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 statistical analysis, 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 papers and new collaborative projects.

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

How does social hierarchy affect redistribution? While mainstream theories of welfare are premised on the material interests of social classes, I argue that in societies with ascriptive discrimination, status inequality is central to redistributive politics. Mobilization of low-status groups aimed at equalizing status hierarchy generates demands for descriptive representation in addition to economic redistribution, which I refer as the politics of dignity. Based on original state-level data on India over five decades, I find political elite from low-status (i.e., lower-caste) groups have consistently pursued representation in the bureaucracy through caste-based quotas. Rather than just patronage or symbolic politics, I demonstrate that such quotas, combined with political representation of mobilized low-status groups, is associated with higher redistributive spending. High-status (i.e., upper-caste) legislators, in contrast, have a negative association with redistribution. Qualitative evidence further suggests that descriptive representation in the bureaucracy may weaken elite patronage networks, thereby reducing barriers to redistribution.

Media: Hindustan Times; Ideas for India; I4I Hindi

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

2. Status and Development: How Social Hierarchy Undermines Wellbeing in the special issue on “Status: What Is It and Why Does It Matter for Inequality”, Eds. Cecilia Ridgeway and Hazel Markus, Russel Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences (in press)

Though social status has been shown to be a fundamental motive for individuals, existing theories of development have largely overlooked the role of status in shaping economic and social outcomes. By tracing the historical roots of social hierarchy through the cases of race, colonialism, and caste, this paper outlines the specific mechanisms through which status inequality exacerbates economic disparity between groups and challenges redistributive politics. While mainstream scholarship on identity has focused on cultural representation, I argue that status is fundamentally tied to economic systems and connects cultural injustice to economic exploitation. I conclude by proposing that representation of low-status groups in public institutions can reduce the real and imagined social distance between groups, which can in turn have positive implications for redistributive politics.

Note: This paper is currently under embargo. I discuss some ideas from the project in this article for the Open Magazine (pre-print version).


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

3. Persecuted Minorities and Prosocial Behavior: Accountability and Public Goods Provision among Hindus and Muslims in Delhi slums (with Melani Cammett & David Romney) (revisions requested at Comparative Political Studies) (Paper; Pre-Analysis Plan)

How does social status affect contributions to local public goods? Based on an original survey experiment and qualitative research in slums in Delhi, we examine how persecuted minorities respond to social accountability aimed at promoting cooperation around community sanitation. While mainstream theories of diversity and public goods provision would predict greater willingness to cooperate in majority Hindu and Muslim neighborhoods, we find that mechanisms of social accountability are more effective among Muslims across the board, a group that routinely faces discrimination and violence in India. We propose that this reflects “defensive cooperation”, or a set of coping strategies in a hostile sociopolitical environment. Muslims with stronger ingroup ties, who are more likely to have developed the social technologies required to promote cooperative behavior, largely drive the effects. Our findings point to a new mechanism that helps to enforce social norms and, hence, public goods provision – the role of minority status.

4. Conceptualizing and Measuring Ethnic Inequality: Findings from India (under review) (previous version)

Emerging research on group-based inequality has made major contributions in the field of ethnic politics, but most studies have focused on economic difference between groups. I draw on theories of equality in political philosophy and use the empirical case of caste in India to operationalize three forms of ethnic inequality: i) inequality of outcome, measured through disparity in income, ii) inequality of opportunity, reflected in caste-based difference in literacy, and iii) inequality of status, reflected by the prevalence of endogamy, untouchability, and caste-based violence. While regional pattern in caste inequality is consistent with the literature, I find that the correlation between different forms of inequality is surprisingly not high. An interpretation of the findings suggests that the patterns in the interaction between material (outcome/opportunity) inequality and status inequality could offer a parsimonious way to explain support for redistribution, as well as ethnic mobilizations at either ends of the political spectrum.

Media: Ideas for India; I4I Hindi; Mukh Samvad (Marathi)

Ranking Indian states in forms of caste inequality

5. Social Accountability and Public Goods Provision: Testing Informal Mechanisms to Improve Community Welfare in the slums of Delhi (with Melani Cammett & David Romney) (under review) (Paper; Pre-Analysis Plan)

Efforts to uncover the microfoundations of the negative association between diversity and public goods provision point to the role of social norms in facilitating collective action. Based on a survey experiment in slums in Delhi, we test three forms of social accountability: i) public shaming through peers or horizontal accountability, ii) pressure from local elites or vertical accountability, and iii) shaming by signaling ingroup underperformance in the presence of outgroup members or the black sheep effect. Contrary to expectations, we find that none of these forms of social accountability affect willingness to cooperate. Levels of ethnic diversity also do not condition the outcomes. However, exploratory analyses show that the effects vary by religion. While Hindus do not respond to the treatments, Muslims express greater intent to participate. Our findings call for research on how minority status might shape contributions to local welfare.


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

6. Why are some Indian states more Redistributive? (working paper)

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 spanning more than five decades. 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, ethnic diversity, and the class and caste base of the ruling coalition – are not associated with redistributive spending. Instead, echoing the findings of the larger literature on welfare state, I find that a number of Indian states show definite patterns in social spending and can be categorized into distinct welfare regimes.

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

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 in progress)

While representation of historically excluded groups is widely supported on the normative principles of social justice and decolonization, the effect of descriptive representation on public goods provision is not well understood. Should we expect bureaucrats from marginal groups to be more responsive to the masses? This project examines if and how the identity of the individuals who run the state influences state capacity to deliver redistributive policies. I focus on Bihar, one of the poorest states in India that is home to more than 100 million people. The state witnessed a dramatic political shift in 1990 when the first lower-caste political coalition led by Lalu Prasad Yadav assumed power. His government prioritized representational policies as one of its key agendas, which increased the share of lower castes in the bureaucracy. This project examines if this transformation improved development outcomes in the long-term. I use a mixed-methods research design, combining statistical analysis with ethnographic and qualitative research. The quantitative part of the project, in collaboration with Aaditya Dar, examines the effects of the caste identity of Block Development Officers (BDOs) on public goods provision (measured through satellite images of light density at night and public health outcomes). Ethnographies of BDO offices and elite interviews will provide insights into how changes in local patronage networks influence policy implementation. This research will advance our understanding of how ethnic diversity affects state capacity, a theme I am exploring as a possible second major project. While classic texts in the discipline have attributed conflict in postcolonial societies to “ethnic exclusion”, the relationship between ethnicity and the bureaucracy remains a black box. Emerging studies find that the inclusion of low-status groups reduced state capacity in as varied contexts as post-Reconstruction America, colonial Tamil Nadu, and contemporary Bihar. Historically oriented research, however, has shown that ethnic heterogeneity can strengthen public institutions over the long-term. While existing studies have largely focused on political representatives, this will be the first major study to examine the policy implications of the caste identity of local civil servants in India.


A typical appointment board in a BDO office in Bihar.

9. Persecuted Minorities and Defensive Cooperation (with Melani Cammett, David Romney and Akshay Dixit) (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 Fall 2022 with the intention of fielding the survey early next year.

10. Inclusion or Exclusion? Emerging Effects of Middle‐Class Citizen Participation on Delhi's Urban Poor. IDS Bulletin 38(6): 96-104, 2008

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 (previous version)

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

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