Re: Cohen et al.'s "Southern Culture of Honor" study

From: Peter Smagorinsky (
Date: Tue Jan 13 2004 - 03:20:33 PST

The article itself is:
Cohen, D., Nisbett, R. E ., Bowdle, B., & Schwarz, N. (1996). Insult,
aggression, and the Southern culture of honor: An "experimental
ethnography." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 945-960.

I should stress that by no definition of which I'm aware is this an

The researchers are all from the U. of MIchigan, the U. of
Illinois-Urbana/Champaign, and Northwestern, and all "subjects" were
students at the U. of Michigan.

This work has also been published in book form. See

where it is hailed as landmark research. One reviewer does offer the caveat
(amazingly, in "Reason Online") that:
A possible weakness in the study is that the subjects were students at the
University of Michigan, hardly a typical batch of small-town Southern
rednecks. To people in the South, "going North" to college usually means
Vanderbilt or Duke, or possibly Virginia, so Southern males who end up at a
place like the University of Michigan are highly self-selected. At the same
time, a "typical batch of rednecks" would almost certainly react even more
strongly to these experimental conditions.

To me, the characterization of typical Southerners as "rednecks" tells me
all I need to know about the reviewer's biases in lauding the study.


At 10:03 PM 1/12/2004 -0500, you wrote:

>Thanks, Peter, for another cheery example of the masquerade of reason!
>The U of Michigan IRB is, at least today, rather notoriously
>over-concerned about the least possibility of discomfiture to human
>subjects (or about the university's legal liability, reports differ). When
>was this study done?
>How can people DO this kind of research??? How can others not just LAUGH
>at its pretensions? How could anyone imagine that you could conclude
>anything seriously important or useful by doing such a study ... or were
>they just out to "test a hypothesis" about retrograde southerners? or try
>to add a publication to what must be a pretty needy CV?
>Could we maybe ban the word "because" from the social sciences?
>At 12:10 PM 1/12/2004 -0500, you wrote:
>>I've read the Cohen et al. article recently posted to xmca and have a
>>hard time believing that anyone could take it seriously. If it had been
>>sent to me as an external reviewer, I would have recommended that it not
>>be published.
>>The population studied is a sample of students attending the University
>>of Michigan. One comparison group was deemed "Northern" and the other
>>"Southern" by virtue of having spent at least six years of their lives in
>>a region of states ranging from Delaware to Texas. All, however, were
>>students at Michigan. So, this study of the "Southern Culture of Honor"
>>took place in the upper midwest, where I imagine that a person of
>>southern upbringing would feel out of place. And I would infer from
>>general population tendencies that northerners (like the researchers, all
>>at universities in Michigan and Illinois) would not treat this population
>>as equals in general but as natives of a region characterized by
>>ignorance, poverty, Christian fundamentalism, and other negative traits
>>(at least to those making the judgments).
>> From a CHAT perspective, I think it's irresponsible and unethical to
>> take an alien population, subject them to hostility, and then conclude
>> that they are aggressive. The research methodology is as follows: "In 3
>> experiments, [the participants] were insulted by a confederate who
>> bumped into the participant and called him an 'asshole.'" Among other
>> things, I must wonder how this study got through any responsible
>> institutional review board, given the potential psychological impact on
>> an alien being accosted in this manner.
>>The researchers say that the American Souther has for centuries been
>>regarded as more violent than the North. "We think the best single
>>explanation has to do with the South being home to a version of the
>>Culture of Honor, in which affronts are met with violent
>>retribution." Anyone, however, who can read a demographic chart knows
>>that the South has historically been poorer than any other region of the
>>US, and that people in poverty are more violent than people living in
>>relative prosperity. So the fundamental assumption that a culture of
>>honor exists in the South because of higher rates of violence is
>>questionable. Extrapolating that the Southerners being called assholes
>>in an environment they likely perceived as hostile are acting out a
>>culture of honor when responding aggressively is just idiotic.
>>Peter (who lived for 14 years in the Chicago area and found it pretty
>Jay Lemke
>University of Michigan
>School of Education
>610 East University
>Ann Arbor, MI 48104
>Tel. 734-763-9276

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