a way of exploring the world. When the young David Laitin landed in the Somali capital of Mogadishu in 1969, it was the first time he had ever been abroad. His teen years, shaped in a politically interested family where his mother was glued to the television during Senator McCarthy’s notorious interrogations of suspected communists, coincided with the liberation and independence of many former African colonies.

 “Africa was tied up with the civil rights movement, with liberation. It seemed these events were the most exciting things happening in the world.”  Being in Somalia was a formative experience. This was before the devastating civil war broke out in 1991 that would make Somalia a nation of people spread all over the world and a dangerous place on Earth. Laitin was entranced. To him, and this was during the Cold War, it was essential to understand politics on the African continent based on what was important there, not by the West, driven by benevolence and humanitarian aid, but also naïve expectations and economic interests. Language was one such issue. Everyone in Somalia spoke Somali, but the official languages were Arabic, Italian and English. Why? Why couldn’t people agree on the only language that everybody spoke?     

Laitin published Politics, Language and Thought in 1977, a book based on his dissertation written at left-liberal-leaning Berkeley and centered around Somalia.  Hegemony and Culture came out nearly a decade later, in 1986, and focused on another human cultural expression, religion, based on field work in the city of Ilé-Ifè in Yorubaland, Nigeria. Sharing religious adherence facilitates concerted action; it produces social capital and can thus become a political resource. But people can understand their identity based on values and still approach it on a pragmatic, rational level. In Hegemony and Culture, Laitin concludes that the different religious identities in Yoruba, Islam and Christianity, co-exist with a dominant, hegemonic identity based on an origin story partially institutionalized by the British. The idea of the “ancestral city” is the shared, all-encompassing cement that holds the Yorubans together. Culture (here understood as religion) can thus be subordinated to a politically created kinship. This does not, however, make the religions insignificant and both are to some extent opposed to the “hegemonic” identity upon which the common origin story is based. Cultural subsystems, Laitin argues, can thus co-exist with the hegemonic. This fascinating, and provocative, theoretical insight is that social systems do not strive towards congruence or equilibrium but can harbor alternative belief systems. Cultural complexity is a mundane element. In a secular system as in Sweden, this could for example mean that strong religious views based on inequality can actually co-exist with a politics in which equality is a priority. An optimistic conclusion.

In 1992, David Laitin summarized his thus far acquired insights into how group identity markers – such as language – are shaped and explained by how the new African states chose to design their politics. Laitin describes this by talking about how in states where several languages are spoken, as in Somalia, the individual has a “repertoire” of languages to choose among. The choice to learn and practice one or more languages in addition to the one a person grew up with is thus strongly affected by how one perceives the future benefit and usefulness of the languages. In Language Repertoires and State Construction in Africa, Laitin develops a theory based on game theory, where 3 ± 1 language constitutes an equilibrium outcome. The book collates twenty years of Laitin’s own research. He concludes that many African states will not become officially monolingual. Instead, multiple official languages will be the dominant model in many places.  By using game theory, which when the book came out in 1992 had become increasingly fashionable among political scientists, he shows how language usage will converge towards the “three ± one” equilibrium outcome. This is the theory that he takes with him to the new post-Soviet reality in the 1990s and upon which he bases his hypotheses. The recurring theme, familiar from Laitin’s earlier studies, is how the state – politics – can influence cultural – linguistic – behaviors and strategies in the population. Language as the bearer of identity as well as rationality is a recurring theme in Laitin’s research, something he calls “political linguistics.” 

Attention is paid to cultural diversity – national, linguistic, religious – chiefly when it leads to conflict. David Laitin’s work with James Fearon has resulted in several publications, focusing on conflict in particular, that have had considerable impact in the scholarly community. They show, for instance, that diversity is not a cause of conflict, even though most civil wars since 1945, more than 80 percent, can be categorized as based on religion or ethnicity. But what looks like a culture war is actually a struggle for resources. Laitin and Fearon identify a logic they call “Sons of the Soil” as a common element behind civil war or conflict between ethnic groups. A group that considers itself the rightful “owner” of the territory, the ones who got there first, are challenged by a group of incomers who become rivals for resources of various kinds. Although there is no civil war ongoing in the U.S., or in Sweden, the problem strikes a chord. The Sons of the Soil who perceive themselves as losers in the rural areas, whether in Värmland or in the American Rust Belt, are challenged by the immigrant incomers, and resources, state and market resources, are what they are fighting about. Rationality, precisely as when it comes to language strategies, and not emotion, is often the impetus even when contentious politics spills over into war.     

Political science has evolved into a multifaceted subject in which ethnographic empathy works alongside comparative case analysis, game theory, statistical calculations of large, global datasets and formal modeling. This co-existence can sometimes make it difficult to understand each other’s language, but a “live and let live” philosophy has emerged, promoting peace among these scholarly herds, but standing in the way of a drive towards integration. David Laitin, who often talks about the evolution of the subject and its scienticity, has worked with many of the methods available to political science. This can easily give the impression that methodological diversity has been a key driver for him, but in actuality the methods section quickly bores him. “But all the methodology stuff I have written comes from trying to understand how best to account for some phenomenon in the world, and it’s written not as a contribution to methodology, but as an attempt to sort out, to get a grasp on, some phenomenon that’s ill-understood.” What drives David Laitin are the complexities of the world and the capacity of political science to understand them. 

The original version of this article, written in Swedish, was published in the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and can be found here.