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  /  News   /  A conversation with Ömer Özak, a lecturer at LACEA-LAMES 2021.

A conversation with Ömer Özak, a lecturer at LACEA-LAMES 2021.

In the afternoon sessions of the first day of LACEA-LAMES 2021, the contributed sessions opened to discuss conflict, culture, public assets, and the State in economic history.

The session was moderated by Mateo Uribe Castro, professor of economics at the Universidad del Rosario, who additionally presented his research The Expansion of Public Education in Puerto Rico after 1900. Besides Uribe Castro, Pedro Américo, from the University of British Columbia, Ömer Özak, from Southern Methodist University and Breno Sampaio, Federal University of Pernambuco presented their research The Industrialization Paths, Millet, Rice and Isolation and Social Organization and the Roots of Supernatural Beliefs, respectively. In the journalistic coverage of LACEA LAMES 2021, we spoke with Professor Özak, one of the participants of the contributed session.

Despite having been born in Germany, Professor Özak considers himself Colombian, on his mother’s side, and Turkish as his father is from such country. In fact, Professor Özak lived all his childhood and part of his adulthood in Colombia: he did his undergraduate and master’s studies at the National University, although he later migrated to the United States to obtain his doctorate at Brown University. Professor Özak continued his career in that country and became a professor at Southern Methodist University. He has been linked to that university for a decade where he currently is an associate professor.

In addition to his personal background, Professor Özak also told us about the lecture he presented at LACEA LAMES 2021, Millet, Rice, and Isolation: Origins and Persistence of the World’s Most Enduring Mega-State. This is the result of a joint research study with James Kai-sing Kung, University of Hong Kong, Louis Putterman, Brown University, and Shuan Shi University of Hong Kong.

Professor Özak and his colleagues argue that the complex societies of India and East Asia emerged and lasted due to two competitive advantages: the emergence of large-scale agriculture, on the one hand, and isolation, understood as a significant separation from other settlements, on the other. For them, these two variables can explain why nations like China and India have endured so long. In addition, the theory explains why China did not absorb the territories that correspond to present-day Korea and Vietnam.

These places were at a considerable distance from the central economic areas where large-scale agriculture developed. Additionally, when the Chinese Empire gained access to these regions, large-scale agriculture had already developed there. In this measure, the same variables that explain why China and India have endured over time are helpful to understand the reasons why China could not assimilate the territories of Korea and Vietnam.

Although Professor Özak’s lecture only focused on East Asia and India, he and his colleagues believe that isolation and large-scale agriculture could explain the emergence and durability of complex societies. He explained that the idea was to test this on a global level, then added that building all those databases requires a lot of work. During their research, they had the comparative advantage that two co-authors are Chinese and work on Chinese economic history. So it was an aspect that facilitated building a lot of the data.

The work of Özak, Kung, Putterman, and Shi also questions the belief that isolation is harmful to the development of societies because it prevents exchange with other communities. On the contrary, the theory of these economists states that isolation is a competitive advantage for the origin of complex societies. Furthermore, for Professor Özak, isolation may suppose certain benefits in the past times and today. Cultural differences, for example, respond to a specific type of isolation, and, in certain circumstances, they can be an advantage. “Being very different culturally or institutionally can actually be an advantage to allow you to make innovations that are not feasible elsewhere and that ultimately help the development of the global technological frontier,” explained Professor Özak.

The research by Özak and his colleagues provides a novel understanding of the development of complex societies and will have the academic community of economics talking.