Honor And Shame Research Paper

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Anthropologists conducting research into Mediterranean societies first developed the notions of honor and shame to describe the particular complex of values they found there. Honor comprised both an individual’s sense of self-worth and this person’s reputation in the surrounding community. Shame, by contrast, arose from the failure to act according to social values and it entailed public disgrace. This research paper traces the development of these concepts within anthropology and considers their current applicability.

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1. Honor In Anthropology

By the middle of the twentieth century the word ‘honor’ was well on its way to obsolesence in ordinary English language usage. The practice of dueling to redress injuries to one’s honor had ended and consequently honor had ceased to be a topic of public concern. The term was mainly frozen into stock expressions such as ‘word of honor’ or fixed in the aspic of formalized conventions such as the Queen’s Honours List, or the school honor roll. Honor was still a familiar word, yet people were not absolutely certain what it meant; it was rich in connotations, but poor in denotation.

The Oxford-trained anthropologist Julian Pitt- Rivers, scion of a venerable English family whose forebears may well have participated in the culture of honor dueling in the last century, capitalized on the evocativeness of ‘honor.’ He reintroduced the word in a wide-ranging essay that drew principally on data from early modern European history. In this historical period honor drifted away from its medieval sense of a monarch’s gift of fiefs in return for (military) services. In the seventeenth century it came to mean a general social reputation and then in the early nineteenth century it took on a more interiorized sense of integrity or moral dignity. If publicly insulted—called a liar or cuckolded, for example—a man was within his rights to demand the satisfaction of a duel to restore his honor.

Pitt-Rivers used a polysemous amalgamation of the historical senses of honor to interrogate his own contemporary ethnographic data from a Spanish village. His essay appeared alongside studies of other Mediterranean societies in a book entitled Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society (Peristiany 1965) that launched honor and shame in anthropology. The premise of the volume was that ‘[M]editerranean peoples … are constantly called upon to use the concepts of honor and shame in order to assess their own conduct and that of their fellows’ (Peristiany 1965, p. 10).

For the most part honor and shame were conceived to be opposites and furthermore to orient different gender-linked ideals. Men were most likely to claim honor aggressively through acts of violence or cunning that earned them a fearsome reputation. This reputation was maintained by an ongoing performance of swagger and gruffness that staked out an inviolable space around a man’s property, livestock, and women. As Peristiany noted (1965, p. 9), if provoked, ‘a Greek Cypriot, a Bedouin and a Berber may answer ‘‘I also have a moustache’’.’

For their part, women protected this honor by comporting themselves with the modesty born of a sense of shame. Among the Sarakatsani shepherds of northern Greece described by Campbell (1964, p. 287), women do not run for fear that they might fall over backwards and expose their underwear, thereby shaming themselves irretrievably. Ideally a young woman should stay at home working on her dowry, well away from the public gaze so that her name will not be on people’s lips.

2. Comparative Considerations

The Mediterranean focus of the Honour and Shame volume spurred further ethnographic research within this ‘culture area’ and also attempts to theorize why such a similar set of values had been arrived at in this region. Virtually all anthropologists assumed that honor and shame were relatively consistent in form throughout the Mediterranean until Michael Herzfeld (1980) pointed out, on the basis of research in two very different Greek communities, that honor amounted to ‘socially appropriate behavior.’ In a quiet, law-abiding village, macho swagger and aggressivity do not form the basis of honor.

The appreciation of the relativity of honor forced specialists into a theoretical stock taking (Gilmore 1987). Two definable tendencies emerged: (a) honor and shame vary in form in different communities, and indeed may be found in completely non-Mediterranean societies such as Japan where there is a great emphasis on shame; (b) although not exclusive to the Mediterranean, Mediterranean societies do, nonetheless, seem to converge on some strikingly similar cultural expressions of honor and shame. The gestural sign of the billy goat’s horns made with extended index and baby finger, for example, signifies that a man has been cuckolded in a number of Mediterranean societies. The northern European resort to the image of the cuckoo bird to represent marital betrayal indicates the imagery of a different cultural area. In Mediterranean societies goats furnish the relevant vocabulary. A man who has been betrayed by his wife wears horns in Greek (keratas) and in Italian (cornuto) while in Spain he is just a big goat (cabron). Unlike rams, billy goats allow their females to be mounted by other males without protest.

3. Performance: Class And Gender

In early modern Europe honor was mainly an affair of the aristocracy; slights from social inferiors could be ignored without consequences. The majority of early Mediterraneanists worked in small rural communities where everyone was putatively a social equal. All men began with an equal portion of honor that they could increase or lose. A single system of honor and shame thus permeated the whole community but in larger, stratified towns or cities there could be several parallel systems of honor by class. Honor itself was not economically determined, but the circles within which it was contested, and the modes of contestation, were. There can be few societies lacking altogether

in notions of precedence and social failure. The particular expressive performance of prestige in Mediterranean societies was surely what attracted the attention of anthropologists. These performances might involve elaborate verbal displays such as the spontaneous exchange of insulting rhyming couplets, or the skilled telling of tales of sexual prowess or daring animal theft. The anthropologists recording these stories usually came from the middle classes of northern European or North American societies. Their fascination with difference precluded the recognition of their own participation in systems of honor (Pina-Cabral 1989, p. 402). If transgressed a middle class person might conceivably report the incident to the police and perhaps bring charges. If defamed in public, this person might well register an accusation of libel and fight the case through the legal system rather than by direct, violent retribution. This configuration is no less a system of honor and shame, but it is not the system of honor and shame that Mediterraneanists had in mind.

Mediterranean honor assumed its particular form as a mode of direct action in the absence of moderating state institutions. The place to find similar configurations of honor and shame in many Western societies is often among the working classes or in criminal subcultures. American inner-city gangs have developed an honor culture that is perhaps even more ‘Mediterranean’ than that of Mediterranean societies as can be seen in the following statement by a Los Angeles Chicano gang member:

Honor is important to me and every homey [gang member] because if you ain’t got honor, you got nothing, man. I mean, no amount of money can buy you honor, so you do everything you can to protect it. I mean, without honor, nobody will respect you, not your friends or your family (Jankowski 1991, p. 143).

That middle class anthropologists were apparently oblivious to these alternative systems of honor in their own societies exemplifies the earlier contention that parallel, discrete codes for honorable comportment may operate in stratified societies.

Feminist studies of honor and shame have rejected the idea that honor is exclusive to men, and contended that women are not to be construed primarily as the passive defenders of male honor. Although their silence has been taken as a sign of submissiveness it might actually be a form of subversive irony through which women mock the supposed gender hierarchy. Furthermore, women’s performances of suffering (their own pain, or on behalf of family members) can be understood as claims to respect in the community of fellow women sufferers. Dubisch (1995) has observed that Greek women engage in competitive suffering as a means of gaining prestige in the community. A gender studies model, then, where performances and social constructions of masculinity and femininity are treated independently, is increasingly replacing the honor and shame model which linked them together in a version of normal patriarchy.

4. The Migration Of Honor

Just as the initial optimism in the revelatory power of honor and shame began to wear out in anthropology, scholars in other fields discovered the formulation and adopted it with excitement. Where only a few books about honor and dueling in European history had been written before 1970, by the 1990s many titles had been published analyzing these themes in several European countries. In his Southern Honor (1982), Wyatt-Brown acknowledged the influence of PittRivers and speculated that the similarities between the American South and the Mediterranean arose because ‘primitive conditions of life often produce elemental social values sometimes roughly parallel from one society to another.’

Like mana (to which Pitt-Rivers compared it), taboo, or shaman, honor belongs to middle-range anthropological theory—terms discovered ethnographically in one region and then applied to guide investigation in other societies. The Azande distinction between witchcraft (innate) and sorcery (learned), for example, has been used in the identification of witchcraft in numerous other societies. Honor and shame appear to have been discovered in Mediterranean anthropology and to have traveled out to other societies and other disciplines. Yet if we look more closely honor and shame had already traveled from early modern European history into Mediterranean anthropology via Pitt-Rivers’ essay. That these concepts now seem more attractive to Europeanist historians than they do to Mediterraneanist anthropologists may well be because they actually arise directly from these historical societies. Honor and shame were indigenous concepts in early modern European society.

The future of honor and shame in Mediterranean studies is murky precisely because they do not emerge from, or perfectly correspond to, local vocabularies. It is striking how few Mediterranean societies actually have words for ‘honor’ in the sense advanced by PittRivers and how infrequently equivalent terms are employed in daily life. In Greece the words timı ‘honor’ and philotimo ‘sense of honor’ are rarely heard while in Italy the operative concept is neither shame nor honor, even though the latter would seem to be readily accessible in the Italian word onore. Instead, exemplary moral fiber is displayed by following ‘the code of silence’ (omerta) and not disclosing details of criminal or other in-group activities to inquisitive authorities. In his early monograph describing an Andalusian village, Pitt-Rivers (1954) focused attention on ‘shame’ ( erguenza) and made no mention of ‘honor.’

The conception of honor brought into anthropology by Pitt-Rivers was always slightly vague and polysemous and this was its theoretical attraction. Honor could involve criminal aggression or Christian virtue, its forms extended into gender relations and equally into the politics and economics of patronage and mafia protection. Anthropologists now find that the vagueness of honor and shame and their mismatch with comparable local concepts blunt their usefulness for ethnographic research and for comparison. Perhaps the most important legacy of the honor and shame formulation may prove to be in the area of the anthropology of self and emotion.


  1. Campbell J K 1964 Honour, Family and Patronage: A Study of Institutions and Moral Values in a Greek Mountain Community. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK
  2. Dubisch J 1995 In a Different Place: Pilgrimage, Gender and Politics at a Greek Island Shrine. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
  3. Gilmore D D (ed.) 1987 Honor and Shame and the Unity of the Mediterranean. American Anthropological Association, Special Publication 22, Washington, DC
  4. Herzfeld M 1980 Honor and shame: problems in the comparative analysis of moral systems. Man 15: 339–51
  5. Jankowski M S 1991 Islands in the Street: Gangs and American Urban Society. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  6. Peristiany J G (ed.) 1965 Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London
  7. Pina-Cabral J 1989 The Mediterranean as a category of regional comparison: a critical view. Current Anthropology 30: 399–406
  8. Pitt-Rivers J A 1954 The People of the Sierra. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London
  9. Pitt-Rivers J A 1965 Honour and social status. In: Peristiany J G (ed.) Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London
  10. Wyatt-Brown B 1982 Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South. Oxford University Press, New York
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