Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South. By Richard E. Nisbett and Dov Cohen. Colorado: Westview Press, Inc., 1996. 119 pp.

In Culture of Honor, professors of Psychology, Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen set forth to provide an explanation for the higher levels of violence found in the South.  To account for this pattern of violence, the authors argue that the South, “had and to a substantial degree, still has, a type of culture of honor” (xiv).  The “culture of honor” places utmost importance on the ability to respond to social insults and economic challenges.  According to Nisbett and Cohen, in a “culture of honor,” a reputation for strength and toughness held great economic value (xv).  Nisbett and Cohen identify three other major explanations for increased Southern violence, including higher temperatures, the tradition of slavery, and greater poverty.  Yet, the authors maintain the importance of honor as independent of, and perhaps greater than, any of the other explanations (3). 

Using anthropological precedent, Nisbett and Cohen demonstrate that the rural South held commonalities with other honor-based cultures, such as the Navajo and Celts.  According to Nisbett and Cohen, honor-based cultures develop in response to economic precariousness and minimal state protection against theft of property (4).  Herding societies often demonstrate these characteristics in that a loss of a herd represented a loss of entire wealth (5).  The Scotch-Irish, descendants of Celtic herdsman, developed rural herding communities along the Appalachians and in the South.  In the low-population frontier region, the state held little power to command compliance with the law, and thus, citizens created their own system of order based upon retaliation and honor (xv).  The geography and low-population densities of these Southern areas further “culture of honor” tendencies in the South.

Nisbett and Cohen conducted studies and field experiments to provide further evidentiary support for the idea that a type of “culture of honor” still exists in the South.  Census and crime reports depicted the idea that the homicide rate of the South remains high in relation to the rest of the country (10).  Additionally, Nisbett and Cohen found that laws and social policies of the South were more lenient with regard to self-defense, gun control, corporal punishment, and capital punishment.  The authors assert that these two archival studies portray a greater Southern acceptance of violence for protection, honor, and maintaining control.  Additionally, Nisbett and Cohen administered controlled laboratory experiments to document Southerners responses to insult.  Based upon their findings, the authors concluded that Southerners respond to insults in different ways than Northerners (xvi). 

Although they primarily focus upon males, Nisbett and Cohen briefly examine the role of women in the promotion of the “culture of honor.”  During their research, the authors found that Southern women exhibited similar attitudes toward violence that Southern men did (88).  Nisbett and Cohen believe women play a part in the “culture of honor” through their role in the socialization process, as well as active participation (87).  By teaching ideas of honor to their sons and enforcing the notions upon their husbands, women further the “culture” through social conditioning (86). 

 In a relatively short work, Nisbett and Cohen provide an analysis of the role of “honor” upon the level of violence in the South.  Although their argument may not necessarily be new, Nisbett and Cohen use unique methods to provide evidence for their thesis.  Nisbett and Cohen combine research techniques from the study of history, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and ethnology.  Yet, while an interesting approach, some historians might find the authors’ reliance upon social science experiments and interpretations a bit disconcerting.  Additionally, surveys and field experiments, no matter how controlled, do not always yield the most accurate or representative results.  Nevertheless, the authors contribute speculative, theoretical questions concerning the ongoing future for the “culture of honor” in the South, which provides a foundation for further contemporary study.

Joi-lee Beachler


Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South. By Richard E Nisbett and Dov Cohen. 1999

Richard E Nisbett is the Theodore M Newcomb Distinguished University Professor of Psychology and co director of Culture and Cognition Program at the University of Michigan.  Dov Cohen is assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  The coauthors of Culture of Honor desire to show that the south is more violent than the north.  The authors will claim that the greater violence is limited to situations where personal insults arise or threats to home and property.  Using laboratory experiments, the psychologists determined that southern men responded with greater anger, higher testosterone and cortisol levels when directly insulted than do northern men.  They also conducted field experiments that demonstrated southern peoples were more accepting of other people who felt it necessary to kill foes who insulted their honor, more so than northern men.  According to Nisbett and Cohen this pattern of sensitive reaction to insults and threats is found world wide in those types of people who were herdsmen or those who keep animals as a source of living.

Their reasoning for such behavior is based on the herdsman’s worry over losing all of their wealth from those who would seek to steal it from the fields.  The herdsmen’s tough stance to insults was often shown to others in order to counter theft.  An account witnessed in many forms of research found in southern history.  As the south in the United States is made up of herdsmen from Scotland, Ireland it seems clears to assume that they personified the thesis stated by the psychological study.  The northern men were from England, Holland and Germany and were mostly farmers who held a more docile approach to insults according to the authors.

The 144 pages are full of intriguing and ingenious experiments bent on testing the violent nature of southern regions as well.  It appears to turn the anti subculture theorists developed to explain violent southerners on their historical heads.  The author’s methods seem to be diverse in order to obtain objective reasoning in their conclusions and they have hit upon groundbreaking results where social history is concerned.  They explored the social, historical, and scientific data in all of their conclusions in developing the thesis and it appears irrefutable.

In my view, the book is first rate and should be read by any one who is exploring the issues surrounding honor in the south.  The thesis establishes the interaction found in economics and the individual behavior and validates much of the research that has long claimed the southern society was more violent.

Jeff Tucker

Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South. By Richard E. Nisbett and Dov Cohen. (Boulder, CO:  Westview, 1996) Pp. 119.

Without a doubt, Nisbett and Cohen have read Grady McWhiney's controversial book Cracker Culture. If not, they could easily have been the victims of a cruel yet amazing coincidence. Their thesis is virtually a carbon copy of McWhiney's, though presented from a psychological/statistical standpoint. Namely, they argue that the southern honor system that breeds so much violence is a direct result of cultural influences in the form of widespread cattle herding. If a person's wealth can be absconded with as easily as cows are, then he/she cannot show any signs of weakness to encourage such abuses.

Where Culture of Honor departs from its predecessor in the method uses to assess its contentions. Whereas McWhiney relied almost solely on comparisons, Nisbett and Cohen turn to statistics. They rely heavily on census data, court records, sociological studies, etc. to prove their points. In this way, the book almost serves as a useful appendix to Cracker Culture. McWhiney lays out the Celtic thesis fully and completely, while leaving it to Culture of Honor to muster the supporting evidence to prove him right.

This, essentially, is all this short book contains. The first chapter is dedicated to laying out their arguments and bringing up a few competing explanations. Some of the latter include temperature and slavery, both of which they find insufficient in accounting for southern violence. Instead they turn back to McWhiney's Celtic thesis, pointing to the inherent vulnerabilities of herding cultures and high concentrations of Celts in the south and west.

The next section they dedicate to comparing homicide rates in the North and South. They start the chapter with some very specific predictions, and, not surprisingly, end it by discovering they were right. In particular, they deal further with alternative explanations and systematically show them to be inadequate. Instead, they once again offer their cultural thesis.

In chapter three, they utilize survey data to examine cultural attitudes towards violence. After many charts and graphs, they argue that the South had, and still has, an ideology toward violence that stands completely apart from the rest of the country, even the West. Southerners are not more in favor of violence in general, but only in specific instances, i.e. self-protection and social control. This, they theorize, is one reason why southerners are more polite. They do not dare allow a conversation to get out of hand unless they are ready to deal with the consequences.

The next two chapters contain the results of the authors' own experiments on the subject and evidence that southern politicians still tend to allow their culture of honor to affect their voting. Not surprisingly, in both cases they find that the southern inclination towards taking insults seriously and justifiable violence are alive and well today. The final chapter is essentially a short conclusion, wrapping up all their loose ends.

The first thought when reading this book is, "So what?"  They have established what everyone knew already: Southerners take insults more seriously than northerners and are more likely to see violence as an acceptable manner of answering a challenge.  That one, simple idea takes up most of the book.

Unfortunately, reader's latter thoughts are not likely to change much. They do indeed offer a more systematic, scientific presentation of McWhiney's thesis, but they stop too far short. Absent from their charts and graphs is evidence to counteract the arguments that have hammered McWhiney. They still cannot tie southern honor specifically to the Celts, but seem to take it as a given. Also, they tread on incredibly thin ice when they expand the geographical region in question to include not only the mountainous areas, but the entire south, even the cotton belt and the West (9).

When the fact that the endeavor is also founded upon the faulty foundations of social science is taken into account, the book is not even as convincing as Cracker Culture. They do succeed in raising a few, good questions about some prevailing interpretations. Yet, overall, they only manage to rehash old ground and prove what historians long ago established. Thankfully, though, both of the authors are northerners. Thus, by their own predictions, they will only respond with mild amusement when this reviewer borrows a phrase from one of McWhiney's in calling the book "malarkey."

Texas Christian University
Brian C. Melton