IIR welcomes Dr. Jonathan Schulz as faculty affiliate

IIR welcomes Dr. Jonathan Schulz as faculty affiliate

Dr. Jonathan Schulz is an Assistant Professor in the Economics Department at George Mason University. In addition to being affiliated with the Institute for Immigration Research (IIR), he works with The Center for Study of Public Choice and The Interdisciplinary Center for Economic Science at George Mason.

Current Research: Cultural Evolutionary Perspectives 

While Dr. Schulz holds a PhD in economics, he describes his work as “highly interdisciplinary.” His primary research focus is on cultural evolution, which he defines as “how culture influences human psychology throughout history.” He explains: "While economics has long drawn on the concept of homo economicus – that people are rational – in many instances this concept falls short of describing human behavior and economic phenomena. Incorporating the role of culture into economic models allows us to gain a better understanding of human behavior, improve the predictive power of economic models, and ultimately advance our understanding of the world."

Dr. Schulz argues that at the root of humans' success as a species is culture – knowledge that people and societies have accumulated over many generations. The socialization into different cultures shapes people’s behavior. He applies this approach to his current research projects on kinship structures, immigration and innovation, and historical psychology.

Kinship Structures and Immigration

One of Dr. Schulz’s current projects focuses on how kinship structure impacts economic outcomes, political outcomes, and institutional outcomes: "The family is the first institution humans encounter. It shapes their socialization and way of thinking for a long duration. The resulting variation in human psychology is likely one factor that is at the core of why some nations are rich and others are poor."

Dr. Schulz highlights that “kinship and immigration are very much related, because immigration changes existing social and family network structures.” Moreover, Dr. Schulz explains that he is interested in how movements of people with different cultural backgrounds to new regions and environments impacts immigrants’ psychology and behavioral assimilation. Research on second generation immigrants in the United States, for example, often identifies a long-lasting impact of the cultural background of immigrant parents that predicts behavior even in the second-generation. Dr. Schulz explains, “For example, if the immigrant parents are from a region with strong kinship networks, where people prioritize the well-being of the family and trust outsiders less…then the second-generation also tends to be less trusting to strangers.”

Immigration and Innovation

Dr. Schulz also finds in his research that immigration is central to facilitating innovation:

From this cultural evolutionary perspective, innovation is a recombination of existing ideas. And this recombination of ideas will be fueled if people from different cultural backgrounds who possess different knowledge, traditions, and customs come, interact and live together. Immigration can fuel this recombination because the implied transfer of knowledge, traditions, and customs creates diversity of ideas.

While people often associate immigration and innovation with a need to “attract the superstars” who will “come here and, through their genius, patent lots of things,” Dr. Schulz’s research highlights the possibility for a very “normal immigrant” to contribute to knowledge transfers that fuel innovation. As an example, he explains: "If you take the cultural evolutionary perspective, that is about recombination of ideas, then even the immigrant who works for Uber all his life will have a potential to contribute to innovation, because a customer talking to the Uber driver will learn about a different perspective. And this knowledge transfer in this Uber ride may inspire the passenger to recombine ideas and then come up with an innovation."

Historical Psychology

Dr. Schulz is also currently working on a project on historical psychology. This project is motivated by the logic that “if culture and external factors influence psychology, then you should also see a variation in psychology over time and not just over space.”

Together with historians and computational linguists who “have been working on digitizing historical texts for a long time…we collect Latin corpora stretching back more than a millennium into Antiquity, and then we’ll use this text to extract people’s psychology and attitudes towards kinship to be able to test our cultural evolutionary hypotheses by applying econometric techniques.” 

Similar to his research finding that tight kinship networks are associated with less trust towards outsiders among contemporary people, this project can test this idea historically “through constructing text-based indicators of kinship and psychology among medieval populations. We can test whether these mechanisms and hypotheses hold across very different contexts.”

Reflections on Teaching and Advice for Students

Dr. Schulz shares that his favorite course to teach is the graduate course “Culture and Economics,” in which he is able to bring his interdisciplinary approach to cultural evolution to the classroom and challenge approaches in economics: “It's very broad. It draws on human evolution, biology, psychology, history, economic history, and institutional economics.” Dr. Schulz also teaches graduate math for PhD students, which he enjoys, because “math is so clear and elegant.”

With an eye to the job market, Dr. Schulz advises undergraduate and graduate students “to build up research skills in techniques and methodology,” including econometrics, statistics, computational linguistics, and geographic analysis. To study socialization, particularly among immigrants, he also emphasizes the importance of experimental techniques to conduct studies with children, “because that’s when and where socialization happens.”