Prerna Singh

Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies
Prerna Singh
The Mahatma Gandhi Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies
Photo: Mike Cohea/Brown University
Comparative politics, Prerna Singh has found, is an effective way to ask and answer the big questions. Why are schools and hospitals better here than there?

Prerna Singh confesses that she never envisioned herself becoming a political scientist.

“I don’t come from a family of academics. I don’t even think I knew anyone with a Ph.D.,” she said.

Growing up in India and doing her undergraduate work in economics at Delhi University, she found the discipline, which was primarily limited to the study of the Indian constitution, to be a bit boring.

But she found herself asking what she calls “big questions” — why did some states in her country have better schools and health care systems than others, and why are some countries safer for women than others — and realized that political science as a broader area of study might be an outlet for investigating some of these big questions.

“It wasn’t a moment when I realized I wanted to be a political scientist, it was just having these questions and finding myself in the situation where I was lucky enough to begin to answer them,” Singh said.

Singh began her graduate work in political science at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom before moving on to Princeton University, where she received her Ph.D. in politics.

Since then, she’s been working to answer the questions that originally piqued her interest in political science, many of which touch on issues of development, governance, nationalism, and ethnic politics in South Asia and beyond.

Singh’s forthcoming book, from Cambridge University Press in its Comparative Politics series, examines the often dramatic differences in social welfare programs that often exist between places that are otherwise similar, ethnographically, economically, or politically.

“I was reading an article one day that said that depending on what Indian state you are born in, a woman from one can live 15 years longer than a woman born in another,” Singh said, explaining the motivation for her research. She cites other examples beyond her homeland as well, like the difference in healthcare in Cuba compared to Haiti, two island nations that are separated by only 50 miles of water.

“The place where you happen to be born or choose to live makes such a difference in such basic things: the kind of schools you attend, the hospitals you have access to, whether you’ll survive at childbirth. As a social scientist, I just wanted to understand why,” she says.

The answer?

“It’s very simple in that it makes a lot of intuitive sense, even though it was an answer that I was surprised no one had given systematically. A political theorist, Yael Tamir, puts it very nicely: ‘It’s the magic of the pronoun — my.’”

Singh found that collective identity, what she, in the context of her study of Indian states, calls “subnationalism,” and loyalty to one’s homeland can go a long way in one’s willingness to support the welfare of the political community as a whole. In India, for example, tax money from the wealthy funds social welfare programs, but those wealthy tend to utilize private services like schools and hospitals. Still, Singh argues that those elite that feel a sense of obligation or solidarity with their state will be more supportive of the state funding social services that they are very unlikely to use and which disproportionately benefit the poor.

“It’s like taking a hit for the team,” Singh said.

She also explains that all is not lost for regions that don’t have a strong sense of collective identity, citing the success story of the state of Bihar, India. Spurred by the emergence of a strong sense of Bihari identity, championed in large part by a new chief minister who made Bihari pride a cornerstone of his campaign, the state is now on its way from being known as a backwater area of India to a place of dynamism and positive change. Singh points to the celebration of Bihar day and the institution of major cultural events such as a literary festival as contributors to the increased sense of nationalism and pride.

“It’s a very different argument from what most people and even most scholars usually make about identities such as nationalism which are often linked to conflict, xenophobia, and discrimination. That certainly exists, but there is also this other, relatively underemphasized side of it that is actually constructive and that is what I focus on,” Singh said.

Before coming to Brown, Singh was an assistant professor in the Department of Government at Harvard. While there, she completed an article that has recently been published in Comparative Political Studies. The article used an online survey experiment to show how the increased salience of an Indian national identity can encourage more pro-social behavior on the part of Hindus toward Muslims and may thus act as a bridge across South Asia's most conflictual ethnic divide.

For the last few years, Singh has also done research on the effects that state institutions like the census can have on deepening divides between groups. The simple act of the census asking someone what their religion or race is can be enough to reinforce that identity and divisions among groups, according to Singh. The data that Singh and her co-author collected show that states that ask about ethnic identities on their census are historically more likely to witness an ethnic civil war.

“It shows that, to a large extent, the state is complicit in creating these divisions. In fact, you realize that states do this even without intending to do so or even realizing it.”

Singh will continue to ponder the “big questions” here at Brown, as the Mahatma Gandhi Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies, as she begins her first semester teaching two graduate-level courses on comparative politics.

Only on College Hill a few months, Singh says she’s already found colleagues with a similar curiosity.

“In the kind of work I’m doing I can’t think of a better place than Brown. The questions of comparative politics, of development and governance, identity politics, working on India, working on questions of gender. Some of the best people who work on these are down the corridor from me and that’s really exciting. Immersion in Brown is immersion in a whole community.”