Quotas for disadvantaged groups, in politics and elsewhere, are implemented in more than 100 countries over the world. Because they are sometimes seen as violating important principles, or because they generate strong emotional reactions, they tend to attract controversy and generate debate.

What happens when such quotas are suddenly implemented in one of the most unequal societies in the world? Since the mid-1990s, a particularly extreme social experiment has taken place as part of local-level elections in rural India: political quotas for women and for members of India’s lower castes have allowed dozens of thousands of members of these groups to run, and to be elected in positions of power – the equivalent of mayoral positions. Their election is in this context remarkable, as conservative social norms imply that members of these groups would almost certainly never be elected in the absence of these quotas.

My recent book – Why Representation Matters: The Meaning of Ethnic Quotas in Rural India – explores the impact of quotas for members of the scheduled castes (the former “untouchables”) on everyday intergroup relations in rural India. Members of the scheduled castes remain discriminated against in most of their interactions with others in rural India. According to 2006 data, members of the SCs remain barred from entry into temples in more than 50 percent of Indian villages. They are denied access to water facilities in more than 45 percent of villages, and denied seating among other villagers in 30 percent of villages. Physical violence against them also remains disturbingly common, including towards members of the community serving in political office.

While social scientists had – since the landmark study of Chattopadhyay and Duflo (Chattopadhyay and Duflo 2004) – explored the effect of these quotas, they had mostly focused on the material impact of disadvantaged groups’ access to political representation. This focus on material outcomes struck me as potentially missing the most exciting consequences that these quotas might have. When members of groups that have long been dominated, stigmatized and excluded finally gain access to political power, it is often suggested that this experience will also change the social meaning of belonging to such a group, and that these psychological changes will have far-reaching behavioral consequences. Do policies enabling a more descriptive form of political representation change the psychology of intergroup relations? If so, in what ways?

The book proposes a nuanced but carefully optimistic answer to these questions. Drawing on ethnographic work and two MP3/audio surveys (a methodology designed for this context), I show that descriptive representation changes what citizens perceive to be socially tolerated norms of interaction. These changes in perceived norms in turn reduce the likelihood that villagers engage in hostile or discriminatory behaviors. These findings suggest that the most important rationale for quotas in politics may have less to do with material effects than with immaterial ones. In that sense, they also inform the debate on strategies to reduce stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination, as they confirm that social norms often constitute a major avenue through which attitudes and behaviors may change. Public policies that incentivize new norms of intergroup interaction – such as quotas – may thus be particularly valuable.

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