RE: Culture of honour

From: Eugene Matusov (
Date: Thu Jan 08 2004 - 18:48:09 PST

Thanks, Hans! Please share your findings with us. Your research is very


Good luck,





From: Hans Knutagård []
Sent: Wednesday, January 07, 2004 2:55 PM
To: xmca mailing list
Subject: Re: Culture of honour


Thank you Eugene,

For your interesting points. They are worth more than 0.2 cents (an
expression we never use in Sweden). Some small comments.

1. Yes I will try to do interviews with the young people exposed to
violence. But your and Lois idea about interviewing other people about the
notion culture of honour is good. I will include that.
2. The type of culture of honour I am trying to study is not the
personal honour and so, it is more the notion of honour and shame (as you
pointed out) that makes the father or a brother of a family to have strict
control of the daughter/sister and if she lose her virginity they have the
right to kill her to regain their family honour. The form of culture of
honour is the one where people out of the notion honour/shame control other
people and have the right to act violently to re-establish the insult of
wrong action. It has become visible in Sweden especially with the girls in
school which are not aloud to have gymnastics, do swimming, talk to boys
etc. They are controlled by their brothers, relatives in schools. They get
beaten up by their parents because they have “dishonoured” the family living
as Swedish girls does. Since my research is about young people being
homosexual in these families the question is more difficult in many aspects.
Still a lot of young people have a problem “coming out” in front of there
family. Some of these young boys/girls have been forced to arranged
marriages under the age of 18 (which is not allowed any longer). So the
result becomes suicide or being thrown out of the group in the worst case
killed themselves. I hope it is more clear what kind of culture of honour I
am talking about.
3. I like your idea of describing culture. If culture is an important
notion in the culturalhistorical activitytheory maybe that would be a
challenges for this e-group to find out a CHAT version of culture that we
could use, not having to look at other disciplines. Having followed a lot of
other discussions at this group, a discussion trying to define the notion
culture out of CHAT would be extremely interesting!
4. I like your comparison with Soviet. I have travelled a little in the
former East European countries and in Slovakia at the University in
Bratislava I recognized the cheating in the social science groups, writing
at the desks. I even took a photo of it since it did not match with the
Swedish concept of being honest (as you wrote). Eugene you have given me a
lot of inspiring thoughts.

For now / Hans

Den 04-01-07 18.15, skrev "Eugene Matusov" <>:

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?


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