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.
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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.”
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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.
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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.
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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.