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Effects of caste structure on community collaboration in India


UC Davis graduate student Tim Waring conducted a three-phase research project that included ethnography, experimental games, and a multi-village survey of residents in Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India. Waring’s ethnographic investigation in the study villages provided a cultural context for natural resource management decisions and patterns of social justice. He used results from this research to design a survey of 300 farmers across six villages to examine the interactions between caste diversity, hierarchy and cooperation in the realms of village justice, irrigation, and cooperation in everyday life. Finally, he conducted an experimental behavioral game in a single village in which voluntary participants were asked to play a cooperative game, modeled on the local irrigation system. Participants were grouped into ‘diverse’ and ‘hierarchical’ treatments, and data collection was conducted through innovative web-based wireless software never before used in anthropological research in this way. The preliminary results seem to show that while the socio-ethnic diversity of caste within villages does damage cooperation, the influence of caste-based hierarchy is much more negative.

Further, Waring trained a team of seven college and graduate level students from Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, on the nature of the cooperative experiment and taught them how to operate the handheld computing devices used to gather data. The students subsequently helped explain, manage and conduct the behavioral experiment. Their experience is completely novel for the region, and gives them a competitive advantage in building their resumes and ultimately, their careers.

Waring also conducted a groundbreaking project on the evolution of a traditional Tamil art form known as the Kolam. The ner pulli, nelevu Kolam is a chalk drawing consisting of a line looped around a matrix of dots. He interviewed 300 women artists who draw these Kolam patterns and collected a small sample repertoire from each one. Analysis, now underway, breaks each Kolam in to a series of maneuvers, allowing a very deep motif-level comparison of patterns. This data-set, which includes social network data connecting artists, will be used to test theories of information flow within cultural systems.

Waring was supported by the National Science Foundation through the Biological Invasions Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program and by an award from the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship program.

Address Goals

Waring’s results modify an important set of findings from around the world on the negative impact of ethnic diversity on cooperative social benefits. His research on the kolam is completely novel. All studies are currently in preparation for publication in journals ranging from Science, to World Development, to Current Anthropology.