Social Research in Remote India Wins International Award

Street view in the remote village of Shillong, India.

“In some parts of the country there’s remarkable social empowerment … India is really at a crossroads"

Amongst some tribes residing in the rainy, remote northeast Indian state of Meghalaya, daughters alone inherit property. That makes Meghalaya’s 3.2 million people a rewarding subject of study for Rachel Brulé, an assistant professor of political science at NYU Abu Dhabi.

Brulé has won a major award for a paper she wrote, with Nikhar Gaikwad of Columbia University, on the implications of Meghalaya’s inheritance system. The article was deemed the best comparative politics paper and the best paper overall presented at the US Midwest Political Science Association’s Annual Conference.

The Khasi, Jaintia, and Garo tribes that Brulé studied pass wealth down through daughters, but family assets are controlled by women and men jointly, by consensus — in other words, these groups are matrilineal but not matriarchal.

Brulé and Gaikwad assembled a local research team to survey more than 3,500 people in Shillong, Meghalaya’s capital city. The subjects included members of both matrilineal tribes and the state’s minority patrilineal groups.

It’s well-established, Brulé explained, that around the world men take more interest in politics and are more likely to vote in elections than women. But Brulé and Gaikwad found that in tribes where women have more say in economic matters, “we see a really significant flip,” she said: gender-based difference dwindles, or even reverses.

Khasi, Jaintia, and Garo women, who have more control over economic assets than women in other, patrilineal tribes, are also more involved in electoral politics, for example, and are more likely to vote than men in their tribes. As one interview subject put it, women take an interest “because they feel that they are the custodians of society.”

"There’s a lesson here for all of India,"

said Brulé, where women are generally far behind men in economic power. Reducing that gap could lead to important changes in society, Brulé clarified, because globally, women tend to consider social-welfare issues to be more important than taxation levels, while men are more likely to take the opposite view.

A busy street scene in the remote village of Shillong, India.

This was absolutely the most logistically challenging paper I’ve ever done.

Rachel Brulé, assistant professor of political science

Brulé’s research wasn’t easy. Her Shillong photos were taken on rare sunny days; Meghalaya is one of the planet’s rainiest places. “We had moments where the plane couldn’t land — there was just no traction on the runway, because the rain was so intense … And one day I narrowly missed two catastrophes: traveling in a malfunctioning helicopter and then the brunt of a landslide, and actually got stuck on a mountainside for a while.”

In other ways, too, “this was absolutely the most logistically challenging paper I’ve ever written,” she said. “We had to build a census first of the local population to make sure we could build a representative sample. And cell phone coverage was tenuous, varying from one neighborhood to the next. We had to get approval from all the local chiefs, and they’re not thrilled about outsiders … Initially a lot of the chiefs pushed back, saying ‘we don’t see how this is good for us’.” However, she explained, “we had a fantastic team of surveyors, from Shillong” who championed the project and won over the chiefs.

It was worth all the effort, she said. “This is pretty meaningful for thinking about why we see differences” among Indian states. Economically and politically, Brulé added, “inegalitarian social norms” persist, but “in some parts of the country there is remarkable social empowerment … India is really at a crossroads.”

"Culture, Capital and the Political Economy Gender Gap: Evidence from Meghalaya's Matrilineal Tribes”, by Rachel Brulé and Nikhar Gaikwad, is currently a working paper.