February 28, 2011
Discrimination on the basis of caste endures in the formal labor market of contemporary India, according to Paul Attewell of the City University of New York Graduate Center and Katherine S. Newman of the Johns Hopkins University Department of Sociology.
Speaking at the Institute this month, Attewell and Newman outlined three of four discrimination studies collaboratively undertaken by Princeton University and the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies: a field experiment based in employer-employee correspondence, a study focusing on employer attitudes toward caste, and a prospective cohort study of lower-caste university graduates in elite institutions.
The origin of the overarching project, Attewell said, lies in the recent debate in Indian English-language press over extending the reservation system currently operating in India into the country’s private sector. The Indian reservation system allots a percentage of public sector jobs and places in higher educational institutions to minority applicants, including those of religious minorities and Dalits, a group traditionally regarded to be of low caste. Representatives of the private sector expressed overwhelming opposition to the possibility of extending reservation, citing an ostensible lack of evidence of discrimination against Dalits in the modern private sector, Attewell said.
In order to correct the “dearth of research [speaking] to these issues,” the project employed a series of empirical techniques developed by social scientists in the US to investigate “enduring discrimination against African Americans,” Attewell said. The studies aimed to determine whether modern inequalities are “based on caste or community leftovers from the past,” whether these inequalities are “reflections of low education or working in an economically ‘backward’ sector,” and whether discrimination continues to take place “even in the most modern, dynamic sectors of the Indian economy.”
The field experiment focused on the correspondence between job applicants and prospective employers in the modern private sector, including both Indian and multinational corporations. Only first-stage discrimination was taken into account: whether or not applicants received an interview invitation.
Researchers submitted multiple sets of fabricated resumes by mail in response to job advertisements aimed at recent university graduates. All fictitious candidates shared strong credentials and differed only in names, which were “recognizably affiliated by caste or religion,” Attewell said. Three groups of candidates were set up: those with names associated with a high caste, those with typically Dalit names, and those with typically Muslim names.
Researchers found a clear statistical pattern, according to Attewell. Applicants with names associated with a low-caste background faced odds of a positive outcome only 0.67 as large as those for an application with a typically high-caste name. Muslim applicants were at an even greater disadvantage, with odds of a positive outcome only 0.33 as large as those for a high-caste name applicant. These findings clearly imply that discrimination against applicants based on name association occurs even in the very first stage of the job search. “Social exclusion is not a residue of the past; it is alive and well even in modern, high-tech India,” Attewell said.
Newman outlined the second, employer perspective study, which challenged the public assumption that overt caste discrimination is an anachronism in the Indian modern sector. Researchers interviewed a series of Indian employers about their companies’ recruitment procedures, specifically whether the organization followed a regional recruitment pattern and whether caste was significant in making hiring decisions.
The results of the study spoke to a prevailing “sense that [one] can characterize individuals by virtue of [the] group characteristics produced in [their native] regional settings,” Newman said. Indian employers were found to operate on a “powerful set of regional stereotypes,” with the belief that corporate behavior can be predicted based on a prospective employee’s family background, regardless of the individual’s higher education. The majority of interviewed employers rejected the legitimacy of the reservation policy overall, Newman said, regarding it as an unnecessary con encouraging caste-ism.
While the study is not statistically representative, it is nevertheless illustrative of the dominant patterns of thought in the recruiting process, according to Newman. The tradition of insider hiring in Indian companies, paired with an emphasis on credentials, worldliness, sophistication, and international exposure, intensifies the implications of choosing applicants based on their personal background and the likelihood of employers bypassing Dalit applicants.
Newman went on to describe the third study, looking at the role of caste in post-university employment. “A group of urban, educationally [similar] university students from different caste backgrounds [were compared] in terms of job expectations, search methods, and the role of their personal social networks in their actual placements.” Some key findings of the study include significantly lower expectations for monthly salary and job opportunity on the part of lower-caste students. “The majority of Dalits didn’t even apply to the private sector because they expected a wall of discrimination,” Newman said. Dalit students also tended to have a much smaller network of family and friends to whom they could turn for help in finding a job.
These studies emphasized the process of discrimination in the upper reaches of Indian employment, Newman said, and do not touch upon the situation in the rural areas. The significance of these findings nonetheless affects a large portion of the contemporary Indian population. Corporate consciousness with regard to persistent caste-based discrimination must be raised to level the playing field, Newman said.
The talk was part of the Joint Seminar on South Asian Politics.
By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Anna Andreeva ‘12