For a long time, one of the chief differences between Western and Asian societies has been chalked up to a simple theory of modernization. Social psychologists have held that as countries modernize, people grow more analytical and individualistic, while less developed nations remain more collectivist—a hallmark of many East Asian cultures.
Now, another theory is emerging: Communities that grow and eat rice are more interdependent, while those that farm wheat are more independent. A new study published in the journal Science claims that rice-planting breeds collectivism that’s passed on through generations, creating what the researchers call a "rice culture."
Planting rice requires social coordination. Because rice is grown in standing water, it requires elaborate irrigation systems, where one farmer’s water usage directly affects another’s. Building, dredging, and draining a rice paddy often requires the work of an entire village; the labor, says the study, is typically twice as much as that of farming wheat, which doesn’t necessarily need irrigation. (Rain falls on wheat farmers’ fields whether they cooperate with each other or not, the researchers note.)
To study this theory, Thomas Talhelm, a researcher from the University of Virginia, surveyed 1,162 university students in China, home to two distinct rice and wheat regions. Rice is grown mostly in the south while wheat is raised and eaten in the north.
To measure their sense of individualism, the researchers had the subjects draw a diagram of their social network, including themselves and their friends, represented by circles. Previous studies have shown that Americans are likely to draw themselves about 6 millimeters bigger than others, while Europeans draw themselves 3.5 millimeters larger and Japanese draw themselves smaller.