It’s been nearly three decades since a Brown graduate has been hired as faculty in the Department of Economics, but Stelios Michalopoulos says he’s proud to be breaking that streak. Three years after receiving his Ph.D. in economics from Brown, Michalopoulos joins the department as assistant professor.
Michalopoulos’ research agenda deals with a growing field in economics, examining the historical origins of comparative development. His recent work has studied why some regions have more languages than others (i.e., are more ethnolinguistically diverse) and how that has impacted economic development, and why Islam exists in certain geographic locations. He has lately become interested in uncovering the role of contemporary country-level institutional structures, vis-à-vis local ethnic-specific pre-colonial institutions, in shaping regional development in Africa.
“I am interested in exploring whether and how historic, economic forces may have given rise to contemporary social phenomena,” he said.
In a forthcoming paper in the American Economic Review, Michalopoulos shows that current ethnolinguistic diversity around the world has been shaped by geographic differences in elevation and land fertility. Geographically heterogeneous territories decreased mobility and thus resulted in more ethnically fractionalized populations. “This is an important finding because there is a large literature in both political science and economics that invariably links ethnolinguistic diversity to negative outcomes,” he explained. “Identifying the forces behind the formation of ethnically diverse societies enables us to understand its interaction with economic development.”
Michalopoulos has also proposed an association between geography and the formation and spread of Islam (from a purely economic, rather than theological view). He found that Muslim communities are more likely to exist in areas that have few pockets of fertile land and a lot of arid land; likewise, a community is less likely to be Muslim if it’s located in a more uniformly distributed geographic environment. He theorizes that since Islam emerged in the Arabian Peninsula, “the arrangement of Islamic institutions had to be compatible with the conflicting interests of tribal groups residing along regions characterized by a highly unequal distribution of agricultural potential. As such the Islamic economic doctrine would be more likely to be accepted by indigenous populations residing in geographically unequal territories.”
A native of Argos, Greece, Michalopoulos completed his undergraduate work at Athens University of Economics and Business before coming to Brown for his graduate studies. He is currently assistant professor of economics at Tufts University and recently served as the Deutsche Bank Member at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.
While completing his Ph.D. at Brown, Michalopoulos studied under Oded Galor and he says his time here fostered a sense of intellectual curiosity. “The environment at Brown was always conducive to not taking anything for granted and asking the questions that have not been asked,” he recalled. “Naturally, this environment allowed me to start asking questions that are unconventional for a contemporary economic growth and macro guy like me.”
Michalopoulos begins teaching at Brown in January 2012.