Ethnic identity and differences in social power between ethnic groups play a crucial role in determining the success of a collective action. While ethnic diversity has largely been shown to be an impediment to cooperation and economic development, more recent research points to the possibility that inter-ethnic relationships rather than diversity per se, determine the nature of cooperation. We hypothesize that perceived high-status identity associated with elite groups perpetuate normative behaviour that favours them and groups with perceived low-status identity anticipate and conform to these norms.
A lab-in-field experiment in India
Using individuals from the top and bottom of the caste hierarchy in a lab-in-field experiment, we empirically test the role of caste differences in collective action. In particular, we test whether contribution and enforcement behaviour in a public goods game varies with group (caste) heterogeneity and differences in marginal returns and assess its implications on social welfare. We find that the individuals from both high and low castes are very sensitive to the differences in marginal returns from the public good.
Both these caste groups exhibit 'caste conflict behaviour' with respect to norm enforcement wherein we observe higher punishment levels in the heterogeneous caste groups as compared to homogeneous caste groups. It reflects on the existence of hostile relationship between these groups due to persistent dominance and discrimination by high castes against the low castes over centuries. Among homogenous caste groups, high caste members demonstrate higher cooperation levels than the low caste members due to a strong perception of punishment and stronger affinity towards their own social identity.
We also use a priming exercise prior to the second set of games where individuals from both high and low castes are exposed to the stories of prominent individuals (role models) from their own caste groups who have excelled and contributed in various walks of life. It is attempted to test if it can nullify the caste differences in cooperation due to increases in confidence and positive self-image of their identity. We observe a disappearance of differences in cooperation between high and low caste individuals in the homogeneous caste groups while the caste conflict behaviour remains intact. Our results suggests that although the low caste members have sufficient courage to strongly retaliate discrimination by high caste members, the lack of affinity towards their own identity still remains a great concern. Policies should therefore not limit their focus only on strengthening the economic conditions and political mobilization of the low caste individuals, but also on addressing the image of the negative stereotype they carry about their own identity.