Ending Footbinding and Infibulation: A Convention Account

Gerry Mackie, St. John's College, University of Oxford
Publication Date: 
December, 1996

This is a paper was published in the American Sociological Review, 1996, Col. 61 (December, pg.999-1017.)

Female genital mutilation in Africa persists despite modernization, public education, and legal prohibition. Female footbinding in China lasted for 1,000 years but ended in a single generation. 1 show that each practice is a self-enforcing convention, in Schelling's (1960) sense, maintained by interdependent expectations on the marriage market. Each practice originated under conditions of extreme resource polygyny as a means of enforcing the imperial male's exclusive sexual access to his female consorts. Extreme polygyny also caused a competitive upward flow of women and a downward flow of conjugal practices, accounting for diffusion of the practices. A Schelling coordination diagram explains how the three methods of the Chinese campaign to abolish footbinding succeeded in bringing it to a quick end. The pivotal innovation was to form associations of parents who pledged not to footbind their daughters nor let their sons marry footbound women. The "convention" hypothesis predicts that promotion of such pledge associations would help bring female genital mutilation to an end.

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