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Monisha Dhingra







Does Poverty Know No Caste?

Monisha Dhingra, Research Associate, London School of Economics and Political Science

The history of the particular configuration of intergroup inequality in any one society determines the most salient social identities in that context (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999), with implications for psychological well-being and functioning (see, for example, Mclaughin et al., 2012). However, the impact of interaction between culture, socioeconomic status (SES), and other contextually salient hierarchies on these psychological outcomes is not yet clear (see Miyamoto et al., 2019). This research, funded by the SPSSI Researchers in the Global South programme, addresses this gap by examining decision-making at the intersection of caste, scarcity and subjective SES in India. Combing Dr. Jennifer Sheehy Skeffington’s[1] expertise in psychology of poverty, inequality and inter-group relations, and Professor Sujoy Chakravarty’s[2] expertise in behavioral economics and caste, this research utilizes online and lab-in-field experiments to investigate the role of caste in shaping two aspects of the psychology of poverty: the cognitive strain caused by scarce resources and the perception of inferiority cued by low social status. We can thus examine how the construal of social status and scarcity that mediates the impact of economic conditions on psychological outcomes takes shape in the context of, and is thus contingent upon, a culture shaped by a particular socio-historically prevalent system of social stratification. In doing this we address an important policy and political question in India: Should cultural inequalities such as caste or income be a criterion for reservations and poverty-related aid in India?

Despite the continued over-representation of the disadvantaged caste groups in the bottom 10% of earners in India, Indian policy on poverty alleviation and the development sector tends to gloss over issues pertaining to caste in key domains of social well-being, such as health, hygiene, employment, and financial inclusion (Mosse, 2018; Bond Report, 2019). The importance of understanding and targeting caste as an independent causal factor is highlighted by research that shows that caste continues to impact outcomes in physical and mental health, education, and financial inclusion, despite controlling for SES and other factors associated with access and infrastructure (Komanapalli & Rao, 2020; Goedecke et al., 2018; Coffey, 2018; Jeffery, 2004). Indeed, reports show that despite progress made thanks to caste-based reservations in education and the civil service, Scheduled Caste groups continue to have the lowest access to education, health and employment opportunities in India (Vaid & Dutta, 2019; Bharti, 2018; Thorat. 2017; Boorah, 2010), and tend to face explicit and implicit discrimination within higher education systems, government, and private organizations (Banerjee, Bertrand, Datta, & Mullainathan, 2007).

Meanwhile, the current government is appealing to the sentiments of the dominant caste groups, through moves such as amending the constitution to assure them reservations in central universities. Many have argued that this move towards favouring upper castes is fueled by caste-based status anxieties and relative deprivation experienced by upper caste groups due to the greater presence of lower caste groups in higher education institutes and the civil service (Dreze, 2020; Deshpande & Ramachandran, 2019; Jaffrelot & Kalaiyarasan, 2019; Jaffrelot, 2016). This has further given impetus to the cultural salience of the question of whether disadvantaged caste status continues to adversely affect individuals despite an increase in socio-economic status and related policy proposals for introducing income limits for reservations for disadvantaged groups. To this end, by employing experimental methods to investigate how the salience of socioeconomic and caste identities affects key psychological processes relevant to important life decisions in the context of education, health and finance, our research can offer empirical clarity on an issue of pressing social concern and growing political debate.


[1] Assistant Professor of Social Psychology, Department of Psychological and Behavioral Sciences, London School of Economics and Political Science


[2] Professor of Economics, Center for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University.



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