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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If we were looking at cultural transmission, it might be worth noting that parts of India were part of the Achaemenid Empire, and the Indo-Iranian language group, which would provide an alternate explanation for lesser prevalence down South.


I had been thinking of the Moghuls myself. The problem is, of course, the historical record which traces honor killing at least as far back as the Assyrians. If I were constructing a just-so story, i.e., an hypothesis largely grounded in ignorance, I'd suggest the following.

There are two kinds of conquerors, those who assimilate and those who don't. The former (one thinks of Mongols and Manchus in China) go with the flow of what Mark Swartz taught his undergraduates at Michigan State was the one indisputable anthropological law—when peoples meet, they mate. The latter define themselves as radically different from those they conquer and insist on maintaining a clear boundary between us and them. Purity and honor are huge issues, since the right to conquer and rule depends on them. Now let us imagine a part of the world in which a series of conquests, mostly by purity and honor-obsessed conquerers, results in a shattered ethnic landscape filled with groups that once were conquerors and might be again but for now are among the defeated. Having little other ground for self-respect they cling to the honor and purity they attribute to their ancestors, while regarding similar claims by other groups as pernicious nonsense. Mark Swartz' one indisputable anthropological law is a constant challenge to maintaining the group boundaries on which self-respect depends. Women and less than manly men who consort with members of other groups visibly violate borders sustained by long-standing grudges. They awaken ancient hatreds. They aren't damaged goods that might be sold off in secondary markets. They are  traitors and must be destroyed. 


My interest has been more into the decline of the practise (or tradition) in various areas so far, because finding out the conditions under which it declines appeared more pressing than those where it prevails.


Yes! Yes! Yes! 




Joanne Payton said:

I was planning to re-read Lerner's Creation of Patriarchy, and due to your thoughts, I'm adding that to my library list for tomorrow, because I think if we want to find a point of origin it may well lie in her discussion of Ancient Mesopotamia (taken from these cribnotes):

The father had the power of life and death over his children. He had the power to commit infanticide by exposure or abandonment. He could give his daughters in marriage in exchange for receiving a bride price even during their childhood, or he could consecrate them to a life of virginity in the temple service. A man could pledge his wife, his concubines and their children as pawns for his debt; if he failed to pay back the debt, these pledges were turned into slaves. Such power derived from a concept that a person's entire kin-group was to be held responsible for any wrongdoings of its members.

Interesting. This complex is certainly consistent with honor killing. However, if we already see at this point a patriarchy so fully developed, then it seems likely that its roots are much older. One might want to speculate that such traditions may have developed with the advent of agriculture, though the connection is far from clear. The mention of concubines suggests that Lerner isn't writing about males in general, but unusually powerful males, with relatively high status. The higher one's status, the more vulnerable one might be to loss of honor. And the easier it would be to impose your sense of honor on the families of your subjects.

I'm afraid though, I'm understanding 'tradition' in a lay sense, so I don't understand how clearly it is possible to track a tradition across time. If you could direct me to some criteria, that would be great.

Good point. The Kulturkreis school attempted to do just that and were severely criticized, for good reason. There was insufficient evidence, and no baseline according to which they could orient themselves in either time or space. In my book I've given it another try, but only because new and indeed revolutionary research from the world of population genetics (aka anthropological genetics) is providing us with very promising new data regarding the origins and early migrations of homo sapiens. As far as cultural evidence is concerned, important clues can be found when one looks at the worldwide distribution of certain traits/ traditions, and how such distribution patterns relate to the genetic evidence. Also important is the fact that, thanks to the Out of Africa model provided by the geneticists, we now have a baseline with which to orient our hypotheses.

John McCreery said:

What I am saying is

  1. that tradition is best treated not as an explanation but as something to be explained

My view of tradition is admittedly unusual and could even be considered radical, so I'm not surprised that you're having a hard time accepting it. As I see it, a tradition can be explained only on the basis of the conditions that initially produced it, which admittedly may never be known (though often there is enough evidence available for intelligent speculation). Once established, the tradition will tend to be self-perpetuating, regardless of subsequent conditions. (This definition is of course something of an idealization and there is certainly room for variation and nuance.)

What this suggests is not so much how to understand a tradition but how not to understand it. For instance, a field informant may provide you with what sounds like a perfectly reasonable explanation of what a given tradition means and how it originated, what could be called a "just-so" story. An evolutionary biologist might explain it as an adaptation, which may be reasonable as a biological explanation relating to survival, but tells us nothing about the cultural meaning of the tradition among people for whom Darwin's ideas have neither meaning nor relevance. A sociologist might explain it as a psychological response to conditions in the immediate environment, despite the fact that the exact same tradition has been found in a variety of settings down through the ages. An anthropologist might try to explain it in terms of its function in the community, which isn't really that different from the sociologist's "explanation." What I would say is that the best way to understand a tradition is to accept it as a force unto itself, with no meaning beyond the conditions that initially caused it to come into being, conditions that may never be fully understood.

2. that postulating a single point of origin from which the tradition has radiated throughout the region in question does not demonstrate (a) that a single point of origin exists or (b) explain the mechanisms by which the tradition has spread.

Unless we are talking about a universal, then every tradition must certainly have had at least one point of origin. Even where independent development is a possibility, as for example with agriculture, each instance most likely had a single point of origin. The key to tracing the spread of a tradition is to closely examine its distribution on a worldwide basis, which isn't always easy, admittedly. As I see it, the determination of "culture centers" wasn't really feasible until recently, now that the advent of population genetics is providing us with a baseline and important clues to the geography and chronology of early human migrations.

3. that if all we know is the current geographical distribution and a point of origin, we still don't know very much.

That depends on the type of research one is doing and what one's goals are. If one is interested in recreating early human history and the evolution of culture, this tells you a lot. If you are looking for some sort of existential explanation as to why the world is the way it is and why people behave the way they do, then the study of traditions may not tell you very much, true.

4. that the research required to get much further requires careful attention to the problems encountered by similar research programs, of which I can point immediately to three: evolutionary biology, historical linguistics and art history and archeology.

I am all for interdisciplinary research and always try to pay attention to evidence from every possible source.

What I note in all three of these programs is that serious research requires meticulous attention to variation in structural detail, to accounting for outliers, i.e., the appearance of the phenomenon outside the region in which it is now concentrated, and consideration of what we might call, using the terms from biology, the homology/analogy problem, i.e., whether similarities are due to genetic or historical connections or to adaptations to similar circumstances.

Agreed.

In what you have said so far I see no attempt to acknowledge, let alone, address these issues.

Well, there's only so much I can say in these necessarily brief posts.

On the contrary, I see stereotyping that ignores variation within as well as across the region in question. I see an absolute refusal to consider outliers, e.g., the North American Indian examples cited in the Wikipedia piece.

Mistreatment of women, ownership of women and the abuse and control of women are practices that can be found in a great many places all over the world. Honor killing as Joanne has defined it, and I fully agree with what she's written, is not, to my knowledge, to be found among native Americans. I could be wrong, but so far I see no evidence for such a practice in the Americas. What Wikipedia article are you referring to?

I see no willingness at all to consider the possibility that similar traditions might arise from similar social structures or similar material circumstances. So I don't see you getting anywhere beyond the still half-baked ideas with which you start. 

I did in fact consider the possibility that Roman law could have been an independent development. But even if that were the case it wouldn't negate the fact that the complex identified by Joanne is based on a long standing tradition originating most likely in Asia.

Your work on music looks intriguing. I haven't yet examined it closely, but the way you describe it encourages me to believe that you have addressed at least some of the issues mentioned above, that what you have done is serious stuff. What you say here looks to me like offhand remarks from someone with a bee in his bonnet. Are you ready to get serious here?

I appreciate your open mindedness regarding my book and hope you'll continue to read therein. If my contributions to this thread seem superficial, dogmatic and offhand it's only because it wouldn't be appropriate for me to fully explain my position in this context. My comments here are based on what you'll find in my book, so please keep reading.

To clarify my thinking, I'd like to consider a scenario that might (or might not) "explain" the origin of honor killing. It's based on a theory I read somewhere recently, either online or possibly earlier on this thread. And yes, this is the sort of thing John might want to call a "just so story." That's fine with me, since it's purely speculative as far as I'm concerned.

Let's suppose that honor killing arose initially in the context of blood feuding. A girl was raped, her attacker was identified, and the "proper" action for her family would have been simply to seek out the offender and kill him. But, as the family was aware, such a killing would have initiated a blood feud between the attacker's and the victim's families. Let's suppose the family held a meeting and decided that, for whatever reasons, enough was enough, there were too many blood feuds, the family may have already been involved in such a feud, and felt it couldn't afford another, or perhaps the attacker's family was too large and powerful to confront. A blood feud could easily result in a great many deaths. On the other hand, family honor demanded some form of retribution.

So let's say someone suggested that, instead of killing the girl's attacker, they kill the girl -- claiming that she must have seduced the boy and thus incited the attack. Only one family member would die, as opposed to the many who would die in a blood feud. This family would most likely have been a fairly important and influential one, or they would not have been able to get away with such a tactic.Of course, such an action could only have been taken in a context where young girls already had very little status and were totally at the mercy of their families.

Let's say then that they kill the girl, in the name of "family honor." It would then become very important to them that others do the same, so they would use all their influence to encourage a similar response whenever any girl from any family got too far "out of line." Other families would have caught on, in any case, that such an action would be a very useful way to avoid blood feuds, by keeping the murderous attack "all in the family."

Moreover, from a Darwinian perspective it's not difficult to see this as a cultural "adaptation," which might provide these families with a distinct advantage so far as survival is concerned. Families involved in blood feuds are much less likely to produce descendents than families who manage to avoid them through honor killing.

So long as blood feuds continued, it would make sense to explain honor killing not only on the basis of a tradition that got started with the first such act, but also, in good functionalist terms, as a meaningful response to the prevailing value system, a response that would have enabled many families to avoid blood feuds. From this perspective, what would have been most important was not how or why the tradition originated, but the ongoing social conditions that (apparently) caused it to persist.

Fast forward to the 21st Century. A Pakistani family is living in London. One of their daughters refuses to marry the man the family has arranged for her and gets involved with an English boy. To preserve family honor, her father and brothers kill her, making them heroes in the eyes of the small Pakistani community of which they are a part.

How do we explain what happened? Clearly blood feuds are no longer a concern. If the girl's family attacks the English boy, a blood feud will not result. They would risk being thrown into jail, yes, but there is no risk of a blood feud. Moreover, since honor killing is illegal in Britain, they risk jail in any case. There is nothing about this honor killing that could help the family in any way, except to preserve their "honor" in the eyes of their neighbors. It would in fact be a disaster for them -- but they do it anyway. Why?

So what is the moral of my story? I'm not claiming it's an accurate portrayal of the origin of, or reasons for, honor killing. But it does enable us, hopefully, to think more clearly about such traditions and what they might mean. The sociological or functionalist interpretation of honor killing as a response to the cultural environment is meaningful only up to a point. However, what we are now seeing are honor killings taking place under totally different conditions. If in fact honor killing originated as part of an effort to avoid blood feuds, then clearly it has persisted into the 21st Century for some other reason. And even if blood feuds were never the reason but there was some other reason, then hopefully my story nevertheless enables us to see how traditions can persist on their own, even after the conditions that produced them no longer apply, even when there is in fact no good reason whatsoever for them to continue.

Two brief remarks.

1. Logically speaking, there must be some origin implies only at least one. The monogenesis (one origin) or polygenesis (multiple origins) question remains unresolved.

2. Empirically speaking, there is no way to trace a tradition beyond the limits of historical record without either (1) compelling material evidence or (2) a sufficiently detailed knowledge of structural variation and mechanisms of change to sustain reconstruction. As noted previously, an archeologist who recovers woman's bones may be able to infer from marks on the bones that she was killed. There is no evidence of motive, except, perhaps, mass graves and structures that suggest human sacrifice. Evolutionary biologists and historical linguists start with detailed grasp of current and earlier structures to which they add well-established mechanisms that explain how change occurs. In the case at hand we have neither. We have only a crude, first-pass definition and the notion that "tradition" provides a mechanism. How tradition works and what conditions affect origin, maintenance, deterioration or extinction remain entirely unexamined.

As for our just-so stories, I look forward to Joanne's comments.

Hi again. Apologies for abandoning the thread yesterday, I had family commitments - taking the kids to the dentist, and I had to prepare my Ethics application (fingers crossed!).

I admit I've been wrestling with some of the problems you raise, but in a rather unsophisticated way (I'm really a dilettantish autodidact, with no academic background in any of the social sciences, who just lucked into getting funding to research a personal obsession).

Let's take this speculation:

Let's suppose that honor killing arose initially in the context of blood feuding. A girl was raped, her attacker was identified, and the "proper" action for her family would have been simply to seek out the offender and kill him. But, as the family was aware, such a killing would have initiated a blood feud between the attacker's and the victim's families. Let's suppose the family held a meeting and decided that, for whatever reasons, enough was enough, there were too many blood feuds, the family may have already been involved in such a feud, and felt it couldn't afford another, or perhaps the attacker's family was too large and powerful to confront. A blood feud could easily result in a great many deaths. On the other hand, family honor demanded some form of retribution.

So let's say someone suggested that, instead of killing the girl's attacker, they kill the girl -- claiming that she must have seduced the boy and thus incited the attack. Only one family member would die, as opposed to the many who would die in a blood feud. This family would most likely have been a fairly important and influential one, or they would not have been able to get away with such a tactic.Of course, such an action could only have been taken in a context where young girls already had very little status and were totally at the mercy of their families.

It strikes this account tracks a speculative (but plausible) transformation of the metanorm (by which I mean the normative way in which norm violations are addressed) rather than the norm - that patrilinear 'honour' is vested in women's bodies and behaviours. In the first sense, of killing the rapist, are the patriline enacting vengeance for a crime against one of their number, or are they responding to a challenge to their 'honour'? If the latter is the case, then the sense of 'honour' presupposes that male honour is located in the guardianship of female relatives' sexualities prior to their identification of the female as the correct target for reprisal. Otherwise, you're suggesting both the norm and metanorm are simultaneously transformed through the change in targets: that through adaptively selecting one of their own kin for reprisal, men become guardians of women's sexuality? To get wildly, unjustifiably, speculative, what if there were an interim development, where the punishment is allocated not to the rapist (because of the risk of blood-feud), nor the victim, but to an agnate who had demonstrably failed to protect her (and her value as a bride) from harm? It is, after all, part of the 'bargain' model of patriarchy that women exchange a degree of subordinacy for male protection from male aggression. Again, it could be decided through a similar mechanism to your scenario that a male able to fight other tribes, and carry out heavy agricultural labour has greater value than a female.

I have so-far related HK in such scenarios as having a resource basis: HK invariably co-occurs with a virginity fetish, wherein a non-virgin woman is unmarriageable and indicates the failure of her family to adequately police her behaviour. Reading around sati - as being another form of femicide which tends to increase family status - I found an argument that sati is used to rid the family of the expense of supporting a widow who cannot remarry and stands as a drain on family resources, so that she becomes superfluous. I wondered if non-virgins are unmarriagable in the same sense. This explanation falters a little where you consider women's labour value in the domestic sphere, but since women's labour is often culturally devalued, maybe not fatally so.

To return to reality, this tends to bear out a resource basis: the contemporary most common first response to the rape of a young woman in Kurdish regions is often neither to kill her, nor the rapist, but to attempt to force the rapist into a marriage with her, (cf. Deuteronomy 22:28-29), which saves 'honour' and passes the financial burden of her upkeep on to the rapist and his family. It is where such marriages can't be arranged, or they fail that HK becomes a more likely prospect. But a simple resource argument doesn't make for a complete argument about HK, because women may be tracked down and killed years after an elopement, at which point they bear no resource cost to the family, since most wisely relocate they aren't even moving in the same community to be a living advertisement to her family's failure of control.

It seems striking to suggest that HK could be Darwinian (which is not to dispute at all the suggestion that surviving blood feuds is adaptive!) because from a selfish-gene perspective there could be little more wasteful than bearing and raising a child, then killing her when she reaches sexual maturity and is ready to pass on her genes. A father is equally related to a grandchild whether or not the parents are legitimately or auspiciously married, so why is the prospect (even the prospect of the prospect of...) a bastard is so very unwelcome to agnates? Schlegel suggests this is resource based - that raising a bastard is unwelcome because there is no male to contribute to his/her upkeep, but I'm unsure if this could be applied wholesale to the extended family settings outside the European basis of her model, where children are put to work from very young ages, so their period of dependency is short, and their resource needs could potentially be diluted by the contributions of their uncles, grandparents etc.

I think we can be clear in saying that, on an evolutionary basis, men as husbands seek to monopolise their partner's sexuality to ensure paternity, and prefer to contribute resources to children they believe to be their own. But it's not at all clear to me on a purely evolutionary, or  even a resource, basis why a father and other agnates should collude in this.

A Pakistani family is living in London. One of their daughters refuses to marry the man the family has arranged for her and gets involved with an English boy. To preserve family honor, her father and brothers kill her, making them heroes in the eyes of the small Pakistani community of which they are a part.


This is a familiar scenario (although whether they are heroes to the entire community is something I'd feel dubious about alleging without provisos.)

Levels of cousin marriage amongst British Pakistanis are very high, far higher, in fact, than cousin marriage in Pakistan. A lot of these are marriages between British and Pakistani nationals. The arrangement of marriage is not necessarily at the father's whim, but could involve multiple relatives, including uncles and aunts who are seeking a legitimate means of emigration for their own children. The family might not become embroiled in an actual blood-feud through a daughter's refusal to marry her cousin, but they might well suffer exclusion and disfavour from their wider family. How much of a disaster this might be depends upon how far the family identify their interests as being in their family 'back home', or in their identity as British citizens. This is also speculative, because I'm sure I can come up with cases of HK in the West where cousin marriage was not at issue, but may be suggestive.

So, to tradition. I'm interested in this idea of inherited worldviews which used to serve a purpose in the situation under which they arose, but are retained even though they no longer do so. How does your conception of tradition intersect with habitus? I think I've been using that term in a similar sense.

I think the point of a tradition outstaying it's usefulness is important because of one of the core paradoxes that trouble me: while the number of countries where HK is discovered has reduced since, say 1950, (again inasmuch as such things are discernible) the level of incidence in countries where it is still practiced seems to be increasing - there has, apparently, been a five-fold explosion of HK in Haryana between 1999-2002. This could be put down to better recognition and recording, but many women's organisations claim this is an absolute increase. I've suggested this is backlash against social change - that say, increasing women's education and employment prospects has led to greater resistance to parental control, leading to violent repercussions for some, possibly alongside a less visible reorientation of family power within families that take a more concessionary attitude to women's autonomy. Does your conception of tradition explain a backlash situation?

I hope this doesn't come across as gushy, but I really appreciate the debate in this forum (you can imagine, my own social circles find my subject way too depressing to discuss at length, and I've been a virtual recluse for months attempting to draft the first half of my thesis) and this has provided some hefty food for thought.

I think the point of a tradition outstaying it's usefulness is important because of one of the core paradoxes that trouble me: while the number of countries where HK is discovered has reduced since, say 1950, (again inasmuch as such things are discernible) the level of incidence in countries where it is still practiced seems to be increasing 

Just brainstorming, but....Have you had a chance to look at the relative success of women vs men in adapting/assimilating to the new environments in which immigrants find themselves? Is a possible scenario one in which, for example, young men in the immigrant group find it more difficult to find opportunities for social mobility than their female counterparts, setting up situations in which resentful men turn to traditional notions that link group honor to female purity to vent rage at women who are finding it easier to find jobs, friends, and respect in the wider community?

Please excuse any grammatical errors above, I was just reading through for grammar when some visitors turned up, and I hit post rather than risk losing the lot.

 Young men in the immigrant group find it more difficult to find opportunities for social mobility than their female counterparts

Absolutely! - I think this is spot-on for diasporic prevalance, to which we could add status loss for elder males, say an asylum seeker who goes from a general to taxi driver in a single movement.

But I was thinking more about indigenous occurrence: why would it vanish without too much fuss from most of Mediterranean Europe, but be maintained, and possibly increase, in the central belt? This is what I find intriguing, and if I'm lucky, a subject for my next research project.

But I was thinking more about indigenous occurrence: why would it vanish without too much fuss from most of Mediterranean Europe

Do we know when it vanished from most of Mediterranean Europe? Ancient Rome was a long time ago. 

Joanne Payton said:

I admit I've been wrestling with some of the problems you raise, but in a rather unsophisticated way (I'm really a dilettantish autodidact, with no academic background in any of the social sciences, who just lucked into getting funding to research a personal obsession).

No need to apologize for your lack of academic background in the social sciences. You've obviously made up for it in other ways. And I see nothing unsophisticated in anything you've written. In fact I find your contributions quite impressive, with considerable intellectual depth. Now if you'd only give up smoking, you'd be practically perfect.  :-)

It strikes [me that] this account tracks a speculative (but plausible) transformation of the metanorm (by which I mean the normative way in which norm violations are addressed) rather than the norm - that patrilinear 'honour' is vested in women's bodies and behaviours.

Yes. My "just so story" develops on the basis of an already existing background (metanorm?) of extreme sexism, a particularly noxious older tradition that must also be accounted for. Same with the sort of violently patriarchal mindset that so easily leads to extreme competition and blood feuds. I allude to the question of the origin of inequality, sexism, aggression and violence at various points in my book, especially the final chapter. We find traditions of this sort so commonly throughout the world that many (e.g. Steven Pinker) have been tempted to argue that violence (and by implication sexism) is a part of our primate inheritance, on the basis of so many reports of chimpanzee behavior. I strongly disagree, since there are so many indigenous peoples with very different traditions, and since, according to the hypothesis I've formulated in the book, the genetic and ethnographic evidence points strongly to an ancestral society that would have been unusually egalitarian and nonviolent -- far more like Bonobos than Chimps. As I see it, the culturally sanctioned violence, extreme sexism, etc. that we see now in so many societies may be the result of some major traumatic event (or events) that forced people to turn against one another in order to survive. The post-trauma culture of the survivors would have been radically different from that of their ancestors, since the survivors would in all likelihood have passed on very different, more aggressive and competitive traditions to their children.

In the first sense, of killing the rapist, are the patriline enacting vengeance for a crime against one of their number, or are they responding to a challenge to their 'honour'?

As I see it, in this and also what follows, you may be falling into the trap of attempting a rational explanation of a sort that in all likelihood would have been beside the point. Your thinking makes a lot of sense, don't get me wrong. And some of the people involved might have explained themselves using some of the same language ("vengeance," "honour," etc.). But as I see it, the real reason for their wanting, or needing, to kill the rapist is essentially the same as the real reason for wanting or needing to kill the victim, after the new tradition has been established: the force of tradition in and of itself. What we hear from those defending such practices over and over is the need to protect and preserve "our ancestral traditions." So my point is that we need to recognize the tremendous power of tradition in and of itself.

I have so-far related HK in such scenarios as having a resource basis: HK invariably co-occurs with a virginity fetish, wherein a non-virgin woman is unmarriageable and indicates the failure of her family to adequately police her behaviour.

Yet there are many traditions in which non-virgin women are marriageable. And other traditions in which unmarriageable women are not sacrificed to "family honour." Thus practical considerations of this sort can never in and of themselves provide an adequate explanation.

Reading around sati - as being another form of femicide which tends to increase family status - I found an argument that sati is used to rid the family of the expense of supporting a widow who cannot remarry and stands as a drain on family resources, so that she becomes superfluous.

Again, while this is a sensible notion, there are many such situations outside of India in which a family will support such a widow without demanding that she immolate herself on her husband's pyre. God knows how such a pathological tradition as sati ever got started, but once it became established, for whatever reason, then it no longer mattered whether or not it made sense -- it was an ancestral tradition that had to be honored.

But a simple resource argument doesn't make for a complete argument about HK, because women may be tracked down and killed years after an elopement, at which point they bear no resource cost to the family, since most wisely relocate they aren't even moving in the same community to be a living advertisement to her family's failure of control.

Yes, exactly.

I think we can be clear in saying that, on an evolutionary basis, men as husbands seek to monopolise their partner's sexuality to ensure paternity, and prefer to contribute resources to children they believe to be their own. But it's not at all clear to me on a purely evolutionary, or  even a resource, basis why a father and other agnates should collude in this.

This sort of "selfish gene" explanation strikes me as particularly unconvincing, because it has meaning only in retrospect. Males desired sexual intercourse with females long before humans figured out that such behavior led to having babies.

So, to tradition. I'm interested in this idea of inherited worldviews which used to serve a purpose in the situation under which they arose, but are retained even though they no longer do so. How does your conception of tradition intersect with habitus? I think I've been using that term in a similar sense.

Yes. Habitus. Also Doxa. I haven't read that much Bourdieu, but I get the sense that these concepts correspond roughly to what I would call  "sociocultural fields."

I think the point of a tradition outstaying it's usefulness is important because of one of the core paradoxes that trouble me: while the number of countries where HK is discovered has reduced since, say 1950, (again inasmuch as such things are discernible) the level of incidence in countries where it is still practiced seems to be increasing - there has, apparently, been a five-fold explosion of HK in Haryana between 1999-2002. This could be put down to better recognition and recording, but many women's organisations claim this is an absolute increase. I've suggested this is backlash against social change - that say, increasing women's education and employment prospects has led to greater resistance to parental control, leading to violent repercussions for some, possibly alongside a less visible reorientation of family power within families that take a more concessionary attitude to women's autonomy. Does your conception of tradition explain a backlash situation?

I agree completely with this interpretation. This isn't something I've written about, but it certainly makes sense. It looks like an excellent example of the power of even the most pathological and self-destructive traditions to persist, even in the face of universal approbation.

Just dropping in to respond to John, just addressing Italy. We've gone over the Roman era, but HK can be found in several of  Boccacio's Decameron tales. A study of 17th Century Italy that I can't locate right now stated there was a practise of starving a 'dishonoured' woman to death.

The Rocco Code of 1931 (Article 587) specified a sentence of 3-7 years for a spouse, father or brother killing a woman suspected of dishonourable behaviour. Several accounts of HK emerged in the Italian press post-WWII. Reduced sentencing was often applied in local courts, which was officially criticised by the Cassation Court in 1972. Through feminist campaigning, Article  587 was withdrawn in 1980. 

A few additional pieces of trivia: Italians probably carried HK into the diaspora - Francesca Costa was murdered by her brothers in Detroit, 1920, because she refused an arranged marriage and had a reputation of being flighty. There may have been a family council decision-making process involved. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (which is semi-fictional) describes an Italian father trying to starve his unmarried pregnant daughter in Brooklyn in the same period.

Also, there is some level of survival of this tradition, although this may be linked to families with mafia connections: Bruna Morabito, niece of a Callabrian godfather, was shot by her brother after delivering an illegitimate child in 2006. Napolese woman Maria Monaco was imprisoned in a single room by her family (mother, brother and sister) for 18 years after having an illegitimate daughter, and was not released until the police raided the house in 2008.

So HK is a very, very recent aspect of Italian history.

Victor - thank you for your thoughts. I will be back!

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