Back to Honor Killing

July 12, 2010

This paper is slow-going. Basically, the update is that I no longer think that honor killing is analogous to high quality standards at Nabisco for Oreo cookies. With the branding analogy, I was thinking that “dishonorable” conduct is somehow revealing information about a family that people otherwise wouldn’t know, and thus honor killing was a signal from the family that no, in fact they could be trusted. Now I basically think that honor killing is done to enforce the otherwise hard-to-enforce terms of the marriage contract, and it’s done by the family because they are in the best position to do it, and least vulnerable to retaliation (family feuds and whatnot) if they do kill one of their own. That’s the summary. Here’s what I’ve written:

II. Literature review

Economists since Becker [1974] have understood that the basic economic logic of scarcity and specialization can be usefully applied to the marriage contract. However, the mere possibility of gains from trade is not sufficient to ensure that trade actually occurs. Some simple exchanges, the case of two traders in a spot market exchanging wheat and corn, say, are easy enough to explain by mutual gains from trade. But marriage is a world away from this simple exchange. Rather, marriage is a long-term relationship characterized by mutual investments in specific human capital, which in turn creates the threat of opportunistic behavior by partners. For some transactions, even these two problems may not offer serious impediments to doing business if suitably extensive contracts can be created, but the marriage relationship is so long-term and wide-ranging that the issue of bounded rationality becomes important. In short, marriage prominently displays all of the characteristics Oliver E. Williamson [1985] describes the essence of “transaction cost economics.” The possibility of mutual gains from trade, as demonstrated by Becker, do not lead to economic interaction until individuals find a way to overcome transaction costs, broadly defined.

Williamson defines opportunism as “self-interest seeking with guile” (30), and a rich literature from Othello to The Scarlet Letter to Anna Karenina attests to the fact that it is an important problem in marriage. As Othello knows, opportunistic behavior can put great strain on a marriage. And as Desdemona discovers, the mere possibility of such behavior can lead to the dissolution of a relationship, even when the accused party acts with perfect virtue,. We are thus not surprised to find that in numerous cultures and places, people will demand extreme measures to ensure that adultery is prevented, discovered, and punished.

It is one thing to recognize that a demand for fidelity exists; it is another explain how to this demand can be satisfied. Wedding vows are a commonly used device in which spouses pledge to be faithful to the terms and spirit of the marriage contract, but it is easy to view such pledges as “cheap talk” without a strong system of enforcement to back them. Ostrom et al. [1992] caution that the “cheap talk” assumption, despite its prominent place in political theory since Hobbes, does not accurately predict the behavior of experimental subjects managing the use of a common-pool resource. In their experiments, the authors found that communication alone did produce cooperation. Furthermore, even higher levels of cooperation were achieved by the use of communication combined with an internal sanctioning mechanism. Ostrom et al. conclude that it is possible to bring about cooperation through internal governance.

Axelrod [1986] had described this system of communication and sanctions with a game-theoretic discussion of norms. Axelrod writes, “a norm exists in a given social setting to the extent that individuals usually act in a certain way and are often punished when seen not to be acting in this way.” The challenge for economists is to explain the incentives facing individuals to follow and enforce norms, especially when enforcement is costly. Indeed, Axelrod argues that punishing norm-violators can produce fragile results, unless the punishment of norm-violators is itself the subject of a metanorm, Axelrod’s term for willingness to impose sanctions upon those who fail to sanction norm-violators. Axelrod’s metanorm concept is key to understanding the persistence of honor killing.


Alchian, Armen A. “Uncertainty, Evolution and Economic Theory.” The Journal of Political Economy. Vol. 58, No. 3 (June 1950). pp 211-221

Axelrod, Robert. “An Evolutionary Approach to Norms”, The American Political Science Revie, Vol. 80, No. 4, Dec. 1986, pp. 1095-1111

Becker, Gary. “A Theory of Marriage: Part I” Journal of Political Economy. 1974

Greif, Avner. “Reputation and Coalitions in Medieval Trade: Evidence on the Maghribi Traders.” Journal of Economic History. Vol. XLIX, No. 4. 1989.

Miller, Gary J. Managerial Dilemmas. Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Ostrom, Elinor, James Walker, and Roy Gardner. “Covenants with and without a sword: Self-governance is possible” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 86, No. 2, 1992

Williamson, Oliver. The Economics Institutions of Capitalism. 1985.


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