VoxEU Column Development Politics and economics

Are there cultural obstacles to democratisation?

Social science studies usually explain democratisation of countries with the increase in incomes. In contrast, this column argues that culture is a neglected but important determinant of democracy. The findings show that countries with individualist culture democratise earlier than collectivist cultures that may remain stuck for a long time with relatively efficient autocracies.

Recent decades have seen great progress in democracy across the world. According to Freedom House (1999), there was not a single liberal democracy with universal suffrage in the world in 1900. By 2000, 120 of the world's 192 nations were liberal democracies. The main explanation in social sciences for democratisation is the ‘modernisation hypothesis’ (Lipset 1959), according to which countries become democratic as their income per capita rises. A large part of the literature on the determinants of democracy centres on whether and how growth of income per capita leads to democracy. If the modernisation theory is correct, we should expect, for example, China to become democratic as it becomes richer.

Collective action under individualistic and collectivist culture

Surprisingly, the literature on democratisation remains silent on the effects of cultural values on political regimes. In Gorodnichenko and Roland (2015), we present a theory and empirical evidence for the role of culture on democratisation. Cultural values affect the direction of institutional change away from autocracy when there is a window of collective action (revolution, elite revolt). These episodes of collective action do not necessarily lead to democracy, even when they are successful, but may lead to another autocratic regime. We compare decisions of collective action under an individualistic culture, giving social status reward to standing out and innovativeness, and a collectivist culture emphasising conformity and embeddedness in large groups (tribes, clans).

  • Individualistic culture tends to create a demand for democracy, as individual freedom is fundamental for self-achievement. Equality before the law and limited government provided under democracy help protect individual freedom.
  • Collectivist culture instead focuses more on the necessity of a benevolent ruler to create stability between different clans and groups. The emphasis is more on hierarchy and order, and freedom can be seen as endangering stability.

Because of these cultural differences, when there is a window of opportunity for collective action in an individualistic society, however infrequent, revolt against autocracy will always occur, independent of the quality of autocracy, and will lead to democracy. In contrast, in a collectivist society revolts against good autocrats will be rarer. Windows of collective action will thus lead either to democracy or to the establishment of a higher quality autocracy. Collectivist societies may thus remain ‘stuck’ with a relatively high quality autocracy. In the long run, individualist societies will thus end up with a democratic regime, whereas collectivist societies will end up either with democracy or with a high quality autocracy. The implication is that individualist societies will end up more often having democratic regimes than collectivist societies, even if collective action occurs less often than in collectivist societies that might be better in coordinating collective action.

More individualist countries democratised earlier

There is empirical evidence for these predictions. Figure 1 shows the correlation between Hofstede’s index of individualism (countries with a high score are more individualistic and countries with a low score are more collectivist) and the average Polity IV score – one of the best known measures of democracy – for countries in the period between 1980 and 2008. This spell covers the third wave of democratisation (Huntington 1991) and thus displays considerable variation. Countries with a lower average polity score either democratised later, not at all, or in an imperfect way. The Hofstede (2001) individualism index is widely used in sociology and cross-cultural psychology, and increasingly frequently in economics. As we can see from Figure 1, there is a strong correlation between individualism and the average polity index.

Figure 1. Individualism and democracy

Individualism may affect democracy, but the opposite may also be true, people living longer under democracy may become more individualistic. To measure correctly the effect of individualism on democracy, we need a good instrumental variable, a variable that is correlated with individualism, but not with democracy. The main instrumental variable we use is based on epidemiological data put together by Murray and Schaller (2010) on historical pathogen prevalence.1 These historical data are very important because they give a good idea about the pathogen environment populations were facing in the past, including the very distant past. These studies showed a strong correlation between historical pathogen prevalence and collectivism. Collectivism is understood as a defence mechanism created to cope with greater pathogen prevalence. Stronger pathogen prevalence pushed communities to adopt more collectivist values emphasising tradition, putting stronger limits on individual behaviour, and showing less openness towards foreigners. Obviously, historical pathogen prevalence is only one of the possible reasons for the adoption of collectivism. Nevertheless, it is a good instrumental variable. Historical pathogen prevalence is not likely to have a direct effect on political regime choice. Indeed, one cannot claim that autocracy is more efficient than democracy – or vice-versa – in dealing with pathogen prevalence. Autocracy suffers from lack of transparency, as was seen in China a few years ago with the SARS epidemic, and is not necessarily more efficient in dealing with a humanitarian disaster, as was the case with the catastrophic handling of the 2008 massive flooding from the cyclone Nargis in Myanmar. Likewise, democracy may or may not lack speed in response to a major health epidemic.

As another instrumental variable, we use the Euclidian distance between the frequency of blood types A and B in a given country and the frequency of those blood types in the US, which is the most individualistic country. This is a measure of genetic distance. To the extent that culture is transmitted mainly from parents to children (see, for example, Fernandez and Fogli 2009 and the models by Bisin and Verdier 2000), so are genes. Thus, this instrumental variable can be seen as a proxy measure of cultural transmission. To be clear, we do not postulate a direct causal effect between genes (here blood types) and culture. Note also that blood types are neutral genetic markers that do not affect human behaviour. They are thus not likely to have any effect on political regime choices.

  • Using these instrumental variables jointly or separately, we find that the effect of individualism on democracy is robustly significant—statistically and economically: A one standard deviation increase in individualism score can raise Polity IV score by 4-6 points.

The magnitude of the estimated effect remains large even after controlling for the variables that have been used in the literature on democracy. Specifically, we find that individualism continues to be a strong determinant of democratisation after controlling for income per capita. Hence, we can show that there is a significant direct effect of individualism on democracy.

In Gorodnichenko and Roland (2010 a, b), we documented that countries with a more individualist culture have more innovation and higher long-term growth, controlling for the usual variables used in the growth literature, such as institutions and education. Our research thus shows that individualistic cultures may affect both income per capita and democracy.

Concluding remarks

Our theoretical and empirical results have important implications. In particular, as countries with collectivist cultures develop economically, they will not necessarily evolve towards democracy or might do so more slowly or possibly only under the effect of an exceptional crisis. Countries like China, Vietnam or Singapore, which have experienced considerable economic success in recent decades have not adopted Western-style democracies. Similarly, countries that have experienced a genuine democratisation process like Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, and Korea have done so relatively recently and their average polity scores over the last 30 years have not been better than Guatemala, Panama or Peru. Countries in the Middle East have in general higher individualism scores than many Asian countries. In the long run, if our analysis is correct, they could end up becoming more democratic, despite the higher authoritarian streak observed in the past in Islamic countries.


Bisin, A, and T Verdier (2000), “Beyond The Melting Pot”: Cultural Transmission, Marriage, And The Evolution Of Ethnic And Religious Traits”, Quarterly Journal of Economics 115, 955-988.

Fernandez, R, and A Fogli (2009), “Culture: An Empirical Investigation of Beliefs, Work and Fertility”, American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics 1(1), 146-177.

Gorodnichenko, Y, and G Roland (2010a), “Culture, Institutions and the Wealth of Nations”, CEPR Discussion Paper 8013.

Gorodnichenko, Y, and G Roland (2010b), “Does culture affect long-run growth?”, VoxEU.org, 21 September.

Gorodnichenko, Y, and G Roland (2015), “Culture, Institutions and Democratization”, CEPR Discussion Paper 10563.

Hofstede, G (2001), Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, and Organizations Across Nations, 2nd edition, Sage Publications.

Huntington, S (1991), The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, University of Oklahoma Press.

Lipset, S M (1959), “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy", American Political Science Review 53, 69-105.

Murray, D R, and M Schaller (2010), “Historical prevalence of infectious diseases within 230 geopolitical regions: A tool for investigating origins of culture”, Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 41, 99-108.


1 The study uses 9 pathogens: leishmanias, trypanosomes, malaria, schistosomes, filariae, dengue, typhus, leprosy and tuberculosis.

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