How do anthropologists view honor killing? Is it a patriarchal mechanism to control female sexuality? Or is it the result of jealousy of men to control reproductive capability of women? Or is it historical-cultural practice to punish violators of social norms? Or is this practice rooted in biology to control and keep genes of a group within the group?

What do you people have to say about this?

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Excellent question. As I see it, such issues can only be understood in relation to a topic woefully neglected in the anthropological literature: tradition. It's dangerous to interpret cultural pathologies in psychological and/or biological terms, because then you wind up concluding that everyone caught up in the same mindset is a sociopath. Tradition is in my view a completely misunderstood aspect of culture, far more powerful than most people realize. To fully understand the meaning of any tradition we must attempt to recreate the conditions under which it was originally established, which is usually very difficult if not impossible to do. And once a tradition is established, it becomes extremely difficult to eliminate or even change. People will give you all sorts of reasons why they believe certain things or act in a certain way but usually it comes down to "this is the way my father did it and his father before him." Traditions are established due to very specific circumstances and then are perpetuated regardless of whether those circumstances still hold. Most anthropologists seem to me very naive in this respect, trying to interpret certain belief systems in functional (or biological) terms, which imo is a huge mistake.

Anthropology, along with the rest of the so-called social sciences, is fixated on class divisions. We bang on about differences of race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, language, social class, work and wealth, while losing sight of what makes us all human. But I believe that three class divisions are more fundamental than all the above, those concerning the inferior status of women, children and animals. There is a case for arguing that all three are rooted in the domestication processes of the neolithic revolution. Certainly Morgan and Engels thought so. Modern capitalist civilization for a time increased the seclusion of women, but for some decades now that has been reversed. Children have been normatively separated from adult life to an unprecedented degree, so that child labour is now considered to be a crime against humanity. Animals have been industrialized as meat, fetishized as pets and exterminated as species, but the line between human beings and other life forms, even objects and machines is becoming blurred. This is reinforced by ecology and postmodern social theory.

Our world is still governed by institutions that evolved during 5,000 years of agrarian civilization, yet the machine revolution has transformed the material conditions of life on this planet in two centuries. Most people are confused about all this, including anthropologists. Some choose to cling to a version of tradition (as Victor rightly points out) that is absolute and unchanging, even as the world changes around them. Women are a target because their situation is changing most rapidly and was central to the old society. Honor killing is one result, but it is not the only violent reaction to times that education and politics have failed to illuminate. Look what is being done in the name of ethnicity in Karachi today.

If there is an anthropological take on these matters, it would be that we should look to contemporary circumstances if we wish to explain developments that appear to rest on very old principles.

Traditions do emerge under certain circumstances, as Victor says, but honor killing is found, more or less, in all the continents and all the societies. The same set of circumstances does not always produce the same tradition in all the societies. Nor do all the societies have gone through the same circumstances. One tradition in one culture might have emerged under one set of circumstances and it is also possible, the same tradition in another culture, might have taken place under entirely different circumstances. I don't think one culture's tradition, under whatever circumstances it emerged, would be the best answer to explain existence, prevalence and continuity of the practice of honor killing in other societies.

honor killing is found, more or less, in all the continents and all the societies. The same set of circumstances does not always produce the same tradition in all the societies. Nor do all the societies have gone through the same circumstances.



What Mohammad says here is hugely important. That feeling betrayed moves men to want to murder women is, one suspects, a human universal. Whether the impulse leads to action and how others respond to the killing is far more variable. The impulse may be repressed and never acknowledged. It may be acknowledged but acting on it prohibited. The action may be seen as justified or condemned as illegal, immoral or both. Condemnation may take the form of shaming, shunning, prison or execution.

"Tradition" is never a sufficient explanation. All traditions turn out, on close examination, to be like other cultural phenomena. Like the wedding dress described in American folklore, they represent a mixture of "something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue," where by "blue" I mean that they always make someone unhappy. That unhappiness is the driver of the borrowing and innovation that make all traditions only partially reproductions of what has gone before.

One might argue that "honor killing" in the sense in which the term is now used has become a focus of excited interest only because the murders in question are seen from radically different perspectives—one closer to ancient Roman law that gave the pater familias the power of life and death over his dependents: women, children, and slaves, the other based on more recent views that regard all human lives as sacred and celebrate the rights of the individual as prior and superior to all other considerations. In the great muddle of humanity there are endless variations between these extremes. That is where, as anthropologists, we should direct our attention.

Speaking, not as an anthropologist, but instead as a husband and father whose views are closer to the non-ancient Roman extreme, my impulse on reading accounts of honor killings is that these are examples of a particularly heinous form of murder. I may have my doubts about the legitimacy of the death penalty, but in these cases I would like to see the culprits and those accessory to the crime hung, drawn and quartered--very, very slowly. I would not recommend seeing my impulse as solid ground for either public policy or scholarly explanation.

Attempts by males to control females, and access to females is, indeed, a universal, not only among humans but just about all animals of all species. And violent behavior, including killing, associated with access to females is probably equally universal. We find murders of both males and females, motivated by jealousy, in just about all societies everywhere. However, "honor killing" is not simply murder, but part and parcel of a much more general culture pattern, not found among any other animal than humans and in fact not a human universal, but found only in certain societies.

If you check the Wikipedia entry on this topic (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honor_killing), you'll see that this particular cultural complex is overwhelmingly centered in the Arab/Muslim/Jewish world, and Hindu and Sikh India -- though interestingly it is apparently rare in South India. (The apparent irony of including Jews along with Arabs in the same category should not be surprising, given their common history.) While certainly found elsewhere, notably Africa, Europe, Latin America, etc., such incidents can in almost all cases be traced to the influence of Islam, which has of course been widespread. Many African tribes are now Islamic; certain regions of southern Europe, especially southern Spain Southern Italy, Greece, the Balkans, etc. were dominated for long periods by Islamic societies. And Spanish traditions have clearly influenced Latin America.

In order for honor killing to take place, there must first be a strongly embedded sense of honor, specifically family honor, and whatever else you want to call it, this is most certainly a tradition. To trace the origin of a tradition, we must first examine its distribution, and since in this case we find the overwhelming majority of incidences in the Middle East and India (and their offshoots elsewhere), it is in this region that we should look for an origin.

In order for honor killing to take place, there must first be a strongly embedded sense of honor, specifically family honor, and whatever else you want to call it, this is most certainly a tradition.

Granted—with the proviso that what is claimed here is that tradition is a necessary condition. It is not, however, a sufficient condition. The Wikipedia article to which Victor points us cites a variety of statistics. I note, for example, the statement that,

The loose term "honor killing" applies to killing of both males and females in cultures that practice it.[7] For example, during the year 2002 in Pakistan, it is estimated that 245 women and 137 men were killed in the name of Karo-kari in Sindh[citation needed].

In the Wikipedia page on  Sindh, to which I turn for demographic data, I find that as of 1998, the population of Sindh was in the neighborhood of 30.4 million people. Adding 245 to 137 yields a total of 382 honor killings. 382/30,400,000=0.00001258 honor killings per capita. 0.00001258 is only 0.0013%. It would appear that honor killings are, in fact, extremely rare. 

Returning to the Wikipedia article on honor killing, I also read that,

according to a poll done by the BBC’s Asian network, 1 in 10 of the 500 Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Muslim surveyed, said they would condone any murder of someone who threatened their family’s honor. The poll demonstrated how the notion of honor killings and views of whether they are acceptable and justifiable crosses religion and is more contingent on the family’s social culture.

Polls are always suspect, but this one seems to indicate that nine out of ten of the Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Muslims surveyed would NOT condone murder of someone who threatened their family's honor.  I agree with the proposition that,

To trace the origin of a tradition, we must first examine its distribution, and since in this case we find the overwhelming majority of incidences in the Middle East and India (and their offshoots elsewhere), it is in this region that we should look for an origin.


I remain, however, deeply skeptical that having located the origins of honor killing we have actually learned much about it. On the face of it, the distribution of the practice across both Judaeo-Christian-Muslim and Hindu populations rules out a simplistic appeal to religion as an important variable. The alternative hypothesis that a preference for endogamous marriage (patrilineal parallel cousin in the Middle East, restricted by caste in Hindu India) associated with exaggerated notions of purity as a necessary condition of honor runs into the problem of the South Indian case, where caste is important but, it seems, honor killing not part of local tradition. I am tempted to observe that the geographical region with which honor killing is most closely associated corresponds with what we might call the Muslim conquest zone, the region of Eurasia through which Islam was originally spread by the sword. This suggests that, instead, of jealousy as a motive, we focus on betrayal, the notion that the deepest dishonor of all is, in a very literal sense, consorting with the enemy. 

All these speculations, however, run up against the kind of quantitative data mentioned above, which suggest (1) that honor killing is rare and (2) considered acceptable by only about 10% of the people who inhabit the region in question. Why that should be and why, if these conclusions are valid, honor killing should be a hotter-button news item than say, female infanticide, which has had dramatic effects on half or more of the world's total population, remain very interesting questions, indeed.

Very sensible post, John. I don't disagree with most of what you say, but I think we need to look a bit more closely at this phenomenon.

 John McCreery said:

"In order for honor killing to take place, there must first be a strongly embedded sense of honor, specifically family honor, and whatever else you want to call it, this is most certainly a tradition."

Granted—with the proviso that what is claimed here is that tradition is a necessary condition. It is not, however, a sufficient condition.

 Agreed. However, what I was assuming we were talking about here is a value system that condones and even, in certain cases, demands, such behavior, not the behavior itself. While honor killing is certainly rare, thank God, the cultural contexts in which it would be condoned and in fact protected by law are many. As anthropologists rather than sociologists or psychologists (to invoke another discussion on this site) it seems to me that we are in a better position to consider the former than the latter.

John: Returning to the Wikipedia article on honor killing, I also read that,

according to a poll done by the BBC’s Asian network, 1 in 10 of the 500 Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Muslim surveyed, said they would condone any murder of someone who threatened their family’s honor. The poll demonstrated how the notion of honor killings and views of whether they are acceptable and justifiable crosses religion and is more contingent on the family’s social culture.

Here too I don't disagree. Only cultural norms are not decided by polls but by social pressure, which can often be exerted by only a few especially influential individuals (e.g., the Ayatollah Khomeini).

John: I agree with the proposition that,

 "To trace the origin of a tradition, we must first examine its distribution, and since in this case we find the overwhelming majority of incidences in the Middle East and India (and their offshoots elsewhere), it is in this region that we should look for an origin."


I remain, however, deeply skeptical that having located the origins of honor killing we have actually learned much about it. 

Simply locating its origin tells us nothing about why it originated or what it means, granted. But acknowledging that such cultural norms do in all likelihood have a single origin, in a very distant past, and have been perpetuated in the extremely powerful form of ancestrally sanctioned traditions does give us an important clue regarding where NOT to look for answers. I agree very much with your use of the term "betrayal" here. And in two senses. The independent actions of the perpetrators of such "crimes against humanity" (i.e., those women whose actions or fates "invite" honor killing) are seen as betrayers of deeply rooted ancestral values, and the failure of the family to act against such "violators" is also seen as a betrayal. So the power of such sanctions is very strong indeed.  Even if they are carried out relatively rarely today, my guess is that they were far more common in the past -- or else the fear of such actions would have had a strongly deterring effect in the past, especially when there were less temptations to violate such norms.

As for meaning, imo we can never really know for sure exactly how or why any deeply entrenched tradition began, but we are certainly free to speculate. And there are certainly clues that can help us speculate meaningfully. Honor killing is of course only one of many traditions associated with the socially sanctioned control of women, so one might want to speculate, for example (and this is only an example, not a theory) that such traditions might have originally arisen in the context of a situation where the female-male ratio was unusually low, females were a rare commodity and were continually being tempted away from their mates by other males. Another possibility is the rise of extremely powerful males who wanted to hoard females for their own purposes and needed strong sanctions to prevent them from running off with other men.

Regardless of what the originating cause or causes might have been, I think it important to recognize that once such a complex of traditions gets started it develops a momentum of its own which becomes almost impossible to stop or even alter, regardless of subsequent conditions. Which is why we need not only sociologists/psychologists but also anthropologists to help us understand the phenomenon and deal with it. The former are in a position to evaluate and treat the individual cases, but only the latter can help us understand the underlying forces that make it so difficult to completely eradicate such clearly pathological behaviors.

 I think it important to recognize that once such a complex of traditions gets started it develops a momentum of its own which becomes almost impossible to stop or even alter, regardless of subsequent conditions. 



Here we come to the heart of our disagreement. The assumption that a complex of traditions has a momentum that makes it almost impossible to stop or even alter is one of those pieces of conventional wisdom that strike me as utterly implausible. What is written history but a record of ongoing change? Do we live in the Roman Republic where the pater familias had the power of life and death over his dependents? Or in late imperial China where, if the late Joseph Levenson was right, the meaning attached to the fundamental terms in which Confucianism was articulated was being radically transformed? What is it to be an American, the descendant of immigrants who left an old world to remake themselves in a new one? Or a modern German or Japanese, for whom what was seen as national essence a century ago now appears to be, if not nearly utterly alien, criminal nonsense?

Tradition is not a thingie, some sort of immutable substance, let alone one to which the physical properties described by "momentum" have a more than metaphorical relevance. I can still vividly recall Mark Swartz's remarking in one of my first anthropology classes at Michigan State (1962-1966) that no tradition is actually more than one generation old. Nowadays, I'd refine his remark along the lines articulated by Alfred Schutz. No tradition is actually anything more than a consensus maintained by some group of contemporaries. When they pass from the scene, their descendants may or may not adhere to the same consensus. More likely they will modify it. Sometimes the modifications seem trivial, mere shifts in fashion or taste. At other times they will be more radical, leaving only a die-hard minority to maintain the old ways until they, too, are gone. But traditions change. They always do. No parent who raises children anywhere except in a stable, closed small community can expect them to think, believe or act as replicas of themselves. Even then the variability built into sexual reproduction and diversity of individual experience make that expectation dubious.

Traditions with momentum that make them irresistible? Where in today's world can any such thing be found?

Yes, John, we have come to the heart of our disagreement. The topic of honor killing especially interests me because it relates to certain aspects of my own research that I am still exploring. And the essence of my research is a re-evaluation of this very tricky notion of "tradition," especially where traditions come from, what they mean, how they perpetuate themselves and the light they can throw on the culture(s) of the world of today. And yes my take on tradition definitely challenges the anthropological status quo.

Your notion of tradition strikes me as extremely narrow and even naive, though admittedly most anthropologists would in all likelihood agree with you, given the drift of this field over the last 40 years or so.

What is written history but a record of ongoing change?

Anthropologists are not really historians. To the extent that this field is historical it was created to deal with unrecorded history. Your examples give you away. They are in fact extremely short sighted, dealing for the most part with the history of those people who took it upon themselves to record it. Even the Roman Empire should be regarded as relatively recent by the standards of a field that covers the scope of human existence over literally millions of years.

And you appear to have no sense of the manner in which even the traditions of the Roman Empire, and other societies contemporary with it, if not considerably older, maintained themselves in a great many pockets of traditional culture in various parts of Italy and other parts of Europe literally until the 20th century. If we no longer find them there today that is because they have only recently been wiped off the map by the incursions of modern communication and trade. This is a recent development and by no means universal. Which is why honor killing is still an issue.

Traditions with momentum that make them irresistible? Where in today's world can any such thing be found?

Well, we can start with socially sanctioned honor killing itself, which is certainly a tradition and, as we well know, has proven extremely resistant to the tremendously powerful forces of "modernity" attempting to eradicate it. Much of the Moslem world has been up in arms, literally, for a very long time, in resistance to what is perceived as attempts by the developed world to alter or eliminate its most deeply held traditions.

As I believe I've demonstrated, honor killing can be traced back to a time before the Biblical era (since its found in both Hebrew and Islamic cultures) and probably long before that (since we find it still among Hindus and Sikhs). And clearly it is still going strong, despite all the pressures for change that you've invoked.

As I see it, the field of anthropology is currently in crisis because, for various reasons, it has turned its back on its own origins and its own original mandate, which was at one time centered in questions concerning human origins and the origins and evolution of human culture. Which is why we are, elsewhere on this site, discussing the difference between anthropology and sociology, which used to be obvious and is now hardly noticeable.

To simplify our discussion, I'll point you to two segments of my on-line book, Sounding the Depths, where I present my own, admittedly non-traditional, definition of "tradition." First, under "Preliminary Considerations," see the section labeled "Cultural Continuity": http://soundingthedepths.blogspot.com/2011/02/sidebar-preliminary-c...

Secondly, in the final chapter, the section labeled "Tradition!": http://soundingthedepths.blogspot.com/2011/05/chapter-eighteen-lega...

These passages should clarify for you my own take on this issue, and I'd very much welcome your response to anything you find there that appears problematic.

Victor, a question. Does the execution of Anne Boleyn count as an honor killing? If not, why not?

From Wikipedia

Henry had Anne investigated for high treason in April 1536. On 2 May she was arrested and sent to the Tower of London, where she was tried before a jury of peers and found guilty on 15 May. She was beheaded four days later on Tower Green. Modern historians view the charges against her, which included adultery and incest, as unconvincing. 

Those interested in this topic might want to check out "the honor code", a book by the philosopher Anthony Appiah that broadens the concept of honor considerably:

http://appiah.net/books/the-honor-code/

John, I see no reason to include the execution of Anne Boleyn in the category of "honor killing," at least as this term is usually understood. Of course, any murder in the name of one's "honor" could, in narrowly literal terms, be called an "honor killing," but it was not my understanding that this is what Mohammed was referring to when he raised this issue. Ethnologically speaking, "honor killing" is a cultural practice in which the killing of a person, usually a woman, is justified in the name of family honor, and not only justified but in many cases actually demanded by powers that be within a given culture. When Henry had Anne beheaded, he was in fact violating cultural norms, not bowing to them. Since he was the monarch he was a rule unto himself and had no reason to bow to cultural norms. This is imo one of the few drivers of cultural change, the will or whim of an exceptionally powerful and/or influential individual or group.

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