Culture of Honor Definition
A culture of honor is a culture in which a person (usually a man) feels obliged to protect his or her reputation by answering insults, affronts, and threats, oftentimes through the use of violence. Cultures of honor have been independently invented many times across the world. Three well-known examples of cultures of honor include cultures of honor in parts of the Middle East, the southern United States, and inner-city neighborhoods (of the United States and elsewhere) that are controlled by gangs.
Cultures of honor can vary in many ways. Some stress female chastity to an extreme degree, whereas others do not. Some have strong norms for hospitality and politeness toward strangers, whereas others actively encourage aggression against outsiders. What all cultures of honor share, however, is the central importance placed on insult and threat and the necessity of responding to them with violence or the threat of violence.
Insults and threats take on great meaning in cultures of honor, because of the environments in which cultures of honor develop. Such cultures develop in lawless environments where there is no central authority (such as the state) that can offer effective protection to its citizens. In such a situation, a person has to let it be known that he will protect himself, his family, and his property. Insults and affronts are important because they act as probes, establishing who can do what to whom. A person who responds with violence over “small” matters (e.g., an insult or an argument over a small amount of money) can effectively establish himself as one who is not to be messed with on larger matters. Thus, an effective response to an insult can deter future attacks, when the stakes may be much higher.
Many violent incidents in cultures of honor center on what might be considered a trivial incident to outsiders. Such matters are not trivial to the people in the argument, however, because people are defending (or establishing) their reputations. What is really at stake is something of far greater importance than a one-dollar debt owed or a record on the jukebox.
In cultures of honor, reputation is highly tied up with masculinity. A telling anecdote from Hodding Carter’s book Southern Legacy (1950) concerned a 1930s Louisiana court case, in which Carter served as a juror. The facts of the matter were clear. The defendant lived near a gas station and had been pestered for some time by workers there. One day, the man had had enough and opened fire on the workers, killing one person and wounding two others. As Carter tells it, the case seemed open and shut, and so Carter began discussions in the jury room by offering up the obvious (to him) verdict of guilty. The other 11 jurors had very different ideas about the obvious verdict, however, and they strongly and unanimously favored acquittal. Fellow jurors explained to Carter that the man couldn’t be guilty—what kind of man wouldn’t have shot the others? An elder juror later told Carter that a man can’t be jailed for standing up for his rights. In cultures of honor everywhere, traditional masculinity is a virtue that has to be defended.
Various ethnographies have described cultures of honor in great detail. Sociologist Elijah Anderson, for example, has written about the culture of honor in inner cities of the United States. Anthropologists Julian Pitt-Rivers and J. G. Peristiany have written about honor in the Mediterranean region, and an important collection of papers can be found in Peristiany’s 1966 book Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society. Notably, the book includes chapters by Pitt-Rivers, Peristiany, and Pierre Bourdeau, who has written about honor and the importance of female chastity among the Kabyle of Algeria. As in many Mediterranean cultures, the sanctity of the family name among the Kabyle depends a great deal on the purity of its women and how well the men guard and protect it. In such cultures, females who disgrace the family may be killed by their male relatives in an attempt to cleanse the family name.
Within experimental social psychology, Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen’s 1996 book Culture of Honor lays out the case that there is a culture of honor among Whites in the contemporary South of the United States. Among other evidence, they show that the homicide rate is higher among Whites in the U.S. South, but only for killings that involve quarrels, lovers’ triangles, and other arguments (i.e., those killings where honor is most likely to be at stake). They also show in opinion surveys that White southerners are more likely to endorse violence than are northerners when the violence is used in response to insult or in response to some threat to home, family, or property.
In laboratory studies, they showed that southern U.S. college students were more likely than northern college students to respond in an aggressive manner when they were insulted. The insult involved an experimental confederate who bumped into the experimental participant as he was walking down the hallway and then called the participant an expletive. Southern students were more than twice as likely as northern students to become visibly angry at the insult (85% vs. 35%). They were more cognitively primed for aggression, completing scenarios with more violent endings. And they showed surges in their levels of testosterone (a hormone associated with aggression, competition, and dominance) and cortisol (a hormone associated with stress and arousal) after the bump. Additionally, southerners also became more aggressive as they subsequently walked down the hallway and encountered another experimental confederate (who was 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighed 250 pounds).
Finally, the researchers also showed that the laws and social policies of the South were more lenient toward violence than those of the North. This is important, because social policies may be one way the culture of honor is carried forward, even after the originating conditions (the lawless environment of the frontier South) have largely disappeared.
- Anderson, E. (1994, May). The code of the streets. Atlantic Monthly, 5, 81-94.
- Daly, M., & Wilson, M. (1988). Homicide. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.
- Gilmore, D. (1990). Manhood in the making: Cultural concepts of masculinity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Nisbett, R. E., & Cohen, D. (1996). Culture of honor: The psychology of violence in the South. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Peristiany, J. G. (1966). Honor and shame. Chicago: University of Chicago.