The classic study of the subject is by Richard Nisbett, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan. In his paper "Violence and Regional Culture," published in the American Psychologist
in 1993, Nisbett examined the higher rate of violence in the U.S.
south, which he notes has been established since the time of revolution.
After considering possible explanations having to do with poverty,
slavery, and even the region's hotter climate, he found a different
answer in a cultural vestige of pastoralism: a deep "culture of honor"
in which residents place an extraordinary value on personal reputation,
family, and property. Threats to these things provoke aggressive
reactions, leading to higher rates of murder and domestic violence. Here
is how Nisbett himself explains it:
Southerners do not endorse violence in the abstract more
than do Northerners, nor do they endorse violence in all specific forms
of circumstances. Rather, they are more likely to endorse violence as an
appropriate response to insults, as a means of self protection, and as a
socialization tool in training children. This is the characteristic
cultural pattern of herding societies the world over. Consistent with
the culture-of-honor interpretation, it is argument-related and not
felony-related homicide that is more common in the South...
There is another sense in which the culture of honor might turn out
to be self-sustaining or even capable of expanding into mainstream
culture. The culture is a variant of warrior culture the world over, and
its independent invention countless times (Gilmore, 1990), combined
with the regularities in its themes having to do with glorification of
masculine attributes, suggests that it may be a particularly alluring
stance that may be capable of becoming functionally autonomous. Many
observers (e.g., Naipaul, 1989; Shattuck, 1989) have noted that
contemporary Southern backcountry culture, including music, dress, and
social stance, is spreading beyond its original geographical confines
and becoming a part of the fabric of rural, and even urban,
Perhaps for the young males who adopt it, this culture provides a
romantic veneer to everyday existence. If so, it is distinctly possible
that the violence characteristic of this culture is also spreading
beyond its confines. An understanding of the culture and its darker
side would thus remain important for the foreseeable future.
Rentfrow also pointed me to a more recent study by Ryan P. Brown, Lindsey Osterman, and Collin Barnes of the University of Oklahoma, published in Psychological Science in
2009, which reinforces Nisbett's findings and suggests that the culture
of honor plays a particularly significant role in high school violence.
The study found that the culture of honor to be significantly
associated with two indices of school violence: the percentage of high
school students who reported having brought a weapon to school during
the past month; and the prevalence of actual school shootings over a
20 year period. The authors summarize their key findings this way:
Some researchers have suggested that the apparent
relationship between general acts of violence and the culture of honor
in the United States might be at least partially explained by
demographic differences between Southern and Western states, on the one
hand, and Northern and Eastern states, on the other, rather than being a
product of cultural differences (Anderson & Anderson, 1996).
Indeed, culture-of-honor states are typically hotter, more rural, and
poorer than non-culture-of-honor states, and any of these differences
might explain the link between culture of honor and violence.
However, the state-level demographic variables that we examined--
which included temperature, rurality, social composition, and indices
of economic and social insecurity--were unable to account for the
association between culture of honor and our school-violence indicators,
and also were inconsistent predictors of the school-violence variables
across the two studies. This marks an important difference between these
indicators of school violence and more general indicators of violent
crime among adults, which typically show stronger and more consistent
associations with temperature, rurality, and environmental-insecurity
measures similar to the ones we used (Anderson, 1989; Baron &
Straus, 1988; Cohen, 1996; Lee, Bankston, Hayes, & Thomas, 2007).
This difference suggests that school violence is a somewhat distinct
form of aggression that should not be viewed through standard lenses.
That the culture of honor appears to be such a robust predictor of
school violence supports the hypothesis that school violence might be
partially a product of long-term or recent experiences of social
marginalization, humiliation, rejection, or bullying (Leary et al.,
2003; Newman et al., 2005), all of which represent honor threats with
special significance to people (particularly males) living in
I am amazed how well this explanation seems to fit the emerging facts
and context of the mass violence in Tucson. I don't mean
the obvious fact that the shooting happened in a Sunbelt city -- Tucson
is a sophisticated college town, not the sort of rural backwater Nisbett
had in mind. It is the nature of the culture of honor itself and the
way it acts on and through marginalized young males, just like Loughner.
The culture of honor, as Nisbett describes it, sees violence as an
"appropriate response to insults" and as "a means of self-protection."