Honor Killing and Oreo Cookies

January 4, 2010

In his book The Elusive Quest for Growth, William Easterly tells a story:

Berat[,] on the Egyptian Nile 450 miles south of Cairo[, ..] has strong traditions of male domination and violence. A father murdered his unmarried daughter, to preserve the family honor, after she became pregnant.

A terrible story, but the thought that struck me as I read this passage was that murdering your daughter cannot be a pleasant experience for a parent. So why do honor killings take place?

Basically, the answer comes down to the importance of honor and reliability in a functioning economic system.

In the modern world, firms will go to great lengths to build up and protect their brand. Companies know that consumers have neither the time nor the inclination to perform elaborate or even simple tests on the products we buy (e.g. how often do you weigh products yourself?). One shortcut consumers use all the time is brand association. When I’m at the store and looking for cookies, I buy Oreos, even though I know I’m paying a premium “for the brand name.” The thing is, I’ve tried many other cookies in my time, including generics. Some are quite good, others are not, but it would be and is difficult for me to distinguish beforehand which are good and which are not. When I buy Oreos, I know exactly what I’m getting. Oreo as a brand has proven itself consistently delicious, and so I buy it, even though it is not the cheapest cookie on the shelf.

What’s more, Nabisco knows that its customers have this expectation and understands that it is only because of this reputation that they are able to charge premium prices. Now, I have no inside information about the Oreo production process, but I would be willing to bet any amount of money you care to name that Nabisco goes to great lengths, far beyond what, say, the FDA requires, to ensure that Oreo cookies are sanitary and of consistent quality.

To return to the subject of honor killing, in a semi- but not fully-developed commercial society, your family name is your brand. As I wrote previously about my experience in the Czech Republic, people save a huge amount of time and resources by not having to verify every single transaction they make. One mechanism by which people have confidence in transactions is reputation.

In semi-developed economies, a man who is looking to marry pays the family a bride price to secure the marriage. If I am a man in such a society, the reputation of the family is going to be very important to me. I want a guarantee that my wife is a virgin or will be faithful to me. If I know that my potential bride comes from a family that zealously guards its reputation, even going to far as to murder members who damage the family’s honor, I will be much more confident that I am getting a high-quality bride, and will thus be willing to pay higher prices.

Honor, like branding, is so generally useful in all manner of transactions that it is a sort of economic lubricant. In almost every transaction, the person you are interacting with has the opportunity to betray your trust for short-term gain. Of course, you can take measures to avoid this, but as I’ve mentioned before, these are costly. If you know your trading partner to be an honorable man from an honorable family, you can let your guard down a bit and save those resources for better uses.

Thankfully, we don’t have honor killings anymore in our society. Instead, we have branding, which performs the same function in a less gruesome way. Fathers don’t want to kill their daughters in our society, and they don’t want to do so in Egypt either, but our system of modern capitalism allows parents to indulge that preference.

On a related point, here is an ad that I saw the other day [ht: Russ Roberts]:


4 Responses to “Honor Killing and Oreo Cookies”

  1. tincolor Says:

    That’s interesting. I can imagine that in a semi-developed country marriage would be a major transaction probably both economically and culturally. But I wonder why people who no longer ‘need to’ in the sense of either economic need or cultural pressure, continue to practice honor killings. Check this out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honor_killing_in_the_United_States . Is male dominance some kind of currency among these people? To put it another way, if these people didn’t kill their daughters what perceived negative effects would there be?

  2. Joanne Says:

    I quite agree with your analysis of ‘honour’ as an index of quasi-financial value, and as such I believe ‘honour’ killings can be found wherever marriage is a collective, familial transaction in which the family recieves money, influence or status through arranging a marriage. I think its a telling detail that families who have felt to have offended the ‘honour’ code may be ejected from the communities economic life, not just through being unable to arrange future marriages, but also through being unable to transact normal trade.

    tincolor: I think you are underestimating how cultural pressures continue. Marriages within the communities best-known for HBV (‘honour’-based violence) tend to be highly endogamous, with penalties for marrying out which would be against the ‘honour’ code in any case. Many marriages are arranged between families to bring in spouses from the ‘home country.’ Also, a minority culture doesn’t necessarily accommodate itself to the host society. It may become even more rigid in order to preserve its integrity. Moreover, men of these groups may find themselves disempowered and disoriented through living as immigrants and experiencing racism, and so may cling more tightly to known classical patriarchal structures in order to retain status and power.

  3. Joanne Says:

    My own version of this woman-as-commodity analogy compares an ‘honour’ killing to a product recall: say a motor manufacturer recalling and destroying a model with defective brakes, or a publisher recalling and pulping a book with libelous or dangerously inaccurate information. The company/family takes a short-term loss for the sake of maintaining the reputation and future profits of the brand/’honour’.

  4. […] a previous post, I wrote about the importance of branding. Branding is important when information is difficult or […]

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