Book Project

Culture and the Persistence of Inequality

Education is central to politics, economic growth, and human well-being. Yet there are large gaps in levels of education across groups, and these education gaps are often remarkably persistent. Why? I explore this question using the case of the little recognized but nearly ubiquitous Muslim-Christian schooling gap in Africa. Compared to Christians, Muslims across sub-Saharan Africa have fewer years of education, are less likely to be literate, and their children are less likely to be in school. On average, Muslims have three fewer years of education than Christians. This gap has persisted over the past six decades, even in Africa’s most vibrant economies and stable democracies, often long after the removal of school fees. Further, the Muslim-Christian schooling gap is largest and Muslim schooling lowest where Muslims are a majority. What are the origins of this schooling gap, why has it persisted, and why is it largest in predominantly Muslim areas? This book employs a mixed-methods strategy to answer these questions, identifying the historical institutions that led to the emergence of this schooling gap and developing a cultural theory for its persistence.

A comparative historical analysis of two centralized pre-colonial states, the Buganda Kingdom and the Emirates of Northern Nigeria, shows how Europeans intervened and invested less in areas with Islamic institutions, leading to low levels of schooling in Muslim areas during the colonial period. Survey, census, and historical data from across Africa show that this pattern applies more broadly. Parts of Africa formerly under Islamic states have significantly lower levels of education in the post-colonial period. Additionally, Christian missionaries played a central role in providing colonial-era education, which I argue led to the emergence of distinct norms about the appropriateness of this type of school across religious communities. I use archival and ethnographic evidence from Malawi to develop a theory about the role of norms in shaping schooling decisions, drawing on existing theories about culture and social norms from economics, sociology, psychology, and political science. I argue that norms about school attendance develop within and vary across communities depending on the extent of exposure to mass schooling historically, and whether this schooling is associated with a particular type of identity. I then use a survey and a set of coordination games to test this argument across twenty villages. A survey of traditional leaders and ethnographic evidence from a village I followed over six years demonstrates how norms enter in feedback loops with economic and institutional factors to perpetuate differences in school quality and educational investments.

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