My research shows how human capital and culture can fundamentally affect government formation, development, and elite identity. The first part of my research agenda stems from my dissertation and is focused on political elites. I investigate why power is often so unequally distributed between a country’s regions, which I term regional political inequality. I leverage the brief but intense and extractive colonial period in East and West Africa to examine the impact of colonialism on government formation and regional political inequality today. Existing research on cabinet formation focuses on short-term bargaining. Instead, I provide evidence that levels of colonial education across districts, rather than other investments or population, explain why some districts have more ministers than others after independence and even today. In turn, I provide evidence that pre-colonial trade is an important cause of the very high investment inequality within colonial states. Finally, I argue that colonial inequality persists today in part because political elites have been key agents of inequality-reproduction (via distributive politics) rather than of inequality-reduction (via redistribution). Combined, my work provides a central antecedent to a large literature that links political elites to conflict, distributive politics, and regional favoritism.
The second part of my research agenda studies the role of culture in identity formation. I leverage a natural experiment in the cradle of East African elites, Makerere University, where students are randomly assigned to live in halls of residence that have distinct student cultures. My findings reveal that some behaviors and identity can be influenced by a relatively brief exposure to a new cultural environment (consequences of culture). The setting also allows me to study why different cultures across halls, one being more rowdy and activist while another more gentlemanly and reserved, emerge to begin with given that all halls share a common institutional environment (origins of culture).