Research

Most of my research examines the relationship between identity and development, focusing in particular on how social status shapes redistributive politics. I use a combination of methodological approaches, including statistics, survey experiments, ethnography, interviews, and comparative historical analysis. I also maintain an active research agenda on urban class politics, which is partly motivated by my previous training in urban planning. Included below are summaries and links to some of my current papers.

Identity and Development

1. The Politics of Dignity: How Status Inequality shaped Redistributive Politics in India (under review)

Conventional theories of the welfare state are premised on the preferences of social classes – the wealthy-elite oppose redistribution, while the working-class demand expansive social rights. I argue that in societies with long histories of ascriptive discrimination, social status can be a stronger predictor of redistributive politics than pure material interests. This study utilizes the longest panel on state-level legislators in India and combines statistical analysis with historical research and qualitative fieldwork to examine the policy preferences of the political. While I do find less support for redistribution among upper-castes, legislators from marginal groups are surprisingly not associated with redistributive spending. Elites from politically mobilized low-status groups have instead focused on representational policies, particularly descriptive representation in the bureaucracy through caste-based quotas, what I call the politics of dignity. I further find evidence that greater representation of marginal groups in the bureaucracy can support redistribution by breaking down upper-caste patronage networks.



A statue of Ambedkar, India's most prominent Dalit leader, under guard for fear of vandalism from upper castes

2. Status and Development (under review for the special issue on “Status: What Is It and Why Does It Matter for Inequality”, Russel Sage Foundation Journal)

Though concerns of status are at the heart of the recent rise in right-wing populism as well as mobilization by marginal groups, theories of development have largely overlooked the role of social status in shaping economic outcomes and redistributive politics. This paper addresses this gap by drawing on research in the social sciences, psychology, history, and philosophy. I focus on hierarchical societies, where class and ethnicity generally overlap. I argue that though status is rooted in cultural beliefs about groups, these beliefs are intrinsically tied to economic systems. As compared to unranked ethnic groups, I find that contemporary status beliefs about marginal groups are rooted in elaborate ideologies that believed that these groups were not fully capable for reason. Historically, these ideologies served as the liberal justification of exploitative economic systems like slavery and colonialism. Status beliefs about the ability and worth of groups continue to reinforce economic inequality between groups by providing an implicit intellectual justification for both societal and self-reinforcing discrimination and by shaping social networks and institutions. From a normative perspective, status inequality hence hinders equality of opportunity, the bedrock of theories of development. Though we should expect a strong welfare state to reduce such inequality, the social distance between groups, a remnant of segregationist practices in hierarchical societies, hinders cross-class alliances that are necessary for redistributive politics. I conclude by reviewing the literature on prejudice and social movements and propose that representation of marginal groups in the public sphere can reduce the real and imaged social distance between groups, thus contributing towards destigmatizing status beliefs. In the process, representation also extends the “moral circle” of our solidarity, which can in turn have positive implications for redistributive politics.

Note: This paper is currently under embargo. Please email me if you would like a copy. I discussed some ideas from the project in the Open Magazine last year (pre-print version with full references available here).

3. Caste Inequality in Indian States (under review, slightly older version available here)

Caste is arguably one of the most important factors that determines social and economic outcomes in India. Few studies, however, have systematically measured caste-based inequality comparatively. This paper measures contemporary levels of caste inequality in Indian states by conceptualizing equality in three distinct ways – i) equality of outcome, measured through differences in income by caste ii) equality of opportunity, as reflected in caste-based difference in literacy rates, and ii) equality of status, reflected in the prevalence of inter-caste marriage, practices of untouchability, and crimes against lower castes. Contrary to expectation, the three measures are not highly correlated. A closer interpretation of the results suggests that this discrepancy may be because differences in social mobilization across states. Regions where caste-based hierarchy is challenged may reflect higher levels of social conflict and inequality.

Media: Ideas for India

Ranking Indian states on forms of caste inequality


Defensive Cooperation: Interaction Effects of forms of Religiosity and Muslim Identity

4. Persecuted Minorities and Prosocial Behavior: Accountability and Public Goods Provision among Hindus and Muslims in Delhi slums (with Melani Cammett and David Romney)

This paper utilizes a survey experiment in several low-income Hindu and Muslim neighborhoods in Delhi to examine how social accountability affects the likelihood of cooperation around community sanitation projects. While mainstream theories of ethnicity and development should have predicted greater willingness to cooperate in majority Hindu and Muslim neighborhoods, we find that mechanisms of social accountability are more effective among Muslims, a community that has been routinely subject to discrimination and violence in Independent India. We suggest that this “defensive cooperation” is a function of stronger in-group social networks among Muslims developed as a coping mechanism in the face of hostility from the dominant group. These results hold after accounting for a host of other relevant factors, including levels of caste and religious diversity, political trust, cultural norms, and socioeconomic status. Our research hence suggests a new, distinct mechanism that might also contribute towards the enforcement of social norms – the role of minority status.

5. Social Accountability and Public Goods Provision: Testing Informal Mechanisms to Improve Drainage in Delhi Slums (with Melani Cammett and David Romney)

Informal social accountability has been shown to have positive implications for collective action and contributions to community welfare. We test three forms of social accountability – i) public shaming through peers like neighbors, called "horizontal accountability", ii) pressure from local elites, or "vertical accountability", and iii) psychological means by signaling ingroup underperformance, known as "black-sheep effect" – in an original survey experiment in Hindu and Muslim slums in Delhi. In contrast to the findings of the literature, we find that these distinct forms of social accountability do not drive enhanced willingness to cooperate. However, the effects vary by religion: While Hindus do not respond to the treatments, Muslims express greater intent to contribute. We discuss potential mechanisms behind this finding and lay out a research agenda on how minority status might shape pro-social behavior at the local level.


The condition of drainage in one of our field sites in Delhi.

6. Why are some Indian states more Developed?

The question of why some countries and regions enjoy better living conditions than others has attracted the attention of scholars across the social sciences for decades. In fact, some of the most influential works of political economy of India have revolved around this question. Explanations have ranged from the level in public investment during the colonial period to the role of social democratic parties to the nature of land tenure systems. There is no doubt that these studies provide valuable empirical and theoretical insights and form the building blocks for understanding development in India, but so far these theories have not been put to a broader comparative test. This paper reviews the major theories of development and redistribution and tests their validity in the Indian case through longitudinal data on public spending at the subnational level. I find that while richer states do spend more on development, wealth is not associated with redistributive spending. Contrary to expectation, influential theories associated with redistribution – like the political ideology of the government, strength of social cohesiveness or sub-nationalism, ethnic diversity, and the class and caste base of the ruling coalition – are not associated with redistributive spending. In line with the literature on welfare, however, I find that a number of Indian states show definite patterns in social spending and can be categorized as distinct welfare regimes.

7. Can Growth motivate Redistribution? The Variant Politics of Education and Health in India (with Dinsha Mistree) (currently revising)

The concept of welfare is generally operationalized through spending in social sectors, most notably health and education. The implicit assumption in these studies is that support for different social sectors is motivated by concerns of redistribution. Much of the work on welfare has hence focused on explaining variation in social development across space. We use public spending patterns in India from 1960 to 2015 to find that social sectors display widely different trends in state prioritization. By focusing on health and education in particular, we argue that contrary to our dominant understanding of the politics of social development, public investment in education is driven by structural changes in the economy as a result of economic liberalization rather than concerns for pure redistribution. Our findings suggest that we need to reconsider the constituents of redistribution as currently understood by the literature.

8. Who Owns the State: Does the Identity of Bureaucrats Matter? (data collection on hold due to Covid-19)

This study builds upon the findings of my book project to examine the specific mechanisms through which changes in the ethnic composition of the bureaucracy interacts with the larger political agenda of the government to shape the implementation of development programs. I focus on Bihar, where I have been carrying out fieldwork since 2012. The study utilizes a multi-method research design. Statistical analysis of blocks matched on socioeconomic characteristics will examine the effects of the caste identity of Block Development Officers (BDOs), the main government officials responsible for implementing development projects at the local level, on public goods provisions (measured through satellite images of light density at night and public health outcomes). Ethnographies of BDO offices and interviews with civil servants at the block and district level, state legislators, local politicians, journalists, and citizens will provide insights into how changes in patronage networks influence implementation of state policies. A part of this project is in collaboration with Aaditya Dar at the Indian School of Business. The findings of this study will advance our understanding of how ethnic diversity affects state capacity, a theme I am exploring as a possible second major project in the future. While classic texts in the discipline had attributed conflict in postcolonial societies to “ethnic exclusion”, the relationship between ethnicity and the bureaucracy largely remains a black box. Emerging studies find that the inclusion of marginal groups in the bureaucracy reduced state capacity in as varied contexts as post-Reconstruction America, colonial Tamil Nadu, and contemporary Bihar. More historically oriented research, however, has shown that ethnic heterogeneity can strengthen public institutions over the long-term. In Bihar too, state capacity declined after the Rashtriya Janata Dal led government prioritized representational policies after it assumed power in 1990, but the state has registered impressive gains in development in recent years. Analysis of over four decades of data (1980 to 2020) will allow me to uncover some of the mechanisms through which the identity of the individuals who run the state influences state capacity to deliver redistributive programs. This will be the first major study to examine the policy implications of the caste identity of local civil servants in India. This project has received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and Queen’s University. I hope to resume data collection once the public health situation allows for fieldwork.


A typical appointment board in a BDO office in Bihar.

9. Minority Status and Defensive Cooperation (with Melani Cammett and David Romney) (design stage)

This project builds upon the findings of our survey experiment on social accountability and minority status (summarized above) with the aim of uncovering the mechanisms through which in-group policing among Muslims facilitates preference for cooperation around public goods. We are currently working on a conceptual paper that reviews the literature on minority politics to develop a theory of in-group policing. We focus on psychological mechanisms through which minority members may self-police their behavior because of real and perceived threat from the majority, as well as social norms and institutions, like peer-groups and community leaders, involved in sanctioning the behavior of in-group members and fostering greater in-group solidarity to promote cooperative behavior. Findings from this paper will inform the design of our next survey experiment aimed at testing these mechanisms in India. We plan to gather feedback on the pre-analysis plan in Spring 2022 with the intention of fielding the survey later in the year.

Urban Class Politics

10. Inclusion or Exclusion? Emerging Effects of Middle‐Class Citizen Participation on Delhi's Urban Poor. IDS Bulletin 38.6. 2008: 96-104

Although there has been much debate about the means of citizen participation, it is generally accepted that participatory democracy improves the quality of public policy. The first initiative towards institutionalising citizen participation in governance in an Indian city was taken by the Government of Delhi through the Bhagidari programme in 2000. But unlike more conventional forms of participatory governance, Bhagidari was restricted to the middle class parts of the city. Evaluations of the programme point towards improvement in urban services in neighbourhoods where Bhagidari was implemented. Based on the perceived success of Bhagidari, similar programmes have been initiated in other parts of the country. However, most studies so far have focused on the impact of the programme on urban services; the political impacts of the programme have largely remained unexplored. This paper explores the ways in which Bhagidari and developments surrounding the programme have and could influence public policies intended for the urban poor.

11. Voters, Activists, and Politicians: Forms of Middle Class Participation in India (currently revising, earlier version available here)

The literature on political participation expects the middle class in the global south to be less engaged in electoral politics. As reflected by the surge of global mass protests in recent years, the middle class is known to exert its citizenship through activism in civil society. This article challenges this dominant perspective by exploring the variation in forms of middle class political participation – voting, activism in civil society, and mobilization in electoral politics. Based on qualitative fieldwork in India spanning almost eight years, I argue that the nature of middle class political engagement is mediated by two factors – one, the perceived electoral potential of the middle class, and two, its preexisting networks within the state. If the political establishment identifies the middle class as electorally significant, it is likely to engage with it through existing institutional channels, as voters. Electoral alienation of the middle class can generate two outcomes. Sections of the middle class that have informal networks within the higher reaches of the state are most likely to engage in activism in the civil society almost exclusively. In contrast, middle class groups that lack networks within the state in addition to being perceived as electorally insignificant seek to become part of the formal state through mobilization in electoral politics.

Media: India in Transition; Hindu Business Line; Amar Ujala


AAP leader, Arvind Kejriwal, campaigning in the New Delhi constituency before the 2013 Delhi Assembly Elections

12. Impact of Information Campaigns on Claims-Making in Urban Slums (available upon request)

How does access to information influence citizen action for improving state accountability? Through extensive interviews and ethnographic research in five slum settlements in Delhi, this paper examines the impact of information campaigns on the means through which citizens make claims on the state. I find that information campaigns have facilitated the emergence of a new form of leaders in these communities. As opposed to traditional patronage-based networks, the “new” leaders employ formal channels to accessing the state, interestingly by invoking the language of rights and entitlements. The impact such rights-based claim-making on public service delivery, however, is limited by the framing of state entitlements. Information is most likely to result in collective action and engagement with the political representatives when entitlements are clearly defined.

Header: Lofuten Islands, Norway