Criminology Honor Cultures and Violence
Mark Cooney
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0160


“Honor” means different things to different people at different times. In modern societies, honor refers primarily to a form of social status that attaches to integrity and sound character. But honor has an older meaning still found among some groups today—a form of social status founded on the willingness and ability to use force. Honor in this second sense can result in two types of violence. The first occurs predominately between men (indeed, honor is often equated with masculinity). An honorable man will not hesitate to use physical force to combat any assault, theft, insult, or other attempt at subordination of himself or his group (family, gang, or nation). For honor, unlike the more stable value of dignity, can be won or lost. Honor rises and falls when one man (or group) publicly challenges the willingness of another to physically defend himself, his intimates, or his property and hence his right to be treated as an equal. To uphold his honor a man need not beat his opponent, but he must display a willingness to fight him. Cultures of honor (those in which actors compete for status based on physical force) are far from uniform, but work by anthropologists, historians, sociologists, criminologists, social psychologists, and others reveals several shared characteristics. One is that honor is a central source of status, which largely explains the apparently trivial causes of many violent conflicts: the issue is not really the taking of a few cents of change but whether one can person disrespect another publicly and get away with it. Honor cultures too are typically antipathetic to law and legal officials: a man must stand up for himself and not rely on others to do so. Traditional honor cultures tend, also, to be highly patriarchal, subordinating women and treating their sexuality as family property. In such cultures, a second type of honor violence may be found—men beating or even killing their female relatives for loss of chastity or other conduct that threatens male rule. These acts of violence committed in the name of family honor likely have a long history in human societies. Today, they are concentrated in predominately Muslim nations and among their emigrants to Western countries. In short, all honor cultures have high rates of violence principally among men; some also have high rates of violence by men against their female relatives.

General Overviews

Honor has attracted a considerable amount of scholarly attention across the social sciences. Peristiany 1966 on Mediterranean societies was an early and influential discussion, describing the principal features of honor cultures. Not long afterwards, Berger, et al. 1973 declared the obsolescence of honor, seeing the culture of dignity as being much more compatible with the social organization of modernity. Stewart 1994 provides perhaps the most comprehensive overview of the concept, drawing in particular on his own fieldwork among the Bedouin of the Sinai Peninsula. Nisbett and Cohen 1996 traces the roots of honor culture to a combination of frontier statelessness and the vulnerability of property in herding economies. Cooney 1998 distinguishes ten characteristics of honor cultures, including their antipathy to legal means of handling conflict. Collins 2008 sees honor as an ideology that is often used to justify bullying or domination by the weak over the strong. Appiah 2010 ponders the swiftness with which entrenched social practices may change once they become uncoupled from the notion of honor. Black 2011 provides perhaps the most incisive overview of honor, emphasizing that the origin and intensity of its conflicts lie in the struggle to establish superiority and avoid inferiority among status equals.

  • Appiah, Kwame Anthony. 2010. The honor code: How moral revolutions happen. New York: Norton.

    Reflections on honor and its role in moral revolutions by a philosopher. Analyzes the rapid demise of dueling, the abolition of slavery, and the abandonment of Chinese footbinding in terms of changing notions of personal and group honor broadly defined.

  • Berger, Peter, Brigitte Berger, and Hansfried Kellner. 1973. On the obsolescence of the concept of honor. In The homeless mind: Modernization and consciousness. Edited by Peter Berger, Brigitte Berger, and Hansfried Kellner, 83–96. New York: Random House.

    An important statement contrasting the premodern culture of honor with the modern culture of dignity. Has been criticized for underestimating the extent to which honor survives in pockets of the modern world, but remains an essential source.

  • Black, Donald. 2011. Moral time. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199737147.001.0001

    A brief but insightful and wide-ranging discussion. Situates honor conflicts within his highly original general theory of conflict (see pp. 71–74).

  • Collins, Randall. 2008. Violence: A micro-sociological theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    A contrarian account that argues that honor (and its contemporary cousin, “respect”) is not a mechanism for deterring violence but an ideology for establishing and justifying individual or group dominance. In honor code situations, actors do not simply respond to insults but often actively seek out fights (see pp. 229–235).

  • Cooney, Mark. 1998. Warriors and peacemakers: How third parties shape violence. New York: New York Univ. Press.

    Identifies ten characteristics of a culture of honor (chapter 5).

  • Nisbett, Richard E., and Dov Cohen. 1996. Culture of honor: The psychology of violence in the South. Boulder, CO: Westview.

    A seminal contribution. Presents empirical evidence of a Southern culture of honor, and proposes that cultures of honor in general are products of frontier herding societies. Scholarly yet accessible to a wide audience.

  • Peristiany, J. G., ed. 1966. Honour and shame: The values of Mediterranean society. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    A classic edited volume analyzing the meanings of honor and its place in Mediterranean societies. An excellent starting point for investigating honor culture.

  • Stewart, Frank Henderson. 1994. Honor. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    An influential, erudite, yet concise overview of the meanings of the concept of honor among the Bedouin and in Western societies since the Renaissance. Argues that honor is a right to be respected as an equal as long as the holder obeys the rules of the honor code.

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