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Price Of a Woman: Economic Rationale Behind Marriage Payments in Georgia

We economists tend to search for economics behind everything. It's as if it is some kind of disease, for which there is no cure. I admit, I myself suffer from it.

Last weekend I visited Shatili, a historic highland village in Georgia located near the border with Chechnya. This unique fortress built with stone and mortar, isolated from the rest of the world makes you think about your ancestors. Our guide told us many interesting facts about people from the highlands, and one of them attracted my attention very much. Particularity the existence of “Urvadi”  -  the tradition of paying a bride price among Georgians living in the highlands. Urvadi was an amount of money, property, wealth or livestock paid by the groom or his family to the parents of a woman upon the marriage of their daughter to the groom. I became interested in the reason why the mountainous regions of northern Georgia practiced the tradition of paying a bride price whereas the lowlands of the country were accustomed to a dowry. All traditions are motivated by some incentive; and as an economist, I believe that most of these incentives are economic in nature. Thus, a question kept lingering on my mind during my journey - what was the economic rationale behind having a dowry in the lowlands and a bride price in the highlands?

Before exploring the question let me explain how I see the two terms, dowry and bride price, in economic terms.  Bride price is the “price” paid by the groom for the bride. On the contrary, a dowry represents some kind of “negative price”. The parents of a girl are paying for their daughter to be married. We have to keep in mind that they are not mirror opposite things.  A dowry is the property given to the bride by her family, property which belongs to her and which may be controlled together with her husband. On the other hand, bride price is some kind of economic compensation given to the bride’s family for their loss.  Brideprice and dowry can be viewed as “initial investments” for the marriage; both ensure lower divorce rates, as the costs of the divorce increases with the amount of money invested prior to the marriage (I personally think that a bride price is a sunk cost, but try to think more objectively).

As I returned back to Tbilisi, I tried to search for the economic rationales behind dowries and bride prices in the literature. The first thing to emerge in all kinds of studies is family composition - whether it is monogamous or polygamous (men have more than one wife). Bride price tends to be correlated with polygamy, and in monogamous families a dowry is more common.  In societies where there is an abundance of resources, families have to set a negative price in order to attract grooms, whereas in areas where resources are scarce and men are in the practice of having more than one wife, grooms are paying the price. So in economic terms, marriage payments are "prices" that clear the marriage market. Bride prices and dowries equate the demand for and supply of brides and grooms. Therefore, when grooms are relatively scarce, brides pay dowries, and when brides are scarce, grooms offer a bride price.

At first glance, family composition can not explain the difference in high and low land traditions in Georgia as no polygamy was practiced among the people, but if we look deeper into this issue and view women as a resource and introduce a notion of scarcity, we can partly explain different marriage payment traditions. Mountainous regions in  Georgia were characterized with a very low population density, therefore the pool of girls from where one could choose a wife was small. In addition, marriages between relatives and people with the same Icon (Xati) protection were not permitted.

If we add Gary S. Becker’s theory to the above mentioned statement, reasons for the difference between highland and lowland traditions become even clearer. In his work “A treatise on the family” (1993) links marriage payments to the economic value of women. Becker developed the marriage market framework to analyze transfers at the time of marriage. In Becker’s model, men and women both possess varying qualities (or potential incomes). Marriage is viewed as a joint venture that offers greater efficiency in production (household, market, or both).  The difference in payment direction emerges with the heterogeneity of grooms (different socioeconomic status) and the economic power of women. In a homogeneous society (with less variation in socioeconomic status) where women have direct input into production and where their family depends on their work,  they have a relatively high economic value and grooms are paying the bride’s parents for the right to her labor and reproductive capabilities. Becker’s theory is supported by Boserup's (1970) study on marriage payments. She shows that bride price paying societies have associated a strong female role in agriculture and is common in societies in which agriculture relies on light tools (such as the hoe) and thus where women are actively engaged. On the other hand, a dowry is more common in heavy plow agriculture where the role of a woman is limited.  The result of the above mentioned theory in which a dowry is represented in societies with more social stratification, and bride prices are practiced in homogenious societies, is that a dowry corresponds to the development of the more complex social order, exhibiting substantial socioeconomic differentiation and class stratification. Vivid examples are dowry traditions in India, where the caste system represents perhaps an extreme example of social stratification, and sub-Saharan Africa where you find homogeneous tribal societies, which pay bride prices.

Perhaps the different economic value of women can explain the disparity in the Georgian traditions. Compared to the lowlands,  the technologically less developed highlands were heavily dependent on women labor in agriculture. In addition to agricultural work, the economic value of women was increased by the lack of trade in the highlands. In particular because Georgian mountain regions were remote areas, where the roads were closed off during the winter seasons because of the snow; therefore any links to other parts of the world were cut off for a good part of the year. In such circumstances of absence of trade, women had to produce many home made goods, which in turn made them more powerful in economic terms compared to women in the lowlands. The lowlands were generally characterized by  more developed production process ensuring wealth differences between men, making them heterogeneous, while the economic role of the women was not changing, leaving them homogeneous. In such a society where brides are homogeneous and grooms are not, brides compete for more desirable grooms, and dowries replace bride prices.

Marriage payment traditions are vanishing in Georgia and are becoming belongings of our history. Marriage payments are typically associated with the marriages arranged by parents. As the modern youth is becoming more independent and have more control over the selection of partners, marriage payments are becoming insignificant. Dowry traditions have declined dramatically in Georgia.  As the return to investing in human capital increases, parents invest in daughter’s education much more and dowries are becoming an inferior way of providing brides with future wealth relative to investing in their human capital.  Bride prices have been eliminated completely as a consequence of industrialization and urbanization processes. I tried to give simple explanations of the difference in traditions of marriage payments in Georgia. This is interesting topic to explore. Currently marriage payments are pervasive in many areas of the developing world and have substantial effects on the welfare of women and society’s distribution of wealth. Unfortunately, there are very few empirical studies done on the topic in general and it is difficult to generalize.

The case of Georgian marriage payments is an example of how the vanishing of economics rationale behind traditions caused weakening and the disappearance of tradition itself. It is interesting to think about whether this is going to happen to all traditions when incentives change? Or are some traditions strong enough, willing people to following them without any rationality?

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Guest - G.T. on Thursday, 23 August 2012 21:01

Very nice and interesting topic discussed in an interesting way. I just want to express my opinion about the Bride Price and Dowry. I think, that they didn't not disappear, they just changed their way of expression. Nowadays, there are no more any negotiation between couples' parents and adults themselves decided upon to whom marry, however they yet negotiate between themselves. What changed in modern world is that instead of parents, couples themselves possess and have official right on their property. Nowadays, who pays bride price and dowry, with my opinion, depends on the quality of bride and groom. These prices sometimes are paid in terms of money straightforwardly, such as "Dating expenses" and sometimes are paid in indirect ways such as nice clothes, perfumes etc. for raising once quality and price finally. And finally inflation here also as everywhere seems to play a significant role :)

Very nice and interesting topic discussed in an interesting way. I just want to express my opinion about the Bride Price and Dowry. I think, that they didn't not disappear, they just changed their way of expression. Nowadays, there are no more any negotiation between couples' parents and adults themselves decided upon to whom marry, however they yet negotiate between themselves. What changed in modern world is that instead of parents, couples themselves possess and have official right on their property. Nowadays, who pays bride price and dowry, with my opinion, depends on the quality of bride and groom. These prices sometimes are paid in terms of money straightforwardly, such as "Dating expenses" and sometimes are paid in indirect ways such as nice clothes, perfumes etc. for raising once quality and price finally. And finally inflation here also as everywhere seems to play a significant role :)
Guest - Maka on Friday, 24 August 2012 16:59

G.T. Thank you for your comment. I agree with you that nowadays couples themselves possess and have official right on their property, moreover, brides have their human capital and marriage payments are not needed. As for the “Dating expenses” I do not think that they are transformed forms of marriage payments because they were present in previous times along with the dowry and bride price. For example: Belga (ბელგა) -jewelry or money (usually gold or silver), which was presented by groom to bride before the marriage (mainly prevalent in Kartli and Mtiuleti regions), Tsindi (წინდი)- had the similar function in other regions of Georgia. I do not posses information about inflation’s affect on the marriage payment in the country, but studies done in different countries show that generally dowry is more sensitive toward inflation compared to bride price.

G.T. Thank you for your comment. I agree with you that nowadays couples themselves possess and have official right on their property, moreover, brides have their human capital and marriage payments are not needed. As for the “Dating expenses” I do not think that they are transformed forms of marriage payments because they were present in previous times along with the dowry and bride price. For example: Belga (ბელგა) -jewelry or money (usually gold or silver), which was presented by groom to bride before the marriage (mainly prevalent in Kartli and Mtiuleti regions), Tsindi (წინდი)- had the similar function in other regions of Georgia. I do not posses information about inflation’s affect on the marriage payment in the country, but studies done in different countries show that generally dowry is more sensitive toward inflation compared to bride price.
Guest - Eric on Saturday, 25 August 2012 04:05

A great, mind-boggling post…

It could be about population density but not for the reason stated in Maka’s post. In a sparsely populated area, such as the Georgian highlands, men and women should be equally "scarce", and it is not a priori clear why the market clearing price for a woman should be positive (i.e. it is the men and their families who pay a "bride price"). However, I could think of a different way in which population density could combine with soil quality and climate conditions to affect the marriage market.

In sparsely populated mountainous areas where pasture land is available in almost infinite supply, agricultural production (mostly animal husbandry) is not constrained by land or capital. The main constraining factor is labor, and, actually, female labor (think of who is mainly employed in milking, production of dairy products, wool, hides, etc.). Marriage under these conditions can be thought of as a zero sum game that results in a valuable worker – a scarce resource – being transferred from one household to another. What is net loss for the bride’s family, is net gain for that of the groom. It is therefore only natural that in the highlands the bride's family would expect compensation for the loss of a valuable asset.

Conversely, in the densely populated lowlands, land was historically in much scarcer supply. This was so by the very definition of population density but also because most land was privately owned and very unequally distributed between the land nobility, on the one hand, and the small-holding peasants, on the other. Because land was scarce and expensive, and because the climate and soil conditions were more suitable for the growing of plants, the lowlands were characterized by much more capital intensive methods of agricultural production that also required masculine power. Think of draught horses, oxen, ploughs, and the men behind them.

Under these conditions, production in the lowlands was mainly constrained by the amount of land and capital at the farmers’ disposal. The addition of a worker (particularly a woman) did not add much if there was only one horse to pull the plough. Losing a (potentially redundant) worker is also not as bad when agriculture is capital intensive. This is particularly so given that a worker cannot be fired if she happens to be one's daughter. Whether she contributes to production or not she has to be (nicely) clad and fed. Thus, I can see a scenario under which marrying one’s daughter is perceived as an opportunity to get rid of a redundant worker that otherwise has to be “maintained” on the farm. Hence, an economics rationale for the dowry tradition of the lowlands.

A great, mind-boggling post… It could be about population density but not for the reason stated in Maka’s post. In a sparsely populated area, such as the Georgian highlands, men and women should be equally "scarce", and it is not a priori clear why the market clearing price for a woman should be positive (i.e. it is the men and their families who pay a "bride price"). However, I could think of a different way in which population density could combine with soil quality and climate conditions to affect the marriage market. In sparsely populated mountainous areas where pasture land is available in almost infinite supply, agricultural production (mostly animal husbandry) is not constrained by land or capital. The main constraining factor is labor, and, actually, female labor (think of who is mainly employed in milking, production of dairy products, wool, hides, etc.). Marriage under these conditions can be thought of as a zero sum game that results in a valuable worker – a scarce resource – being transferred from one household to another. What is net loss for the bride’s family, is net gain for that of the groom. It is therefore only natural that in the highlands the bride's family would expect compensation for the loss of a valuable asset. Conversely, in the densely populated lowlands, land was historically in much scarcer supply. This was so by the very definition of population density but also because most land was privately owned and very unequally distributed between the land nobility, on the one hand, and the small-holding peasants, on the other. Because land was scarce and expensive, and because the climate and soil conditions were more suitable for the growing of plants, the lowlands were characterized by much more capital intensive methods of agricultural production that also required masculine power. Think of draught horses, oxen, ploughs, and the men behind them. Under these conditions, production in the lowlands was mainly constrained by the amount of land and capital at the farmers’ disposal. The addition of a worker (particularly a woman) did not add much if there was only one horse to pull the plough. Losing a (potentially redundant) worker is also not as bad when agriculture is capital intensive. This is particularly so given that a worker cannot be fired if she happens to be one's daughter. Whether she contributes to production or not she has to be (nicely) clad and fed. Thus, I can see a scenario under which marrying one’s daughter is perceived as an opportunity to get rid of a redundant worker that otherwise has to be “maintained” on the farm. Hence, an economics rationale for the dowry tradition of the lowlands.
Guest - Yasya on Wednesday, 29 August 2012 05:46

An excellent post! Gives very interesting insights and raises intriguing questions about social traditions and how they are formed ( although it is sometimes less clear to me why traditions manage to be so enduring even in the face of changing economic conditions).

I do believe that Maka’s intuition is right – differences in the productivity of female’s labor should be able to largely explain the “price of a woman”. Here are a few thoughts to summarize my understanding of the nature of this phenomenon:

In marriage, where a woman leaves her family to become part of her husband’s, the payment, whether positive (bride-price) or negative (dowry) is in part determined by weighing the present value of woman’s contribution to the family income over her lifetime (including caring for children and the elderly) vs. the cost of sustaining another family member.

It is quite possible that skill differentiation played a role in the evolution of bride-price/dowry systems. In the society where grooms are homogeneous (warriors whose primary task is to collectively hunt and protect the village), while brides acquire a relatively heterogeneous set of skills in agriculture and household tasks, the family of the bride would be able to command higher compensation for the loss of the productive member.

It is an interesting observation that in the absence of trade in the highlands of Georgia contributed to the establishment of bride-price system. Why would the existence of trade opportunities result in lower lifetime “wages” for females?

As I see it, women were not engaged in trade in the earlier days not because they lacked business acumen, but because trade was a perilous task – it required an ability to successfully transport and defend the goods/cargo, as well as business ability.

In those early days, it is not surprising that trade was mostly conducted by men. Trade also required heterogeneous skills and accumulation of human capital. These factors have contributed to the rise of more complex economic systems and led, unfortunately, to the grater disparity between male and female productivity, as well as less prominent role for women in the economy of a household.

Also, my intuition would be that traditional preference for male offsprings is related to the productivity of female labor. I am wondering if in the highlands of Georgia this preference would have been historically less pronounced than elsewhere in the region?

An excellent post! Gives very interesting insights and raises intriguing questions about social traditions and how they are formed ( although it is sometimes less clear to me why traditions manage to be so enduring even in the face of changing economic conditions). I do believe that Maka’s intuition is right – differences in the productivity of female’s labor should be able to largely explain the “price of a woman”. Here are a few thoughts to summarize my understanding of the nature of this phenomenon: In marriage, where a woman leaves her family to become part of her husband’s, the payment, whether positive (bride-price) or negative (dowry) is in part determined by weighing the present value of woman’s contribution to the family income over her lifetime (including caring for children and the elderly) vs. the cost of sustaining another family member. It is quite possible that skill differentiation played a role in the evolution of bride-price/dowry systems. In the society where grooms are homogeneous (warriors whose primary task is to collectively hunt and protect the village), while brides acquire a relatively heterogeneous set of skills in agriculture and household tasks, the family of the bride would be able to command higher compensation for the loss of the productive member. It is an interesting observation that in the absence of trade in the highlands of Georgia contributed to the establishment of bride-price system. Why would the existence of trade opportunities result in lower lifetime “wages” for females? As I see it, women were not engaged in trade in the earlier days not because they lacked business acumen, but because trade was a perilous task – it required an ability to successfully transport and defend the goods/cargo, as well as business ability. In those early days, it is not surprising that trade was mostly conducted by men. Trade also required heterogeneous skills and accumulation of human capital. These factors have contributed to the rise of more complex economic systems and led, unfortunately, to the grater disparity between male and female productivity, as well as less prominent role for women in the economy of a household. Also, my intuition would be that traditional preference for male offsprings is related to the productivity of female labor. I am wondering if in the highlands of Georgia this preference would have been historically less pronounced than elsewhere in the region?
Guest - robin s BOUSSA on Friday, 29 March 2013 15:01

I think the acumen in south part of Indian must have a rethink about this mess yes I collectively understand the fact that is your tradition demands but men you guys should work hard to amend some part of your traditional right to serve your purpose as guys in south Indian ps men leave traditional demands to take full responsibility upon yourself as men is vital

I think the acumen in south part of Indian must have a rethink about this mess yes I collectively understand the fact that is your tradition demands but men you guys should work hard to amend some part of your traditional right to serve your purpose as guys in south Indian ps men leave traditional demands to take full responsibility upon yourself as men is vital
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