RE: Culture of honour

From: Eugene Matusov (
Date: Wed Jan 07 2004 - 09:15:20 PST

Dear Hans and everybody-


Thanks a lot, Hans, for bringing this important issue to the XMCA forum!


I want to add my 0.2 cents to the discussion.


1) I really like Lois' suggestion of interviewing people in Sweden
from diverse communities about meaning of honor for them and their
community. There are many reasons why I like it but one of them is because
the interviews can define diverse "cultural models" (Strauss & Quinn, 1997)
that people use in diverse communities (this would probably redefine
plurality of the term "cultures of honor"). D'Andrare (1995, p.151) defined
cultural model as consisting "of an interrelated set of elements which fit
together to represent something." "Typically, one uses a model to reason
with or calculate from by mentally manipulating the parts of the model in
order to solve some problem."

2) I'm not sure I fully understand what "culture of honor" means. Does
it simply refer to cultures and communities that highly value and use the
notion(s) of honor? Do I miss something?

3) The notion (and practice) of honor is ethnicity, class, history,
and gender "colored" (of course, the list of "colors" for the notion of
honor is not exhausted here). The codex of honor (and its application) of
Japanese samurai in the centaury is not the same as the codex of honor
French male aristocrat living in post-Napoleon Paris in the early 19th
century after the restoration of monarchy. It is different in both what was
considered to be honorable and dishonorable, what normative consequences had
to be involved, who and how involved in the acts of (dis)honor and their
praising and punishments, who and how discussed the notion of honor and
their applications, and so on.

4) James Clifford, a cultural anthropologist from my alma mater UCSC,
defines "culture" as "collectively constructed differences". Similarly,
Bakhtin argued that culture does not have inner territory and exists only on
the boundaries. I think that it is very fruitfully to study "cultures of
honor" on the boundaries of diverse communities and participants with
different constructions and participants in it. For example, often when
people talk about honor they have in mind the notion that is valued by male
participants of a given community forgetting that females also may have
their own version of honor concept. In Russian language, there are many
rooted idioms and statements involving "maiden honor" ("devichya chest'"),
which seemed to have different connotation (if not meaning) for male versus
female members of the community (age and family status was also important).
Even within one community, there can be a rather complex co-existence (and
even co-dependence in some cases) of different codex of honor and honor
practices. Lois' methodological suggestion of interviewing people from
diverse communities (and within the communities) can help to reveal this

5) The notion of honor seems to have its "twin" notions like
"dishonor" and "shame". It is interesting to explore the relationship
between them (it is well-known that in many current and past Japanese
communities the notion and value of shame is highly important).

6) It is very important to be aware that we, researchers, are not
outside of the notion of honor but inside of it. I mean we all biased (which
means that we are not dead yet :-)). My "wild but educated" :-) guess is
that many of us, xmca-ers, coming from communities that do not value the
notion of honor very highly (sorry, if I'm wrong about YOU - please say so,
it will be very interesting for me to learn more). Instead of thinking how
to eliminate "culture of honor", it may be useful to explore dialogic
boundaries between communities (again back to Lois' suggestion!) highly
valuing the notion of honor and communities that do not value it (and found
even dangerous). For example, reading Lubrano (2004), a person who crossed
the boundary of Italian-decent working and middle-class in US, makes me
think that US working class highly values the notion of honor that involves
peer, family, and neighborhood solidarity (at least among males but even
beyond), opposition to bosses, and direct forceful dealing with the
conflicts. Interviewing more than 100 people who crossed class boundaries,
Lubrano documented that many working class people see middle class folks as
cowardish, manipulative, dishonored, conformist, and egoistically
self-centered while middle-class folks often see working class people as
violent, irrational, dangerous, emotionally out of control, and
self-destructing. My personal encounter with middle-class university culture
makes me very "amazed" how the notion of honor is constructed in such
notions like "honor classes" (i.e., classes for students with better grades
- tracking) or "honor conduct" (i.e., not cheating on the exams). Raised in
the Soviet Union in a family of Soviet intelligencia, I can't understand
what is honorable in "honor classes" or in not cheating on exams.
Ironically, helping your classmates to cheat is still considered to be
highly honorable in Russia, even now. Last year when we visited Russia, my
son who was raised mainly in US was appalled to see how openly Russian
undergraduate students prepared themselves for cheating. We visited my
former college and he saw a group of students in a hallway helping each
other to hide cheat-notes ("shpory" in Russian) and loudly discussing
strategies how they would fool their professor. My son commented that this
open, loud discussion just next to the class door where exam was taken would
be impossible in US. While it is "honorable" in US, it is highly
dishonorable to report on (or just not help) a fellow student cheating on an

In this sense, working class honor ethics staying in opposition to official
institutional power is much closer to where I came from. I remember my
internal conflict involving honor when I was in 7th grade. My math teacher
whom I respected a lot and who changed my life in many ways, caught my
fellow classmate (not my friend) copying my homework just before her lesson.
She was very upset with me because she had high personal trust in me (she
spent her extra time teaching me math at higher level and did other good
things). She told me how destructive my "help" to this student was because
it prevented her from diagnosing the problem in the student. She continued
that if I was serious in helping this student I should teach him math rather
than giving my homework. I was very upset as well, torn between my personal
respect and loyalty to the math teacher (I was not loyal to the classmate at
all!) and her very convincing reasoning on the one hand, and honor and fear
of dishonorable behavior, on the other hand. At the end, honor won - I kept
willingly giving my homework to copy to my classmates. By the way,
dishonorable behavior like reporting on peers to teachers was severely
socially and physically punished not only by peers but also by teachers
(they did it indirectly and much later, long after incidents). Working as a
teacher in the Soviet Union I learned well about that. Soviet teachers did
not like kids who reported on other kids. I think historical memory of
Stalinist repressions imprinted in many Soviet people that reporting to
authorities is highly dishonorable behavior and dangerous for them and for
the community.

7) I think it is important to study mediated networks of practices
that support or inhibit the notion of honor is a community. For example, in
US I noticed that many middle class parents tell their boys (I do not know
much about girls since I have a son and not a daughter and has less access
to families with daughters) to involves teachers in case of conflicts with
other boys. That was not normative repertoire of strategies that parents of
boys known to me in the Soviet Union had. They taught their kids either to
fight back themselves ("day sdachi" in Russian), to stay back, or to enroll
support of peers in dealing with the conflict. Some Russian immigrants get
into trouble in US for teaching their kids that. I wonder how much child
rearing practices support or inhibit the practices of honor. Also,
institutions work well for US middle class (but not for working class, for
example). I wonder how much middle class reliance on institutions in solving
their problems helps inhibit the notion of honor.


What do you think?





From: []
Sent: Tuesday, January 06, 2004 8:57 PM
Subject: Re: Culture of honour


As helpful as research and prior thinking on what you're concerned with
might be, I can't tell from what you say if you've talked to people-ordinary
people in Sweden from the various communities-to discover, with them, what
meaning(s) "culture of honor" has for them. It seems to me that the CHAT
challenge is supporting the people to create the environment in which such
dialogue can occur.

Lois H

In a message dated 1/6/04 5:57:19 PM, writes:

Thanks you Mike,

you are putting words on my thoughts and you are right on what I am looking
for. The "problem" is that in Sweden we have been trained to be equal. We
have not been in war for over 100 of years. Our military is a defensive
force. We try to avoid using the concept of honour, even if it exist as a
personal one and in the upper classes. Our minister of Immigration Mona
Sahlin said 4 years ago that the culture of honour does not exist in Sweden
and the use of that expression was to focus negative on immigrant cultures
and could lead to racism. In Sweden we should pay our "tribune" to the
state, the "good father" who take care of us, not to the family, culture
group or gang.

After the murder of Fadime Sahindals 2 years ago, who months before her
death talked to the Swedish government that she and other girls was
threatened to death of their fathers, the minister (and the government)
change her mind and said that the culture of honour exist in Sweden. And
Sweden have to do something about it. I have found no research about honour
in Sweden, but we have some now who have started to look at "honour murder"
towards girls. But they do not connect it to history and activity. I will
try to look up Shweder and I am happy for all your help.


Den 04-01-06 23.21, skrev "Mike Cole" <>:

> very important questions, Hans.
> I think the term, "culture" is being used in a variety of ways even in
> discussion, never mind when we add in all those who have commented. To
> label something " a culture of x" is perfectly acceptable english ("A
> of narcissism" for example) but from my perspective (there is no CHAT
> orthodoxy on much of anything except to consider culture, history, and
> activity when theorizing human behavior!) one has to consider, a la the
> intro to lave and wenger, the practices which sustain particular
> Or perhaps, following the lead of Shweder and friends in the 1998 Handbook
> of Child Psych article on cultural psychology, a unit such as "custom
> might be useful.
> Do you have the equivalent of our military academies in Sweden? I would
> venture that there is some form of a "culture of honor" in such
> along with cultures of nationalism, obedience to authority, chauvanisms of
> various kinds, etc., if one wants to use that terminology. In such cases,
> we know pretty well what sustains such values (note how i slip in that
> in place of culture?). I would be looking to good ethnographies of the
> you are interested in, both in their home countries and in diaspora, to
> understand the behaviors from the inside well enough so that they make
> sense to you, even if you disapprove. Again, Shweder is a good example
> of an anthropologist who insists on understanding why and how various
> behaviors that "we" (whoever we might be) abhor (stoning a woman for
> infidelity, for example) can be strongly supported by people who are no
> better or worse than you or me or anyone we know. You may not agree with
> the way of thinking, but you will come away having been challenged to
> think.
> mike

Lois Holzman, Director
East Side Institute for Short Term Psychotherapy
920 Broadway, 14th floor
New York NY 10010
ph 212-941-8906 fax 212-941-0511

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Sun Feb 01 2004 - 01:00:10 PST