Is Southern violence due to a culture of honor?

Did Scots-Irish settlers transmit violent tendencies to South?

Posted Apr 02, 2009

Southern states of the U.S. have higher violent crime rates than the rest of the country (1). Moreover, Southern men may be more willing to stand up for themselves using physical aggression - particularly if they have been insulted, or believe their homes are threatened. This phenomenon is referred to as a "culture of honor."

Psychologists Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen (1) proposed an intriguing explanation in terms of subsistence problems experienced by the original settlers (many from Ireland and Scotland): "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." This theory was inspired by anthropological evidence that herders around the world are quite willing to put their lives on the line to protect their herds against wild animals and thieves.

Lacking the protection of a well-established central government 18th-Century Southern settlers were vulnerable to livestock thefts and had to be prepared to protect their property using violence if necessary, according to Nisbett and others. Hence the tendency to cultivate a reputation for manly toughness that served to discourage rustlers. But why would these notions apply today when there is much stronger rule of law, no cattle raiding, and a highly urbanized population?

Nisbett and colleagues collected a variety of evidence that appeared to back up their theory that the type of agriculture practiced, specifically herding as opposed to farming, promoted a culture of honor leading to violent crime (1).

The problem is that when some of their key evidence was carefully re-evaluated, a very different conclusion was reached (2). Rebecca Chu and others investigated the white non-Hispanic male homicide rates in rural counties in the South as a function of the type of agriculture practiced. They evaluated the prediction that homicide rates would be higher in counties that were arid and hilly and thus more suitable for herding than farming (and therefore conducive to a culture of honor). They concluded:
"Although we analyze similar data and address the same conceptual issues, we find no support for the Nisbett-Reaves hypothesis. Overall, white male homicides in rural counties in the South do not vary as predicted by Nisbett's theory. Moreover, for some estimates of white male homicide rates, when county homicides are adjusted for differences in white poverty, the patterns are directly opposite to the Nisbett-Reaves predictions" (2, p. 972).

The very different conclusions of the two teams of researchers boil down to a mundane statistical technicality about how to deal with the very small number of homicides in some rural counties but the reanalysis is clearly correct.

The tragedy of science, according to Aldous Huxley is when a beautiful theory gets killed off by an ugly fact. Fans of the herding culture of honor theory have either ignored the contradictory evidence or pointed to evidence that Southern whites still have higher violent crime rates than northern whites - even if they move north (3). Oddly, this violent streak skips women and urban residents (4).

So where does that leave us? First, the herding explanation for violent tendencies of Southern white men was clearly falsified in relation to homicides. Second, the higher levels of homicide by whites in rural counties of the South can be fully explained in terms of poverty.

Many social scientists believe that Southerners favor violence in matters of honor but the evidence is patchy. Some of the key psychological evidence was obtained for Southern students attending the University of Michigan, a very atypical group. Politically, people in the South tend to reject gun control, favor capital punishment, corporal punishment and the building of a strong national defense. I suspect that these attitudes are connected to childhood experiences, poverty, and religiosity, rather than a distant herding ancestry among rowdy Gaels.

1. Nisbett, R. E., & Cohen, D. (1996). Culture of honor: The psychology of violence in the South. Boulder, CO: Westview.
2. Chu, R., Rivera, C., & Loftin, C. (2000). Herding and homicide: An examination of the Nisbett-Reaves hypothesis. Social Forces, 78, 971-987.
3. Lee, M. R. (2007). Revisiting the Southern culture of violence. The Sociological Quarterly, 48, 253-275.
4. Berthelot, E. R., Blanchard, T. C., & Brown, T. C. (2008). Scots-Irish women and the Southern culture of violence. Southern Rural Sociology, 23, 157-170.