RE: Culture of honour

From: Jay Lemke (
Date: Thu Jan 08 2004 - 11:32:31 PST

We seem to have a good opportunity here to learn from the culture of an
Other, at least to learn something about ourselves.

I recently heard and read some accounts of on-going research on the student
peer-group culture in an inner-city, mainly African-American school in the
US. The operative "honour" term there is "respect" and "disrespect", and
they seem to operate very much the way "face" does in some Asian cultures.
Respect is given and lost, usually in the same encounter or transaction; it
can be, though need not always be, a zero-sum game. It is pervasive: almost
every action and event with any social dimension is regarded as an instance
of respect or disrespect. When a girl comes into the classroom before the
start of the lesson, acting loud and boisterous, she is, according to her
peers who were interviewed about the videotape, "respecting herself". (She
may also incidentally be disrespecting the teacher, who is present, but
this is a liminal situation where these norms are bit fuzzy.) When her
friend comes up to her and "high fives" her (an arms-over-the-head
"handshake"), the friend is respecting her by greeting her in public and
joining in the physical style of her conduct. She respected herself in her
entrance to the room by not being meek (or slave-ish?) in the face of the
dominant and dominating institution of the classroom and its power-laden
norms of conduct. If the teacher were to tell her to be quiet and get in
her seat, he would be disrespecting her.

I don't really think that honour or shame cultures are superseded in
eurocultural modernity. Rather their forms change. Rom Harre has built an
elaborate social psychology, for modern social behavior, based primarily on
a principle of acting to maintain and increase social respect or status. He
may somewhat overstate the case, but much of it sounds plausible enough. In
our own academic world, we give respect to each other with our citations
and praise of each other's work (or disrespect with our criticisms), and
those who have "face" or respect are better positioned to give it to
others. If your honour is lost by being publicly cited for plagiarism or
falsification of data, your whole life can fall apart, just as surely as
that of the rural muslim family whose daughter has shamed their honour.

I don't think we can blame the shame culture or the system of honour for

-- am experiencing some computer glitches, so will leave it at this for
now; more later, perhaps,


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