Latin American Studies Honor in Latin America, to 1900
Sonya Lipsett-Rivera
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0188


Honor was a value system that governed the lives of colonial and early national Latin Americans. It structured the interactions between elites and plebeians and also gender relations. Honor had two fundamental aspects: first, honor or the status with which a person was born; second, honra or the virtues that imparted respect to an individual. The first aspect was tied up with nobility but also was associated with wealth and the kind of lifestyle that insulated individuals from blemishes to their reputation. In order to maintain this honorable status, such families needed to be able to trace their genealogy to ancestors who were old Christians, free of any accusations before the Inquisition, without any associations with manual or dirty occupations, and to have been born in wedlock. Elite families proved their honorable lineages with documents called limpieza de sangre, which attested to blood that was clean of any stains on their honor. The members of families of wealth and status were considered honorable by association but, in theory, bad behavior could cause a loss of honor. Others, less lucky in their family origins, had to acquire honor by virtue, including bravery, honesty, and morality. Both men and women were also supposed to respect rules of sexual morality, but there was a double standard. Women were supposed to be chaste—virgins at marriage and then faithful wives and sober widows, whereas men were rarely admonished for their sexual conquests. Honor was a way of ranking people; its framework guided interactions and the submission or dominance displayed within social situations. First studied by anthropologists of the Mediterranean world, initially honor was associated with the elites and was thought to be a male attribute. More recently, scholars have shown that many of the groups thought to be excluded from honor systems, such as the lower classes, enslaved peoples, and women, actually had strong senses of their personal honor. In addition, scholars have shown that disgrace and shame could be corrected through bureaucratic machinations and with community approval. Thus, honor was a much more pliable attribute than previously thought. In addition, although honor was initially associated with old regime societies, it evolved in the 19th and 20th centuries to become associated with citizenship.

Theory and Background

Honor was first identified as an important construct by 1960s anthropologists studying the Mediterranean region. Caro Baroja 1966, Peristiany and Pitt-Rivers 1992, and Pitt-Rivers 1977 all were written by pioneers in this field, and their work helped codify how scholars now perceive the place of honor in Mediterranean societies. Primarily, they researched rural societies in which hierarchies played out in simple and harsh manners. Their work provides an important starting point and was taken up and expanded on by historians of Spain, such as in Maravall 1989 (first published in 1979). These authors provide a framework by which honor was explored and amplified as a theoretical construct by scholars of other regions and temporalities. Bourdieu 2002 (first published in 1977) builds on those early works and develops a more theoretically rich view of honor that has become hugely influential not just in honor studies but in other fields such as material history. Taylor 2008 indirectly critiques some of the early work on honor that depended partly on legal codes but especially on the period literature to develop a picture of what honor meant to contemporaries. Using judicial archives, the author shows that the way that honor was lived in golden age Spain did not replicate the plays and dramas of its authors, and Scott Taylor provides an important corrective to the reliance on such sources.

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology 16. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    Seminal work that provides theoretical constructs for the symbolic nature of many aspects of honor. Drawing on fieldwork in Algeria, offers concrete examples of the interactions that animate honor. It has shaped the thinking of many scholars of the topic.

  • Caro Baroja, Julio. La ciudad y el campo. Hombre, Hechos e Ideas 5. Madrid: Alfaguara, 1966.

    A compilation of previous works, with one section on honor and shame in Spanish history, which elucidates the etymology and categories within Mediterranean culture and history. A fundamental source for the intricacies of thinking within Spanish law and literature.

  • Maravall, José Antonio. Poder, honor y élites en el siglo XVII. 3d ed. Historia. Madrid: Siglo Veintiuno de España Editores, 1989.

    This book clarifies the role of honor as one of the principal axes of Spanish society, with emphasis on the ways that it shaped the nobility and the preoccupation with lineage. Very dependent on period literature for its evidence.

  • Peristiany, J. G., and Julian Pitt-Rivers, eds. Honor and Grace in Anthropology. Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology 76. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

    Bringing together some earlier work with a reconsideration of honor, this collection distills the thinking on honor from the pioneering scholars and some of its theoreticians, bringing together the major early thinkers on Mediterranean honor.

  • Pitt-Rivers, Julian. The Fate of Shechem, or, The Politics of Sex: Essays in the Anthropology of the Mediterranean. Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology 19. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

    A fundamental study of Andalusian rural society that distilled the interactions of contemporaries within the framework of age-old constructs. Covering topics such as the family, hospitality, and women, this book was formative for the field.

  • Taylor, Scott K. Honor and Violence in Golden Age Spain. Derecho. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300126853.001.0001

    This book dispels the idea that celebrated plays showed honor as people lived it. It also introduces the notion of a rhetoric rather than a code of honor and provides a very rich discussion of male interactions of the period.

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