When Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Salvator Mundi sold for a stratospheric sum of $450.3 million in November 2017, the art world gasped in giddy shock. The sale also exposed an enormous disparity between the kind of person who could afford to spend so much…and almost everybody else. Professor Debraj Ray’s work focuses on disparities—not in the art world, but in the real world. As a development economist, he pursues questions of social inequality, the frictions of difference, and how culture clashes shape or expose economic forces.
“Imagine there are several potential markers of difference in a culture,” he says. “Race, kinship, geography, religion, and indeed class itself. Which of these markers becomes salient in a country in conflict?” Professor Ray sought to answer this question while working on a project that explored the economic foundations of ethnic violence. In countries characterized by deep inequality, the classes could square off against each other, the haves against the have-nots. In practice, however, the haves square off against the haves, and the have-nots against the have-nots. “Conflicts are often in terms of like against like as far as economic status goes,” Ray says. His 2014 article with Anirban Mitra, “Implications of an Economic Theory of Conflict: Hindu-Muslim Violence in India,” explored the marker of religion to understand how economic gains by two different religious groups in India led to violence between them. Usually, when people get richer, they experience less inclination to violence. They are unwilling to risk a good life through aggressive acts. But it is also true that when a group’s incomes increase, an opposing group might feel resentment or want to appropriate the gains.