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Cultural economics and India's changing caste system. The effect of economic opportunity and entrepreneurship on the social hierarchy in a small town in India is the subject of Elizabeth Holmes' (GRS'99) doctoral research. Holmes, a graduate student in anthropology, will investigate the effects of newfound affluence on the elaborate caste system, from precolonial times to today, in Kuttipuram, in India's Malabar province. She is examining economic opportunity and change in this southwestern coastal region.

Kuttipuram has an agricultural society and was once the home of a lucrative spice trade, but redistribution of land by the province's government in the 1950s has forced many families to find supplemental sources of income. A recent source is having a family member work overseas in Persian Gulf countries. Making up only 4 percent of India's population, the region's people represent more than half of the migrant Indian workers in the Middle East. Some are skilled laborers, but most are not.

Working for five to eight years, the emigrants usually return to India with significant amounts of cash, which they use to establish small businesses, hold large weddings, or for general household expenditures -- activities that can challenge their caste.

Its origins are lost in antiquity, but India's caste system still governs all social relationships. There are about 3,000 castes and more than 25,000 subcastes in India, each with its own social customs and restrictions. In the past, caste strictly regulated economic opportunities. "Few studies have shown how people use their economic prosperity to negotiate caste boundaries," Holmes says.

Her study will offer a unique perspective, she says, on the continually changing relationship between Malabar's economic organization and its social organization because she will explore the region's precolonial roots as well as its current economic trends, illustrating that caste does change over time.

Holmes' work will contribute to the emerging field of cultural economics, which, unlike classical economics, explores the linkages between the economy and other social institutions. "By examining how entrepreneurship can change -- or maintain -- a system of social stratification," she says, "my research will offer a new way to look at, and understand, how the economy is embedded in social relations."

It's the gift recipient's thoughts that count. According to a 1997 study, Americans spend more than 0 billion dollars annually on gifts. But when mother said, "It's the thought that counts," she probably didn't reckon with the emotional minefield that gift-giving can represent.

To understand and interpret this emotional minefield, SMG Assistant Professor of Marketing Frederic Brunel and two coauthors have published a new study that looks at the significance of exchanging gifts on creating and maintaining relationships.

"We found that the critical factor is how the recipients perceive the gift," explains Brunel. "A gift's symbolism is what provokes an emotional response in the recipient and can permanently change a relationship."

He cites the gift of a used frying pan to a newly married couple by the groom's coworkers -- for real, not as a gag. Feeling that they didn't care enough to decently honor his marriage, the groom withdrew from a number of previously friendly relationships with his colleagues, reporting, "It was never the same around the office again, with everyone suspected of giving the used gift."

Brunel and the research team interviewed 137 people, asking how gifts affect their relationships. The team

"Research Briefs" is written by Joan Schwartz in the Office of the Provost. To read more about BU research, visit


15 May 2003
Boston University
Office of University Relations