research institute for compassionate economics

Social inequality

Much of r.i.c.e.’s research documents how social inequality impacts health and wellbeing.  It shows that discrimination against women, Dalits, and Muslims has negative consequences not only for those who experience it, but is also for society as a whole.

One example of this is the relationship between open defecation and untouchability.  People from “untouchable” or dalit castes face severe discrimination and social exclusion.  Many people in India see the sorts of simple, affordable latrines that are used to reduce open defecation and improve health in other countries as impure and polluting, in part because they are disgusted by the idea of emptying latrine pits: they believe that only people from the most socially excluded among dalit castes should interact with human feces.  Pit emptying, which in other countries is a routine latrine maintenance activity, presents deep challenges in rural India because of its relationship to untouchability.

Another example is the relationship between a woman’s social status and her children’s health.  In part due to the fact that young women of child-bearing age have low social status within their families, Indian mothers are underweight, and gain too little weight during pregnancy.  It is common in many households for women to eat last, and to eat the least nutritious foods.  When women are undernourished during pregnancy, their babies have lower birth weight, and grow up to be less healthy.  Evidence also suggests negative consequences of low women’s status on long-term indicators of wellbeing such as child height.

These two examples show how discrimination hurts everyone, including socially higher-ranking members of society.  But we must not forget the toll they take on excluded people. r.i.c.e research finds that Dalits and Muslims experience worse mental health than higher caste Hindus, even after accounting for the fact that they have less education and economic resources.  This research highlights the need for policies to move beyond redistribution and address discrimination directly.

Measuring discrimination

In order to measure the attitudes of prejudice that reinforce the lower position of oppressed groups such as women, Dalits, and Muslims, and ultimately harm everyone, r.i.c.e. developed a phone survey called Social Attitudes Research, India (SARI) in 2016. SARI is the first survey dedicated to track social attitudes in representative samples of adults in states across India. It has collected data over 14,178 respondents in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Mumbai, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Bihar and Jharkhand. Quantifying the extent of prejudice will allow for a more robust public discourse and a more active approach to measuring and challenging prejudice and discrimination.

What is r.i.c.e. doing now?

SARI results from Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Mumbai, and Rajasthan show widespread prevalence of the practice of untouchability and opposition to intercaste marriage.  Results also show extensive discrimination against women: many people disapprove of women working outside the home, many women practice ghunghat, and in many households, women eat after men do.  Results also show widespread prejudice against Muslims and ambivalence towards violence against Muslims.

While there are no easy policy solutions for these deep social problems, we at r.i.c.e. are sharing SARI’s results widely. Our research on explicit prejudice and discrimination towards Dalits and Muslims was published in Economic and Political Weekly. In a recent working paper, we study gender discrimination and mental health. You can find media coverage here (Indian Express), here (Scroll), and here (NewsClick).

We are also committed to sharing the methodology of SARI, which is, to our knowledge, the first representative mobile phone survey on discrimination.  You can see our report on phone survey methods here; read about measuring mental health in phone surveys here; and read about interviewer effects in phone surveys here.

We hope that evidence from SARI will encourage others to study these important social dynamics, and push forward important conversations about how to confront prejudiced attitudes.