On harmful traditional practices and disbelief

If you’ve ever read a news article about female genital mutilation or footbinding and found yourself wondering, why on earth would anyone submit another person to such a horrific act, I have just the article for you. Mackie and LeJeune, in this 2009 UNICEF working paper on harmful traditional practices, do an excellent job of explaining, without judgement and with grace, the persistence of FGM/C and footbinding (among other harmful practices) in an eloquent and approachable manner. I can’t say you’ll leave the article uplifted, but I promise it reads faster than its 42 pages might suggest. And, you’ll learn a lot. There’s even a little game theory in there for my economist friends. The abstract is here:

The essay refines the application of the social convention theory to the practice female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). The theory compares footbinding in China to FGM/C in Africa, explains each practice in terms of simple game theory, and recommends that the methods used to end footbinding be adapted to end FGM/C. It hypothesizes that each practice originated in highly stratified ancient empires, and became an ongoing requirement of marriageability, general and persistent within the intramarrying community because no one family can give it up on its own. The continuation or the abandonment of each practice involves a set of social rewards and punishments and operates as what is known in social science as a social norm. The theory argues that each practice is a community practice that must be ended by the whole community coordinating on its abandonment, thereby solving the marriageability problem. The game-theoretic portrayal also identifies social dynamics of abandonment, observed in both China and Africa. An initial core group, called the critical mass, recruits others through organized diffusion, until a large enough proportion of the community, referred to as the tipping point, is ready to abandon. A moment or process of public commitment is essential to ensure a stable abandonment. The essay also refines the theory, in light of observed mass abandonments of FGM/C in different countries. Overcoming self-enforcing beliefs surrounding the practice requires credible new information, including about the feasibility and desirability of attaining the uncut alternative. FGM/C is maintained as a marriageability convention, social norm, or both. The process for reversing a social norm can be identical to reversing a social convention. Reversal is motivated by the fundamental moral norm of loving one’s children and wanting the best for them, as discovered and developed in transformative human rights deliberations. The essay establishes a conceptual foundation for programme design that facilitates community abandonment of a variety of harmful practices in ways that promote human rights and are respectful of the culture and the values of local communities.

Cited: Gerry Mackie and John LeJeune (2009), ‘Social Dynamics of Abandonment of Harmful Practices: A New Look at the Theory’. Special Series on Social Norms and Harmful Practices, Innocenti Working Paper No. 2009-06, Florence, UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre.