Latin American Studies Honor in Mexican Public Life
Nichole Sanders
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 April 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0267


Historians, anthropologists, and sociologists of Latin America have studied honor and society systematically since the mid-1980s, drawing on earlier, largely anthropological studies of honor in the Mediterranean. Historians argue that discourses about public honor have served to organize Mexican society, create hierarchies, and uphold patriarchal authority since conquest. For scholars of Mexico, the first studies of honor focused on the colonial period. Scholars examined the family, looking at how elites used marriage and sexuality as well as family lineage (limpieza de sangre) to construct discourses about honor and their place in society. Honor became to be defined not only as who you were (to which family you were born) but also how you behaved (buena conducta). Historians explored how these conceptions of honor intersected with ideas of gender, race, and class. Honor for men and women also intersected with attitudes about appropriate sexuality, especially for upper-class women. Studies focusing on non-elite and enslaved peoples found that they also understood honor to be a way of organizing their own lives, although their sense of honor focused on personal behavior. Later studies also looked at indigenous notions of honor, as well as how discourses of honor functioned in society outside of sex and marriage. These historians examined the role of reputation, slander, and gossip as a mechanism to create and enforce systems of honor. Studies of the 19th century reveal that these general discourses of honor continued to be deployed, although limpieza de sangre diminished in importance and personal behavior or conduct grew in significance. These studies show that discourses about honor intersected with 19th-century ideologies such as liberalism and republicanism. Discourses about public honor shaped the conquest of the frontier, and affected understandings of Mexico’s integration into a global capitalist society. Discourses of honor also influenced new 19th-century fields of study like criminology and psychology. Many of these ideas and attitudes about honor continued to shape Mexican society well into the 20th century—even after the upheaval of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1917), proving the remarkable staying power these discourses held. Recent studies by anthropologists and sociologists show that ideas about honor continue to be pertinent in the late 20th century, although honor is more associated with what is considered to be a traditional or moral, rather than a “modern,” way to organize society.

Foundational Studies of Honor

Honor was first studied by anthropologists in the 1960s and 1970s. Influential studies included Pitt-Rivers 1977, which examined Andalusia to make broader claims about how honor structured Mediterranean societies. Caro Baroja 1966 studied honor historically in Spain, tracing conceptions of honor from the medieval period to more contemporary times. Peristiany and Pitt-Rivers 1992 expanded on earlier studies, and included the study of honor and the sacred.

  • Caro Baroja, Julio. La ciudad y el campo: Hombres, hechos e ideas. Madrid: Ediciones Alfaguara, 1966.

    This work provides an overview of definitions of honor in Spain, and a historical overview of honor in Spanish society from the medieval period through the 16th and 17th centuries to what the author defines as the “modern period.” Sources used included legal codes and literary works.

  • 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.

    This edited collection expands on earlier studies of honor. It focuses not only on the Mediterranean but France and Spain as well. Studies the medieval period as well as more contemporary societies and includes an emphasis on honor and intersections with religion, or the sacred.

  • 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.

    One of the first anthropological studies of honor, and considered a classic in the field. Pitt-Rivers examined how honor functioned in Mediterranean societies through a close study of Andalusia. One of the first studies to consider women.

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