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Publish Date: 
Thu, 04/14/2011 - 13:01

We are wondering about the theory of social norms and female genital cutting (FGC) in Africa. There are anecdotal reports that international workers have visited a village, started a conversation - without taking a position - about whether people think FGC should continue, and that alone stimulated the community to decide to give up FGC. It is very possible for an unpopular social norm to persist for a long time because people think that others support the norm, or expect others to enforce it in some way, and people haven't successfully communicated to each other that they're willing to give it up together. The key, according to Cristina Bicchieri's work, is pluralistic ignorance: a discrepancy where people recognize that they themselves conform to the norm for social reasons - they'd rather not but they feel pressure from others - but when they see others conform, they think it is for individual reasons, because the others actually prefer to behave that way.

I did a small search for evidence of pluralistic ignorance in the Measure DHS African survey data. They asked Kenyan women whether they think FGC should be continued or discontinued. I verified that the number of women who were cut is quite a bit larger than the number who think it should be continued. It doesn't imply that they thought it should be discontinued at the time it happened, though - they could have turned against it afterwards, which would be different - but if they did would that be evidence for pluralistic ignorance? Not directly - the influence of men has to be considered, for one thing. This is only an exploration.

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