PhD Student

Benjamin Tremblay-Auger

PhD ’25
Benjamin Tremblay-Auger
Benjamin Tremblay-Auger
I’m very interested in analyzing how institutional and cultural changes work together.
April 29, 2024

Change has largely defined Benjamin Tremblay-Auger’s personal and academic journeys. The Canadian citizen studied music for a full year before switching to math and economics. “It was a pretty radical transition,” Tremblay-Auger says. “But I thought making music into a job would ruin the passion to an extent.”

That wasn’t the last of it, however. After studying math and economics for three years, Tremblay-Auger realized a passion for political economics that would eventually lead him to the Stanford GSB. Now, the management science PhD candidate is focusing his dissertation on how cultural and institutional changes can catalyze religious change: a phenomenon he’s dubbed “rapid reversal.” He’s conducting a case study on Quebec, where the presence of Catholicism has drastically waned. It’s also his home province, which adds a personal level to his work.

“There was this rapid social change, and people only have bits of understanding of it,” Tremblay-Auger says, referring to his community. “That’s what’s sometimes interesting about the social sciences. People don’t know what happened. They participated in this change but don’t understand the big picture.”

You started college as a music student, then transitioned to economics and math. Tell me more about your pivots as an undergraduate.

I initially chose the full music concentration. Music was my main passion throughout late elementary school and then secondary education. I learned a new instrument almost every year: saxophone, guitar, flute, drums, bass, piano. However, I ended up switching gears after a year and a half. I realized that I really loved music, but I thought making it into a job would ruin the passion to an extent. I always had a knack for math in general. I was getting more and more interested in the social sciences at the time, and I was also good at math, so it seemed logical to study econ and math in order to build on those strengths.

How did you discover your interest in political economics?

I started getting interested in political economy as an undergrad, but I didn’t have classes on it. In Quebec, once you pick your major, you’re devoted to that. So I only studied econ and math for three years. I had never taken a political science course before coming here. But while I was an undergrad, Jean-Frédéric Morin — a professor of political science at Laval University — posted this job offer for a research assistant. He wanted someone who had quantitative and programming skills who could help him build a database on international environmental agreements. I worked with him for a year and a half. That was my first research experience, and it was an eye-opener. That’s when it became clear to me that this was the kind of a job I would enjoy.

There was a point where I had to ask myself: Okay, I’m interested in all these different things, but what is going to be my research agenda? I eventually converged on cultural dynamics, rapid cultural changes, and how they relate to policy and institutional changes.

Tell me about your dissertation, “Three Essays on The Political Economics of Culture.”

The one I’m working on now is about my own province of Quebec. Up until 1960, Quebec was a very religious place. It was very Catholic, and people were having a lot of babies. Then, in the sixties, there was a period that we called the Quiet Revolution, where there was this radical change in society. All of these institutions that used to be controlled by the church — including welfare, education, and healthcare — all became secularized. People really lost religion. Now, you can see evidence of Quebec being probably the least religious place in North America.

And you’re trying to unpack this phenomenon.

Yes. I’ve developed a theory based on how church and state institutions evolved in Quebec that can explain why there was this rapid change, both institutionally and culturally, at that time. I call it a rapid reversal because, over the course of one or two decades, Quebec went from very religious to the least religious.

Since I’m from Quebec, I always knew the narrative. I was always curious as to why we weren’t religious. I wanted to research it because it seemed like an under-documented social reality.

What was it like growing up in Quebec? Were you raised in a religious household?

“You need to have a large knowledge about a place to develop a strong intuition about what happened.”

My parents still held on to some Catholic ideals. For example, I was baptized. I took some religious courses in school. I did my first communion, but then I stopped. It was weird because it felt like we were just going through the motions of doing these things. It was as if they were only traditions rather than having real spiritual meaning.

When I was growing up, there were a few families who represented the time before the rapid reversal. They were kind of famous in a sense — like, “Oh, this is the girl who has 14 siblings.” Historically, Quebec had a super high fertility rate. There’s a whole story behind that; it all has to do with religion.

Remember how I said the change started in 1960? Well, a lot of things happened in 1960. For example, it was the first year of the birth control pill. There was also the election of the Quebec Liberal Party, and they’re the ones who completely changed the institutions in the course of less than a decade. From there, you can see the cultural changes falling into place. It stabilizes a bit, but you can really see a very clear 15, 20 years where the cultural change really happened.

Religion remained an institution but became an empty vessel. The new generation in Quebec are highly unlikely to get baptized or even go to church.

Do you think studying your home province for your dissertation is an academic advantage?

I realized that it’s helpful to have a deep knowledge about whatever time or place it is that you’re studying. Even if you want to do a statistical analysis or a formal model, you need to have a strong intuition about what’s true and what’s not, which you can only get if you have a deep knowledge of the place. You need to understand the culture, the language, the narrative.

At first, I didn’t want to do anything about Quebec. Just like Americans get tired of American politics, people in Canada get bored of Canadian politics. But one of the reasons why I came back to the Quebec case is because I felt like I would be better equipped to say something true.

Do you think you’ll continue studying rapid religious reversals even after your dissertation?

Yes, I think I’m going to keep working on this. It’s a topic that is very rich by its nature. It connects to so many fields and approaches; so many things can be put under this angle, this scope.

It’s a little early to tell, but I wouldn’t mind writing a book just about this transformation in Quebec. However, I definitely want to study other instances of rapid reversals in the world. I’m very interested in analyzing how institutional and cultural changes work together. Literature tends to emphasize one side more than the other: that our culture leads to certain institutions, or that certain institutions lead to certain cultural traits. I want to think in terms of the interaction, though — how they can reinforce or weaken each other.

In addition to your dissertation, you have a lot of things on your plate. For example, you presented a paper on proxy wars at West Point recently. Do you think there’s a benefit to balancing multiple things at once?

The advantage of working on a few things simultaneously is that whatever project you’re going to get on will stall at some point. Partners are busy, data access problems, or just a lack of ideas. I tend to not be shy about putting something on pause and going back to it in a few months. This way, you can get a little bit more time to mature as a researcher, and then you can come back to these ideas and do something better with them. I don’t know if I would necessarily tell other people to do that, but that’s kind of what I ended up doing.

How do you embrace change? What’s your thought process?

I think it’s a taste for being open-minded: liking new ideas, new perspectives. Whenever I feel like I’m in a silo, I try to do different things to get out of it. If I’m in too much of a silo of doing formal models, then I want to be exposed to different kinds of theorizing or approaches.

I took some courses with this spirit in mind, like, “Okay, I want to learn how to write models, and I want to be able to write essays.” I want to be able to explore and synthesize a variety of ideas, and I think my research shows that a lot. It does make it difficult, in a sense, to write research. It makes it more challenging but potentially more rewarding and original.

Is your love for exploring different things part of why you’ve kept music as a passion?

Yes. This is going to sound strange, but sometimes I feel like I need to be part of another world. I can’t just be in the academic world. When I was in music school, I similarly felt that I couldn’t just be part of the music world. I always feel like I need to be part of another universe of ideas, or even people.

So I think that’s why I try to keep music alive. I find it very refreshing just to be doing something completely different, where I’m meeting completely different people, with completely different personalities. I also think I need music for my sanity, honestly. When I stop playing music too much, I get stressed — like there’s a part of me that’s missing.

Photos by Julia Yu

Benjamin Tremblay-Auger
Benjamin Tremblay-Auger
PhD ’25
Québec City, Québec, Canada
MA, Economics, Laval University
BA, Economics and Mathematics, Laval University
Field of Study
Political Economics
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