In India for example, caste and economic based affirmative action is used in political seats, education etc. My question is, have these methods of affirmative action in general (independent of India) been shown to reduce inequality by statistical measures?

I mainly want to focus on AA by reservation of seats but would be interested in analysis of AA by other means.

Or do they have credibility by some other scientific metrics?

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    This question might benefit from focus. Even if we consider only a single country, the term “affirmative action” refers to a whole array of policies, practices, laws, and/or regulations. Some may help and others may not. Also, “inequality” could use some clarity and context. It could easily be shown that some private corporations have instituted voluntary policies that they called “affirmative action” that soon resulted in having more women and minorities on their boards of directors and in executive positions. So that’s a “yes” in that case. Asking about society as a whole is different. Jan 16 at 18:20
  • I am talking about the popular conception of AA, giving a positive bias when considering applicants/ individuals by entites in power. In college admissions, for example, this manifests as weighting about 20% of the applicant in what ethinicity and sexuality the canditate is. The basic question is regarding if to begin with, there is scientific reasons to think that affirmative action maybe a valid solution to inequality problems other than from intuition. Or, perhaps examples of societes which put faith in it, and actually elevated inequality using measurable things Jan 16 at 19:28
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    But along @ToddWilcox's point, whose 'popular conception'? Where I've lived and discussed this topic at length, in the Southern/SE United States, there is a strong association of AA with quotas. But in the Western United States there is a strong association of AA with elimination of bias (reliance on pure objectivity). In the UK, such policies seem to be based on academic background in educational settings. In Austria, I'm not sure the concept even exists. You're going to have to be specificy what you mean by AA, and what statistical results you expect a study to produce (and in what areas).
    – ouflak
    Jan 17 at 12:36
  • Quotas can undeniably increase representation, as with the UK Labour Party's use of all-woman shortlists for parliamentary seats which increased the number of female MPs. Likewise, reserving spaces for minorities could hypothetically increase numbers. The effect on other measures of equality is likely to be slower and less clear-cut. So what measure of equality are you interested in, and what area of affirmative action are you interested in?
    – Stuart F
    Jan 17 at 19:27
  • All which applies, or the strongest which is used in arguing for AA based on reservation @StuartF Jan 18 at 17:53

1 Answer 1


There are a few ideas floating around behind concepts like Affirmative Action and desegregation:

  • Exposure breeds tolerance: people (as a rule) can be paranoid about people and things they are not familiar with. Forcing members of one group to be exposed to members of another group creates a level of familiarity and comfort that undercuts reactive oppressive attitudes
  • Exemplars: getting a few people within an oppressed minority group into positions of power and authority serves as an example to other members of the group that it is possible to rise within society, which encourages higher goals and greater effort across the minority group
  • Fiscal ambiguity: in segregated societies, funds for education and public services are invariably allocated disproportionately towards the hegemonic group. Programs like AA make it more difficult to funnel public funds to the benefit of one group over another, because it becomes more difficult to tell which locations are exclusive to one group or the other
  • Mentorship and leadership: getting a few people within an oppressed minority group into positions of power and authority means that money, effort, and power tend to flow into the minority community, not away from it. That creates opportunities, raises property values, increases community prestige, and offers other benefits

None of these intuitions plays out quite as expected in the real world — I mean, what does? — but the general principle of reducing alienation and isolation clearly has a slow, cumulative effect on a society. Consider, for instance, that in 1960 there were 19 women and 4 blacks in Congress, and as of today there are 144 women and 65 blacks. While Affirmative Action didn't cause that change directly, it created the attitudes that allowed it.

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    Counterexample: the proportion of women in Swiss parliament rose from 5% to 39% in the last 50 years - without any affirmative action taken by the government. I am therefore not convinced that the correlation you describe is a causation as you claim.
    – meriton
    Jan 16 at 15:49
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    Also, there is at least one way in which affirmative action may be harmful: If affirmative action promotes people by minority status rather than competency, incompetent minority members may be promoted, and thus reinforce the stereotype that members of this minority are incapable of doing the job well.
    – meriton
    Jan 16 at 15:59
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    I would never dare imagine a real world political system to be perfect :-) Still, I find it instructive that the Swiss have achieved a better representation for women in their parliament (39%) than the US (29%). If Affirmative Action is necessary for society to change, how did the Swiss change more without it? At the very least, this hints at the existence of other factors, and that Affirmative Action may not be as crucial as some people make it out to be.
    – meriton
    Jan 16 at 17:56
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    I know. My comment aims at the last sentence of your answer, which says "Affirmative Action created the attitudes that allowed change". This makes it sound like these attitudes, which "allow", i.e. are necessary for, change, would not otherwise have emerged. If this was not your meaning, perhaps a clearer phrasing would help? And if it is your meaning, perhaps you could evidence to support your claim? Because I don't know to what extent affirmative action caused these changes, and I think that would be germane to the question.
    – meriton
    Jan 16 at 19:27
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    @TedWrigley; 'the current system of white privilege...' is there really a system of white privilege? I don't agree. And no one said that stupid white people are better than everyone else
    – user41637
    Jan 16 at 19:41

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