Media Briefings

Caste And Punishment: Evidence From India Of How Low Social Status Diminishes

  • Published Date: November 2011

Oppressed people at the bottom of an extreme social hierarchy are less likely to punish someone who hurts a member of their own community than are individuals from higher status groups. That is the central finding of research by Karla Hoff, Ernst Fehr and Mayuresh Kshetramade, which looks at the so-called untouchables in India’s caste system and how willing they would be altruistically to punish someone from a different caste who had cheated a member of their own caste.

The study, published in the November 2011 issue of the Economic Journal, finds that regardless of their wealth, education or involvement in local politics, men from low castes are significantly less willing to punish in this situation. At the same time, men from high castes are more likely to be less punitive if it is a member of their own caste who is cheating someone from another caste.

These findings make sense of the restrictions historically imposed on the low castes in India, such as exclusions from public celebrations and bans on marriage ceremonies and other shared rituals. Such restrictions prevent the low castes from developing positive group identities that would promote collective action.

The researchers begin by noting that well-functioning groups enforce social norms that restrain opportunism. Social norms are enforced by informal sanctions that are often imposed by those who obey the norm even though sanctioning is costly and yields no material benefits to the punisher. But what affects the willingness of individuals to play this key role in society?

This study shows that people’s lifelong position at the bottom of an extreme social hierarchy – the caste system in India – markedly reduces their willingness to punish opportunism that hurts a member of their own community.

The Indian caste system is an excellent setting for studying the effects of social structure on the willingness to punish norm violations altruistically. The reason is that individual mobility across castes is basically absent yet the greater freedoms that low caste individuals have enjoyed in the last 50 years have created a substantial overlap between high and low caste groups with respect to wealth, education and political participation in village government. This means that the study can identify the causal impact of caste status on individuals’ willingness to sanction norm violations.

The novelty of the findings in this study is to provide the first evidence that individuals assigned to the top stratum of an extreme social hierarchy have a substantially greater willingness altruistically to enforce a cooperation norm that helps their group than do individuals assigned to the bottom stratum of the hierarchy.

Those at the bottom of the caste hierarchy – members of castes that were traditionally subject to the practice of untouchability – adopted an attitude toward norm enforcement that was closer to pure self-interest than did individuals at the top of the caste hierarchy.

The result is reminiscent of an older perspective that stressed that to dominate a group thoroughly, the group had to be pulverized and atomised. In this view, many of the restrictions historically imposed on the low castes make sense because they prevent the low castes from developing positive group identities that promote collective action.

In a world in which everybody was completely selfish, such restrictions would make little sense, whereas if one takes into account the possibility of altruism towards one’s own group, these restrictions may help the high castes maintain their superior position.

The results indicate that a regime that deprives a group of basic rights may shape the repressed group’s culture in ways that diminish members’ willingness to punish violations of cooperation norms altruistically, with effects on the group’s ability to enforce informal agreements and to sustain collective action.

The caste system may exert a self-perpetuating influence on social preferences that renders the low castes less able to change the caste system. The untouchables’ unwillingness to sanction altruistically thus may be part of a vicious circle that contributes to the maintenance of untouchability.

Although untouchability is illegal under the Constitution of India, very recent work by Catherine Bros and Mathieu Couttenier demonstrates the systematic use of violence across Indian districts to enforce untouchability rules. The study by Ernst Fehr and colleagues may help to explain why.

The historical legacy of the denial of basic social and economic rights may be to diminish the repressed group’s capability to punish opportunism and therefore to sustain collective action and enforce contributions to public goods, which perpetuates the vulnerability and exploitability of the group.


Notes for editors: ‘Caste and Punishment: The Legacy of Caste Culture in Norm Enforcement’ by Karla Hoff, Mayuresh Kshetramade and Ernst Fehr is published in the November 2011 issue of the Economic Journal.

Karla Hoff is at the World Bank. Mayuresh Kshetramade is at Affinnova Inc. Ernst Fehr is at the University of Zurich.

The study by Catherine Bros and Mathieu Couttenier is called ‘Is Blood Thicker Than Water? Untouchability And Public Infrastructure,’ manuscript, Université de Paris, Centre de Sciences Humaines: Delhi, 2011.

For further information: contact Romesh Vaitilingam on +44-7768-661095 (email:; Ernst Fehr on +41-44-634-3701 (email:; or Karla Hoff via email: