Background: Anthropological literature has long linked bridewealth payments to decision-making about fertility. Recent research underscores the significance of men's preferences regarding women's reproductive behavior, and suggests that bridewealth payments place constraints on women's reproductive autonomy. Yet because survey data on bridewealth are rare, and the collection of new survey data on bridewealth presents serious challenges, this explanation could not be tested. Objective Our objective in this paper is to highlight the potential utility of lab experiments (in particular, vignette experiments) for improving our understanding of gender relations in Africa, using the hypothesized effect of bridewealth on normative constraints on women's reproductive autonomy as an illustration. Methods: We discuss our reasons for turning to lab experiments, and to vignette experiments in particular. We also summarize a series of studies (Horne, Dodoo, and Dodoo 2013; Dodoo, Horne, and Biney 2014) which have implemented our experimental approach. Results: Our experimental evidence shows that bridewealth payments are associated with greater normative constraints on women's reproductive autonomy. We also find that these negative effects of bridewealth are consistent across participant ages, and do not appear to be ameliorated by female schooling. Conclusions: We conclude that lab experiments in general (and vignette experiments in particular) are underutilized methodological tools that may be useful for helping us gain a better understanding of the cultural context of gender relations in Africa; and that demographic research more generally may benefit from taking advantage of the strengths of experimental methods.
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