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What factors promote individual liberty, representative democracy and free markets and why did these first develop in medieval Europe?
We propose to explore the hypothesis that the successful diffusion of these political, legal and economic institutions is influenced by people’s social organization, particularly by family structure. When less constrained by strong kin networks, people develop psychologies that are more individualistic, analytic and non-conformist. These ways of thinking nurture liberty, free markets, and increasingly democratic societies anchored around individual rights.
In the contemporary world, we’ll explore these ideas at three levels of analysis. First, using global data, we’ll assess the relationship between the strength of kin networks and economic outcomes within countries around the world. Then, zooming in, we’ll use online surveys to collect individual-level data from participants in 6 countries on psychology, family, and political attitudes. Finally, we’ll deploy teams of anthropologists, psychologists and economists to field sites in Africa, China and Oceania to collect detailed data using custom-designed experiments and ethnographic interviews.
Using historical records, we’ll trace the origins of liberty, individual rights and representative democracy back through the Middle Ages to the transformation of the family initiated by the Catholic Church. Moving forward in time from late antiquity and eventually through U.S. history, we’ll develop new techniques to extract psychological and kinship measures from textual corpora and then explore how psychology and kinship coevolve with representative governments, economic prosperity, voter enfranchisement, oppression and innovation.

Despite the centrality of liberty in our lives, remarkably little is known about where liberty comes from or what nurtures it. By examining how families and religious beliefs shape our social worlds, we can better understand when, why and how it flourishes.