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Cowboys vs. rice farmers: Mapping the ecology of cultural difference

  • A team effort:
    A team effort:  Researchers Robert Thomson of Hokusei Gakuen University, William & Mary's Joanna Schug and Masaki Yuki of Hokkaido University (left to right) are part of an international team studying cultural difference by looking at aspects of the social environment.  Courtesy Hokkaido University
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To explain the complexities of nearly every society in human history, Joanna Schug points to an unlikely place: the American middle school.

“The kinds of social interaction patterns we have in middle school are typical of most human civilizations, at least historically,” said Schug, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at William & Mary. “You have to be very conscious about your reputation. Everyone knows each other, so you have to be careful not to get kicked out of groups that are providing resources you need. That’s actually how a lot of societies around the world work.”

Schug is part of an international team of researchers who are working to understand cultural differences in psychology and behavior by looking at aspects of the social environment. She just received a five-year CAREER award from the National Science Foundation to support her research, which involves both graduate and undergraduate W&M students.

“We’re thinking about human behavior as driven by incentives,” Schug said. “Biologists who study animal behavior, behavioral ecologists, they study animal behavior as adaptations to specific types of incentives in the environment. We’re trying to do the same thing, only with humans.”

In a study recently published in the journal PNAS, Schug, along with a large international research team, analyzed 39 different societies to see how individuals interact and develop relationships – a term known as “relational mobility.” The team administered tens of thousands of surveys over the course of two years.

And they did it on Facebook.

The surveys, released as Facebook quizzes, were available in 20 different languages, all adjusted to match local dialects and featured characters wearing outfits typical of each targeted region. Quiz-takers were asked to describe the people around them by ranking how easy it was for them to build new relationships or break old ones. The subjects were made aware their answers would be used as data for the study and the survey was approved by an ethics committee.

Results showed that in East Asia, North Africa and the Middle East, relationships are harder to form and even harder to break – a low level of relational mobility. On the other hand, relationships are more fluid in the West and Latin America – a high level of relational mobility. It was an outcome researchers expected, but their work went a step further to explain why. 

The research team correlated the survey results with environmental factors, such as agricultural legacy and regional conflict. They found that relational mobility was lower in societies that practiced settled, subsistence lifestyles, such as rice farming. They also found similar low relational mobility in societies that had stronger ecological and historical threats, such as a harsh geoclimate or a history of pathogens and poverty. 

“What was amazing about this study is we were able to predict outcomes in terms of people’s relationships using this social ecological concept,” Schug said. She explains that behaviors exhibited by each culture were adaptive to their specific social environments. Even two agricultural societies can be on opposite ends of the relational mobility spectrum, like cowboys and rice farmers. 

“Take cowboys,” Schug said. “It’s a herding society, whose main crop is livestock. Your wealth can be taken away at any time. You can’t count on authorities to help you, so there’s a lot of self-reliance. It’s how we get this American form of rugged individualism.”

She contrasts the norms and social structures of American cowboy culture with Japanese rice farmers. The Japanese farmers are limited to a certain geographic space and have limited resources within that space. Much like middle schoolers, rice farmers rely on those around them for a sense of social purpose. They quite literally need to get along to survive.

“To farm rice, you can’t do it by yourself,” Schug said. “You need a community to get together and be in one place for a long period of time. They have to use the same land over and over, because they’ve dug these channels. They have to manage a collective irrigation system. In those societies, the networks become very stable.”

Schug experienced this contrast firsthand, as an American graduate student completing her Ph.D. in behavioral science at Hokkaido University in Japan. She quickly learned that relationships, even casual friendships, carried more social value than in the United States. It was important to keep existing relationships, because building new ones was especially challenging. 

“People are very conscious and considerate not to offend others,” Schug said. “A lot of traditional research in the social sciences has looked at that behavior and presented it as ‘people in Japan like being nice.’ It’s not really about what they like and don’t like; it’s about what’s a smart move in that society.”

In United States, where relationships carry less social value, it may even be savvy to offend people by broadcasting your own beliefs, Schug explains. It increases the probability of finding likeminded people. This may also explain why Americans who took the survey exhibited higher levels of trust and intimacy over their Japanese counterparts.

In a relationally mobile country like the U.S., there is low risk and high reward when it comes to making and breaking social bonds, Schug said. We express our inner thoughts and emotions, because if it doesn’t go well, we can always pick up and move our cattle to another pasture.

“The one thing that I get really frustrated with is when people look at cultural differences and assume that those reflect differences of the people,” Schug said. “Behaviors, even if they seem different, in many cases they’re strategies, not preferences or values.”

For the next five years, Schug will conduct a cross-national study involving up to 30 countries. She will continue to administer digital surveys, but plans to conduct laboratory studies as well. She is planning a daily interaction study in which participants in each country will track their interactions over a period of several weeks.

Her hope is to map daily interactions to see how they correlate with larger digital survey results, as well as specific environmental factors. The goal is to understand how individual behavior is adapted to particular social and ecological settings. Despite vast differences in cultural history, there are regions that share similarities in psychological and behavioral traits. Schug hopes she will be able to explain why.

“The Holy Grail in many fields in the social sciences is connecting the micro and the macro,” Schug said. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to solve that issue, but the idea is to try to think about what’s linking the societal level phenomenon to the individual level phenomenon and really explain the theory behind it.”