Long Social Memories?

Until reading this paper [1] the CLAHRC WM Director was not aware that history has become such a statistical/epidemiological subject.

Now it is known (for example from Paul Collier’s popular books) that conflict in Africa is correlated with: 1) mineral resources to be extracted; 2) weak political institutions; 3) ethnic fragmentation; and 4) endemic poverty. In the latter example, the direction of causality is far from clear. Colonial map drawers must bear plenty of responsibility for 3), and more arguably 2). But the colonial period was really rather brief; what about a legacy from the more distant past? Well, Besley and Reynal-Querol obtained data on all historical conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa documented to have occurred between 1400 and 1700. They found that areas with high rates of conflict in this epoch have statistically increased rates of post-colonial conflict compared to areas with lower rates of pre-colonial conflict. The high conflict areas are associated with lower levels of trust, stronger senses of ethnic identity, and lower economic development. Quite how memory is propagated back to the period before Queen Anne sat on the British throne is a mystery to the CLAHRC WM Director. The article is full of statistical tables and algebra, and this was as fascinating as the subject matter.

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director


  1. Besley T & Reynal-Querol M. The Legacy of Historical Conflict: Evidence from Africa. Am Pol Sci Assoc. 2014; 108(2): 319-36.

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