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Singh awarded for paper on ethnic diversity

Singh challenged view that diversity impeded distribution of public services

Contributing Writer
Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Prerna Singh, professor of political science at the Watson Institute, and Matthias vom Hau, a professor at the Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals, received the 2016 Best Paper Award from the Comparative Political Studies Journal for a paper that challenged the idea that “ethnic diversity impedes the provision of a wide range of public goods,” such as public education or health care.

The support for this negative relationship between ethnic diversity and public service had almost been accepted as fact by academics, Singh said. The paper, entitled  “Ethnicity in Time: Politics, History and the Relationship between Ethnic Diversity and Public Goods Provision,” presents an alternative argument.

“I thought normatively this was just a problematic literature and such a problematic law,” she said.

When Singh started working on her book “How Solidarity Works for Welfare: Subnationalism and Social Development in India,” she found positive relationships between ethnic diversity and literacy in regions of India. This spurred her to challenge the existing scholarship.

Singh and Hau raised two points of contention against the earlier scholarship. The previous research ignored “the role of the state historically” and had a weak  understanding of the relationship between ethnic diversity and public services.

In the paper, Singh and Hau pointed out that the way states vary their treatment of different ethnic groups can affect the distribution of public goods. “These are historical patterns of nation-building that influence both how public services are provided (and) also levels of ethnic diversity,” Singh said.

For example, Japan uses assimilation as a nation-building strategy to increase access to public goods for different communities, Singh said.

“We recognized right away that they were doing something distinct,” said David Samuels, a co-editor of the journal and professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. “Living in America, this is a really pressing issue for us here. How can we deal with diversity?”

“I work pretty centrally on questions of nationalism … and ethnic politics, so it’s going to be something I continue working on,” Singh said. “One way or another, it’s going to come back to haunt me.”