In my previous post, I mentioned the account of “cultures of honor” forwarded by Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen: on it, honor is an adaptive social construct constituted by tendencies to respond violently to threats or insults, thereby communicating to would-be attackers that the honorable person is dangerous prey and not to be trifled with. Nisbett and Cohen argue that these tendencies are rational in lawless circumstances where goods are easily stolen. For instance, cattle are easily rustled while crops are not, and this fact is used to explain why pastoralists are more often governed by honor norms than are agriculturalists. The pastoralist-honor connection is in turn used to explain the elevated honor-mindedness and violence one finds in the U.S. South, since that region was colonized by pastoralists from the British periphery.

I’d like to note in this post one difficulty with the Nisbett-Cohen account as I understand it. (I discuss my concerns more fully in an unpublished manuscript called “What Should Realists Say About Honor Cultures.”) The problem is simply this: if honor is a deterrence-based social construct, and this is used to explain why pastoralist societies tend to be cultures of honor, then it’s difficult to see why pastoralists would encourage raiding and praise it as honorable. But they tend to do just this.

Here are some interesting quotes about the connection between pastoralists and raiding:

According to anthropologist David Gilmore, African pastoralists (the Masai, Rendille, Jie, and Samburu are named as examples) have initiation rites in which boys are cast out into the wilderness where, “thrust on their own devices, they learn the tasks of responsible manhood: cattle rustling, raiding, killing, and survival in the bush” (1990: 13). According to Evans-Pritchard, the Nuer of Sothern Sudan, who subsist entirely on cattle, are proud raiders: “Skill and courage in fighting are reckoned the highest virtues, raiding the most noble, as well as the most profitable, occupation” (1940: 48). Of East African pastoralists generally, we are told that small-scale livestock raiding is a “veritable international sport” (Jacobs 1979: 49).

Africans aren’t the only ones who see honor in raiding. Anthropologist Jane Schneider tells us that cattle raiding is “endemic” to pastoral societies, and lists many examples: “In Sardinia, the shepherd boy of nine or ten who has not yet stolen an animal is called a chisineri, a sissy who clings to the ashes of the campfire. Bedouin boys first participate in raids around the age of twelve . . .” (1971: 4). In Crete, there’s a cradle-wish that goes, “Tonight, he’ll [the newborn baby] go on a raid!” (Haft 1996). In fact, in the Cretan highlands even as recently as the 1980s, rustling was so integrated into the moral expectations of villagers that young boys raided from older, more powerful livestock owners in order to win them as allies—the idea being that the pluck, daring, and intelligence it takes to successfully raid prove a boy’s worthiness and manliness, even to his victim (Herzfeld 1985).

Turning our attention to Scottish highland pastoralists, we gain important insight from the wildly popular novels of Scottish author Walter Scott. (Mark Twain semi-seriously blamed the Civil War on Scott, claiming that he “enchanted” the South with his pernicious tales of honor (Twain 1883/2009: ch. 46)). Rob Roy, both the man and the heroic character of the eponymous Scott novel, was an ardent cattle rustler. So was the superlatively honorable aristocratic highlander Fergus Mac Ivor of Waverly, who as a matter of policy employs rustlers to steal the cattle of Lowland gentlemen failing to pay him protection money. (At one point, the English protagonist Waverly asks his lowland hostess about this “thief-taker” Mac Ivor who has lately robbed her father of his cows. “Thief-taker!” answered Rose, laughing. “He is a gentleman of great honor and consequence; the chieftain of an independent branch of a powerful Highland clan, and is much respected, both for his own power, and that of his kith, kin, and allies” (Scott 1814/1985, ch. 15).)

Scott’s fiction reflects the reality: Stuart McHardy (2004) catalogues the importance of cattle-raiding to highlanders, and demonstrates at length that inter-clan raiding was an “honorable tradition” in Scotland for many centuries. He begins with an amusing vignette of one highlander who, upon being sentenced to death, protests only at being declared a “common thief”: “Common thief! One cow, two cows, that be a common thief! Lift a hundred cows, that be gentleman drovers!” (2004: 3).

The honor code followed by the types of people Nisbett and Cohen find interesting, then, encourages not only defense of easily-stolen goods, but also the wresting of these from others. If honor is a construct made to rationalize a deterrence strategy, then what needs to be explained is why cultures of honor would adopt norms—norms of honor, specifically—that encourage behaviors diametrically opposed to successful deterrence. For although it’s reasonable enough that a community have two sets of contradictory norms, this is not what we have here: honor seems to drive both defending yourself from raids and raiding.

  • Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1940. The Nuer, a Description  of the Modes of Livelihood and Political  Institutions  of a  Nilotic  People  (Oxford:  Clarendon).
  • Gilmore, David. 1990. Manhood in the Making (New Haven: Yale UP).
  • Herzfeld, Michael. 1985. The Poetics of Manhood: Contest and Identity in a Cretan Mountain Village (Princeton: Princeton UP).
  • Jacobs, Alan. 1979. “Maasai inter-tribal relations: belligerent herdsmen or peaceable pastoralists?” in Warfare among East African Herders, Katsuyoshi Fukui and Kokuritsu Minzokugaku Hakubutsukan (eds). Suita Osaka Japan: National Museum of Ethnology.
  • McHardy, Stuart. 2004. School of the Moon: The Highland Cattle-Raiding Tradition (Edinburg: Birlinn).
  • Schneider, Jane. 1971. “Of Vigilance and Virgins: Honor, Shame, and Access to Resources in Mediterranean Societies,” Ethnology 10.1:1-24.
  • Scott, Walter. 1814/1972. Waverly (New York: Penguin).
  • Twain, Mark. 1883/2009. Life on the Mississippi (New York: Signet).
  • Haft, Adele. 1996. “‘The Mercurial Significance of Raiding’: Baby Hermes and Animal Theft in Contemporary Crete,” Arion 4.2: 27-48.