Articles from the Institute Letter
Additional articles from new and past issues of the Institute Letter will continue to be posted over time and as they become available.
By Stelios Michalopoulos
Karl Marx linked the structure of production to the formation of institutions. According to Marx, religion is like any other social institution in that it is dependent upon the economic realities of a given society, i.e., it is an outcome of its productive forces. In contrast, Max Weber highlighted the independent effect of religious affiliation on economic behavior. Weaving these insights together, my research with Alireza Naghavi and Giovanni Prarolo of the University of Bologna proposes that geography and trade opportunities forged the Islamic economic doctrine, which in turn influenced the economic performance of the Muslim world in the preindustrial era. Since Islam emerged in the Arabian peninsula when land dictated productive decisions, the arrangement of Islamic institutions had to be compatible with the conflicting interests of groups residing along regions characterized by a highly unequal distribution of agricultural potential.
In particular, we argue that the unequal distribution of land endowments conferred differential gains from trade across regions. In such an environment, it was mutually beneficial to establish an economic system that dictated both static and dynamic income redistribution. The latter was implemented by enforcing an equitable inheritance system, increasing the costs of physical capital accumulation, and rendering investments in public goods, through religious endowments, increasingly attractive. These Islamic economic principles allowed Muslim lands to flourish in the preindustrial world but limited the potential for growth in the eve of large-scale shipping trade and industrialization. In a stage of development when land attributes determine productive capabilities, regional agricultural suitability plays a fundamental role in shaping the potential of a region to produce a surplus and thus engage in and profit from trade. Based on this idea, we combined detailed data on the distribution of regional land quality and proximity to pre-Islamic trade routes with information on Muslim adherence across local populations.
By Daniela L. Caglioti
The security of a nation and the safety of its population versus the protection of constitutional liberties and human rights is a quandary that arose in the aftermath of 9/11, but it is not novel to the twenty-first century. Discrimination between citizens and aliens, ethnicization of citizenship, the use of emergency powers in order to deal with the enemy and bypass the constitution, and the tendency to shift guilt and responsibility from the individual to a collective category (e.g., the Jews, the Muslims, etc.) are practices rooted in the past.
In my research, I have been looking at how governments and armies during World War I began to deal with these issues. The governments of almost all the nations that took part in World War I issued decrees and implemented measures against civilians of enemy nationalities who at the outbreak of the war were within their territory. Persons with ties to an enemy country were presumed to be more loyal to their origins than to the countries in which they worked and lived. German and Austro-Hungarian subjects living in France, Britain, or Russia, and later in all the countries that joined the Allies, and British, French, and Russian citizens who lived in Germany or in the Habsburg Empire, and then in Turkey or Bulgaria, were recast as dangerous, sometimes extremely dangerous, internal enemies.
Individuals with connections to enemy countries were in some cases passing through as tourists, students, or seasonal workers, but in most cases, they had been residents of the country for many years. Some of them were born in the country, some had married a national, others had acquired nationality papers, others were in the process of getting them. Many owned houses, land, or firms and spoke the local language. The outbreak of the war transformed them––independently of their personal story, feelings, ideas, and sense of belonging––into enemy aliens, accused of posing a threat to national security and the survival of each country.
By Edward Witten
In everyday life, a string—such as a shoelace—is usually used to secure something or hold it in place. When we tie a knot, the purpose is to help the string do its job. All too often, we run into a complicated and tangled mess of string, but ordinarily this happens by mistake.
The term “knot” as it is used by mathematicians is abstracted from this experience just a little bit. A knot in the mathematical sense is a possibly tangled loop, freely floating in ordinary space. Thus, mathematicians study the tangle itself. A typical knot in the mathematical sense is shown in Figure 1. Hopefully, this picture reminds us of something we know from everyday life. It can be quite hard to make sense of a tangled piece of string—to decide whether it can be untangled and if so how. It is equally hard to decide if two tangles are equivalent.
Such questions might not sound like mathematics, if one is accustomed to thinking that mathematics is about adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. But actually, in the twentieth century, mathematicians developed a rather deep theory of knots, with surprising ways to answer questions like whether a given tangle can be untangled.
But why—apart from the fact that the topic is fun—am I writing about this as a physicist? Even though knots are things that can exist in ordinary three-dimensional space, as a physicist I am only interested in them because of something surprising that was discovered in the last three decades.
By Nicola Di Cosmo
Historians today can hardly answer the question: when does history begin? Traditional boundaries between history, protohistory, and prehistory have been blurred if not completely erased by the rise of concepts such as “Big History” and “macrohistory.” If even the Big Bang is history, connected to human evolution and social development through a chain of geological, biological, and ecological events, then the realm of history, while remaining firmly anthropocentric, becomes all-embracing.
An expanding historical horizon that, from antiquity to recent times, attempts to include places far beyond the sights of literate civilizations and traditional caesuras between a history illuminated by written sources and a prehistory of stone, copper, and pots has forced history and prehistory to coexist in a rather inelegant embrace. Such a blurring of the boundaries between those human pasts that left us more or less vivid and abundant written records, and other pasts, which, on the contrary, are knowable only through the spadework and fieldwork of enterprising archaeologists, ethnographers, and anthropologists, has also changed (or is at least threatening to change) the nature of the work of professional historians.
Technological advances, scientific instrumentation, statistical analyses, and laboratory tests are today producing historical knowledge that aims to find new ways of answering questions that have long exercised specialists of the ancient world. Should historians, then, try to make these pieces of highly technical evidence relevant to their own work? Or should they ignore them? The dilemma is not entirely new. Archaeology, material culture, and historical linguistics have already forced historians to come out of the “comfort zone” of written sources. Archaeologists have by and large wrested themselves free from the fastnesses of the classical texts, and much of their work cannot be regarded as ancillary to the authority of the written word. Satellite photography, remote sensing, archaeo-GIS, C14 dating, dendrochronology (tree-ring dating), and chemical analysis have become standard tools of the archaeologist that coexist with the trowel and the shovel. But the palaeosciences and ancient DNA studies pose challenges of a different order, directly correlated to the greater distance that exists between scientific and historical research in terms of training and knowledge base.
By Mohamed Nachi
The Tunisian revolution of 2011 (al-thawra al-tunisiya) was the result of a series of protests and insurrectional demonstrations, which started in December 2010 and reached culmination on January 14, 2011, with the flight of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the dictator who had held power for twenty-three years. It did not occur in a manner comparable to other revolutions. The army, for instance, did not intervene, nor were there actions of an organized rebellious faction. The demonstrations were peaceful, although the police used live ammunition, bringing the death toll to more than one hundred.
The demonstrations began in the town of Sidi Bouzid, west of the country’s geographical center. On December 17, 2010, a young street vendor set himself on fire following the confiscation of his wares (fruits and vegetables) by the police. Mohamed Bouazizi was twenty-six, and he succumbed to his burns on January 4. The next day, five thousand people attended his funeral. He became the symbol of the liberation of the Tunisian people from the despotic rule of the Ben Ali regime. The population, and predominantly the youth, began to demonstrate with calm determination, in order to demand the right to work and the right to free expression.