A Matter of Respect


Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South, by Richard E. Nisbett and Dov Cohen, Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 119 pages, $59.95/$12.95 paper

The American South is more violent than any other region of the country, a distinction that has intrigued commentators on the South for at least three decades. The issue is not with the observation itself (no one disputes that there is more violence in the South than elsewhere) but with the interpretation: Is the pattern a product of certain violence-engendering conditions that just happen to be concentrated in the South (for example, more poverty, more heat, more guns, worse race relations)? Or is there something intrinsic to Southern culture, society, or history that predisposes Southerners to violent acts? And if the latter, just what is it that makes the South distinctive?

Culture of Honor makes a compelling case that there is something about Southernness itself that accounts for the link between region and violence. The case begins with a review and reanalysis of the extensive research on region and homicide. University of Michigan psychologist Richard E. Nisbett and University of Illinois psychologist Dov Cohen find many common explanations for the South's higher homicide rate wanting. The legacy of slavery is probably an inadequate explanation because the non-slave regions of the South show the highest homicide rates; temperature fails as an explanation because the cooler upland regions have higher homicide rates. Relative poverty rates cannot be ruled out as a causal factor, but the regional effect remains even when poverty is taken into account.

Two other results point to a fundamental cultural factor. The regional effect does not seem to operate in big cities (big-city homicide rates are about the same in the South as elsewhere); it appears only in small cities and towns (Southern small towns are a lot more violent than small towns in other regions). Also, there is little or no regional difference in black homicide rates, only in the white rates. So the Southern distinctiveness in homicide and violence is concentrated among small-town whites, strongly suggesting the impact of regional culture.

Southerners and Northerners have different attitudes about violence–not across the board (as might be expected) but in certain specific areas, all of which seem linked to notions of honor and respect. Southerners, for example, are more likely to agree that violence is acceptable in defense of home and family and as a mechanism of social control, and they are especially likely to endorse violence as a response to insults and affronts, most of all when they involve women. This pattern suggests a culture in which honor threatened is honor lost and no response to the possible loss of honor is too extreme. Nisbett and Cohen note the evident similarities between this Southern code and the new culture of violence in the inner cities, where "dissing" often leads to death.

The authors have also conducted an ingenious and intriguing series of social-psychological experiments to show that Southerners respond to threats and insults in different ways than Northerners do. This is some of the best evidence ever assembled on the violent proclivities of Southerners and a formidable challenge to the many scholars (oddly enough, most of them Yankees) who have pooh-poohed the "regional subculture of violence" thesis. In one series of experiments, subjects were affronted and insulted (for example, an associate of the experimenter would "accidentally" bump into the subject while walking down the hall and mutter "asshole"), then tested for cortisol and testosterone levels as well as assessed with paper-and-pencil tests. Sure enough, Southern males in these experiments showed significantly stronger physiological and attitudinal responses than Northern males. In another study, observers stationed in the hall (pretending to do homework but actually observing closely) noted whether the subjects' reactions to the insult were amusement or anger. Southern subjects were significantly less amused and marginally more angry than Northern subjects.

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.

In sum, Nisbett and Cohen make a strong case that the South is truly (not just accidentally) distinctive in its attitudes and behaviors concerning violence. Unfortunately, that does not necessarily tell us very much, if anything, about the ultimate source of the distinction. To say that the observed patterns reflect a generalized "culture of honor" restates but does not explain those patterns. If there is, indeed, a culture of honor in the South that lends itself to violence, where did it come from? And why is it uniquely Southern? Here Culture of Honor is rather thin and unpersuasive: "We believe that the southern culture of honor derives from the herding economy brought to the region by the earliest settlers and practiced by them for many decades thereafter." Elsewhere the authors refer to the Scotch-Irish origins of the early South, the hard-scrabble herding economy of the era, and the "worldwide" association between herding economies and "concerns about honor and readiness to commit violence to conserve it."

Nisbett and Cohen call this argument "the weakest part of our thesis," with good reason. The implication is that Yankees of Scotch-Irish origins would be just as prone to violence as Southerners, which is not likely to be the case. This is not to suggest that the herding thesis is wrong, only that it seems rather a stretch as argued here. One would like to see evidence on the origins of the Southern culture of violence that is as persuasive as the evidence of its existence. The evidence assembled here, while certainly intriguing and even fascinating at times, does not rule out alternative explanations for the higher rate of violence in the South–including my favorite, originally proposed by Sheldon Hackney as early as 1970: "In the South, there's just more folks who need killing."

We seek to understand violence in order to control it. By dismissing a range of conventional explanations for the Southern "tendency," Culture of Honor implicitly questions the efficacy of certain policies. If "more guns" is not the reason why the South is more violent, then gun control is not the solution; if poor race relations do not explain Southern violence, then better race relations will not eliminate the disparity.

Assuming Nisbett and Cohen are essentially right, higher rates of violence in the South have cultural roots that stretch back centuries, which implies that we cannot reasonably expect short- term interventions to have much of an impact. If the problem is based in culture, the only reasonable solution is to change the culture. And as sociologists constantly remind us, that is much easier said than done.

James D. Wright ( ) is a professor of sociology at Tulane University.