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Caste and Punishment: the Legacy of Caste Culture in Norm Enforcement


  •  Corresponding author: Ernst Fehr, Department of Economics, Laboratory for Social & Neural Systems Research, University of Zurich, Blumlisalpstrasse 10, CH-8006 Zurich, Switzerland. Email:

  • We thank Robert Boyd, Robert Keohane, Vijayendra Rao and Rob Willer for valuable discussions and comments. We are indebted to Sonal Vats for superb research assistance at every stage of this project, and to Siddharth Aryan, Manoj Gupta, Mukta Joshi, Shiv Mishra, Priyanka Pandey and Dinesh Tiwari for their help in implementing the experiment. We benefited from participants’ comments at seminars at Cornell, Georgetown University Law School, George Washington University, Harvard, the Indian Statistical Institute at Delhi, the Institute for Advanced Studies, the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Inequality, Princeton, the University of Texas at Dallas and the World Bank. We acknowledge research support from the World Bank (for Hoff) and from the Swiss National Science Foundation (Grant 100014_130127/1 on the ‘The Social Dynamics of Normative Behavior: Population Fragmentation and Divergent Cultural Evolution’). Hoff thanks the Princeton University Center for Health and Wellbeing for its hospitality in 2008–9.


Well-functioning groups enforce social norms that restrain opportunism. We study how the assignment to the top or bottom of the caste system affects the altruistic punishment of norm violations. Individuals at the bottom of the hierarchy exhibit a much lower willingness to punish norm violations that hurt members of their own caste. We can rule out self-selection into castes and control for wealth, education and political experience. We thus plausibly identify the impact of caste status on altruistic punishment. The lower willingness to punish may impair the low castes’ ability to enforce contracts, to ensure property rights and sustain cooperation.

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