Research Bleg

I just came up with a research topic that may be useful for one or two economics courses I'm currently taking; one is a class on African American entrepreneurship and the other is my senior research paper under the guidance of a professor who specializes in urban and regional economics. The idea is more of a mixture of of these two courses with some sociology of religion thrown in.

I'm blegging for input from anyone who may be familiar with academic research on this topic, especially economists and sociologists, because I have a feeling this idea has already been covered elsewhere. I can't remember where I heard it from, but I know its not entirely original to me. In any case, I still think it will be a fruitful area for research, though of course I'd much prefer if it's as original as possible.

Anyway, here is the idea. When looking at various ethnic minority groups, Jewish communities have been especially successful at fostering social capital - "the collective value of all 'social networks' [who people know] and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other ['norms of reciprocity'].

The classic example of social capital is taken from Lisa Bernstein in her article, "Opting Out of the Legal System: Extralegal Contractual Relations in the Diamond Industry," 21 JOURNAL OF LEGAL STUDIES, 1992, pp.115-157.]"

Here's David Friedman's summary:

For a more elaborate example of reputational enforcement, consider the New York diamond industry as described in a classic article by Lisa Bernstein. At one point, somewhat before the time she studied it, the industry had been mostly in the hands of orthodox Jews, forbidden by their religious beliefs from suing each other. They settled disputes instead by a system of trusted arbitrators and reputational sanctions. If one party to a dispute refused to accept the arbitrator’s verdict, the information would be rapidly spread through the community, with the result that he would no longer be able to function in that industry. The system of reputational enforcement survived even after membership in the industry became more diverse, with organizations such as the New York Diamond Dealer’s Club providing both trusted arbitration and information spreading.

I wish to expand on this idea, and explain why Jewish communities, particularly Orthodox Jewish communities (those strictly observant of Jewish religious rituals) have been able to foster social capital more so than many other ethnic groups.

My thesis is that there are at least three self-reinforcing religious customs (there may be more than these three, but three is a nice number for now) which force Orthodox Jews to live in close proximity to each other and discourage individuals from (a) living outside the community for extended periods of time and (b) violating those customs while living inside the community. This last point is what I mean by self-reinforcing; by encouraging Orthodox Jews to live in close proximity to each other, these customs are that much more difficult to violate because doing so invites criticism, shame, social ostracism, and in extreme cases, excommunication from the community.

So what are these three customs?

They are:

  1. Shabbat: the Saturday Sabbath in which most work and travel related activies are prohibited
  2. Kashrut: a set of dietary laws prohibiting certain types and mixtures of food, and requiring supervision during preparation, together making most restaurants off limits
  3. Minyan: the requirement that a quorum of ten or more adult (over the age of 13) male Jews be present for communal prayer services, especially on Shabbat but also during the week (this requirement is highly preferred but not mandatory like the previous two customs)

I won't bother explaining the details of these three practices; if you are interested, read the Wikipedia articles. I also won't explain the mechanism for how these three practices force Orthodox Jews to remain in close proximity to each other, as that should be somewhat self-explanatory from the definitions given above, and in any case, is the purpose of my paper.

So if anyone reading this knows of any academic papers that make similar or identical claims, or papers that may be useful in conducting my own research, please either leave a comment in this thread or drop me a line at mghertner@gmail.com

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