What makes ‘honor cultures’ different from other kinds of cultures around the world?

Social scientists say that a society exhibits an honor culture when the defense of reputation plays an incredibly important role in social life (in more technical terms, reputation maintenance is a “central organizing theme” in that society). For men in a typical honor culture, the kind of reputation that is highly prized is a reputation for toughness and bravery. Men in honor cultures want to be known as someone that others ought not to take lightly. For women in a typical honor culture, the most valued reputation is a reputation for loyalty and sexual purity, although toughness and bravery might also play a secondary role for them. The factors that seem to promote the development of such honor-based social norms are (1) pervasive poverty, (2) portable wealth (in other words, resources that can be easily stolen, such as livestock), and (3) the absence of a strong state capable of enforcing the rule of law and protecting people’s interests. Mediterranean countries, Middle Eastern countries, and nations in Central and South America are generally considered to exhibit classic features of the “honor syndrome.” So, too, do states in the southern and western regions of the United States, which were settled heavily by immigrants from southern Scotland in the 17th and 18th centuries. The southern Scots incubated their own version of an honor culture for nearly 1,000 years before immigrating in massive waves to the U.S. The vestiges of the culture of these Scottish immigrants can still be seen today.

How and why do honor-related ideologies promote violence toward others?

Because of the importance placed on reputation maintenance, honor cultures allow or even expect people to defend themselves aggressively when threatened, even if the threat is not a physical one. So, when men in an honor culture are insulted or their honorable qualities are called into question, they often go to extremes to prove their mettle. When a woman’s honor is questioned, the honor threat can extend to the men in her social circle (e.g., father, brothers, husband), which can lead them to respond to the threat with violence. Studies have shown that argument-based homicide rates are higher in honor-oriented communities, especially in non-metropolitan areas (the “small town” effect). Recent studies show a very similar pattern with respect to school shootings. In fact, in a study of school shootings in the U.S. between 1988 and 2008, approximately 75 percent occurred in honor states in the South and West. This association remained even after a host of statewide differences were taken into account, such as rurality, temperature, and poverty. Given that prior studies have shown that school shooters are typically targets of chronic bullying or recent humiliations, this connection between honor culture and school violence makes sense: the honor code calls for the use of aggression to defend one’s reputation, so when kids (especially boys) in a honor culture feel intensely disgraced by their peers at school, we should not be especially surprised when, on some occasions, they respond with violence. A greater access to guns in honor states adds a lethal capacity to the powerful motivation produced by shame for those living in an honor culture.

What is the link between honor ideology and risk-taking?

An important element of an honorable reputation is evidence of bravery. There are many ways to show you are brave, and one way is to engage in excessively risky behaviors. Examples might be extreme sports (e.g., sky-diving, mountain climbing, powerboat racing), but more mundane forms could also serve this function. As a result, people living in “honor states” in the U.S.—especially white men and women in non-metropolitan areas—are more likely than people living in non-honor states to die through accidents. Likewise, surveys show that the more that people endorse honor-related beliefs and values, the more likely they are to report engaging in a wide variety of risky behaviors, from gambling to bungee jumping.

How and why do honor cultures promote violence toward the self?

It might seem paradoxical to expect that suicide rates would be higher in honor cultures. However, this is exactly what we see, at least in the United States (in southern and western states), especially among white men living in non-metropolitan areas. Because honor cultures have such high standards for behavior, and because failing to live up to these standards means dishonor, people in these cultures have many opportunities to experience a stain on their reputations that is sometimes impossible to erase. When this occurs, some people might feel their only way to escape dishonor is to kill themselves. Recent studies show that people in honor-oriented regions of the U.S. are particularly prone to committing suicide with a gun, perhaps as a way of proving their bravery even at the very end of their lives.

Are honor ideologies related to religious beliefs and values?

For the most part, honor ideologies conflict with religious orientations. Although the emphasis on feminine sexual purity in the honor code certainly is compatible with prescriptions for women’s behavior common to many religious systems, in one fundamental way, honor and religion are at odds with one another. In an honor culture, honor is the highest priority, even more important than life itself. Nothing is more important than honor to those who embrace this cultural ideology. But that priority conflicts with the priorities of most religious traditions. In Christianity and Judaism, for instance, God refuses to play second-fiddle to anything (as the Bible says, God is “a jealous God” when it comes to human affections). For this reason, some have even suggested that religion has helped spur the demise of the honor code within Western civilization. Although the southern U.S. is certainly known for its religious identity (as “the Bible belt”) and is also one of the primary honor regions of the country, data show that individuals who endorse an honor ideology are not especially religious (or irreligious), so the regional overlap does not coincide with personal endorsement of religious and honor-oriented beliefs and values.