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Stanford undergraduate student studies how social groups motivate political participation in India

Which women become politicians and does women’s electoral representation lead to changes in policy outcomes?

Somer Khambu Bryant, ’22, has conducted research for the past two years for Assistant Professor of Political Science Soledad Artiz Prillaman with support from the King Center’s part-time and full-time research assistant programs.

In winter quarter 2020, Bryant started assisting Prillaman with a book project analyzing the reasons women in India have lower rates of community political participation than their male counterparts. Bryant chose to continue the research for an additional eight quarters during Stanford’s academic year, in addition to working full-time for Prillaman during the summers of 2020 and 2021. She plans to continue working for Prillaman full-time over the summer of 2022.

somer bryant
Somer Bryant

As a double major in international relations and feminist, gender, and sexuality studies, Bryant was drawn to the project and Professor Prillaman’s research more generally because of its focus on women’s issues. Prillaman’s research addresses topics such as the political consequences of development and development policies, particularly for women’s political behavior, how women are democratically represented, and how voter demands are translated into policy and governance. This provided an opportunity for Bryant to approach development through a feminist lens and to familiarize herself with South Asia.

Few women held elected positions in India prior to 1993, when a constitutional amendment was passed that reserved one-third of seats in local councils for female representatives. As a result, women’s electoral representation in India rose significantly. Today, while only 12 percent of parliamentarians are women, more than 33 percent of elected representatives in the three tiers of local government are women.

Soledad Artiz Prillaman
Soledad Prillaman

Since the constitutional amendment, research has documented that women who are elected as representatives are more likely to invest in services desired by women. Prillaman, with the help of Bryant, now asks: When (and why) do female representatives act to elevate the particular voices and demands of women?  

The project with which Bryant assisted explored a potential correlation between participation in self-help groups and increased female involvement in politics. These groups are small, women-only associations that act as informal micro-financial institutions in which members provide informal loans to each other. Bryant’s work examined what Prillaman refers to as the “gendered network effect”— the notion that although women’s groups are not necessarily intended to promote gender consciousness, the existence of single-sex spaces provides a forum for discussion of issues facing women and fosters political activism.

To determine the magnitude of this effect, Bryant worked with transcripts of interviews with men and women in twenty villages in rural India, comparing responses given by interviewees who had or had not participated in self-help groups. Bryant created a coding scheme that allowed her to quantify the political participation of interviewees, and then conducted further statistical analysis on the resulting dataset. Bryant’s analysis found that women who participated in self-help groups showed consistently higher rates of political participation, including publicly supporting and voting for candidates. Bryant also helped identify what it is women want from elected representatives and mapped the nature of collective demand making in political institutions by self-help groups. This speaks to questions about when and how do female citizens hold elected representatives accountable to their specific demands.

self-help group India
A women's self-help group in India | Credit: Soledad Prillaman

Bryant is now working to digitize, code, and create a comprehensive database of elected officials across local governments in India, using data sourced from state election commissions. Prillaman says that once completed, this data will allow researchers to better understand the conditions under which “female elective representatives work to implement policies preferred by women.”

Bryant notes that she’s been able to pursue a mix of qualitative and quantitative research during her work with Professor Prillaman; the summer after her junior year, she had the opportunity to help design a questionnaire that is currently being used in a second round of interviews with the self-help group participants.

“Somer is such an excellent example of what the King Center’s research assistant program embodies,” Prillaman said, specifically praising Bryant’s willingness to tackle a variety of projects, her interest in development, and her background in data analysis. Prillaman advises students interested in working for King Center affiliates to “invest in data skills.”

“It’s one of those things that not all students realize makes up the bulk of what political scientists and economists do,” Prillaman explained.

Prillaman also emphasizes the extent to which the program allows undergraduate research assistants to explore a variety of types and areas of research. Bryant agrees, and strongly encourages students to get involved with the King Center’s undergraduate programs. For her, the research assistantship presented an opportunity to clarify her post-graduate direction. While she’d never considered research as a career path, she’s now applying to pre-doctoral programs.

“It’s been one of the best experiences I’ve had at Stanford,” Bryant stated. “It’s definitely shaped my future ambitions.”