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Followers of this blog might be interested in a forthcoming article by Professor of International Relations (Oxford) Joerg Friedrichs, “An Intercultural Theory of International Relations: How self-worth underlies politics among nations,” forthcoming in International Theory (a pre-publication version is available here, the FirstView version is here for those who can get past the paywall).

Here’s the abstract:

“This article introduces an intercultural theory of international relations based on three distinctive ways of establishing self-worth: honor, face, and dignity. In each culture of self-worth, concerns with status and humiliation intervene differently in producing political outcomes. The theory explains important variation in the way states and nations relate to members of their own culture of self-worth, as well as members of other such cultures.”

I’d like to summarize Friedrichs’ scholarly, insightful, and thought-provoking essay here, but I will also embellish a bit with questions and commentary. Discussion in the comments section below is welcome as always. (By the way, Joerg may be posting on the blog soon, so keep an eye out for that.)

The dignity-honor-face model

Friedrichs begins his analysis with the increasingly plausible premise that “self-worth is the ultimate human motivator.” After his literature review (which was a treasure-house for me on honor-related work in IR and related fields), Friedrichs adopts a three-fold classification of cultures vis-à-vis self-worth: dignity culture, honor culture, and face culture.

The distinction between dignity and honor culture is a familiar one, the seminal piece being perhaps Peter Berger’s “On the Obsolescence of the Concept of Honor.” According to dignity culture, a person’s self-worth is determined by what they are metaphysically—say, their possessing “humanity” (autonomy) or being created in the image of God—and is thus thought to be equally distributed and inalienable. In contrast, honor cultures on this model conceive of our self-worth as something we can have more and less of and gain and lose, but nonetheless that whether or not we lose it is somewhat in our control. As Frank Stewart so aptly put it, honor is about a right to respect: our right to honor may be challenged, but to some degree at least it is in our power to defend that right.

As Friedrichs sees it, on honor culture honor is “contestable,” which in my opinion is a nice, flexible term for the many determinate ways particular cultures may say one’s right to honor is fixed and protected. For instance, in a culture that predicates self-worth for women upon chastity, a woman whose chastity is questioned may try to produce some sort of proof against the accusation. In a macho culture, a man may “prove on his body” his right to honor by challenging his accuser to a trial by combat. Academic honor is also contestable and defensible in parallel ways, given the possibility of negative reviews, defensive “reply” papers, public debates, and so forth.

This sense that correct performance gives one a right to honor seems to be the basis for honor’s being, as Friedrichs puts it, “internalized.” Filling in a bit, it is not uncommon in honor cultures for individuals to do things they think required for maintaining their right to honor, even if they know that they will in fact be dishonored for doing so. Whistleblowers in the military are a good example here.

According to the model, face cultures see a person’s self-worth as completely contingent upon the opinion of their relevant social network.

“In a face culture, your worth belongs to your community, which has bestowed it upon you and can take it away. In the final analysis, it is beyond your control and you should not internalize it as belonging to you.”

Friedrichs characterizes face cultures, then, as at the opposite extreme from dignity cultures, with one’s self-worth being extrinsic and alienable. Friedrichs summarizes the model with this table.

Friedrich dignity honor face

(Putting things in table form invites us to explore the logical space here—for instance, can we construct a consistent philosophy of self-worth that is intrinsic but alienable?  Another interesting question is the order of explanation: for instance, it seems to me that dignity would be inalienable because it is intrinsic. But is honor contestable because it is internalized, or internalized because it is contestable? Or are both qualities explained by some tertium quid?)

Returning to Friedrichs, the question becomes how this tripartite distinction can inform international relations theory. Of course, no actual culture is going to fit this model perfectly, but based on considerable scholarship on the matter Friedrichs considers China, Japan, and Korea first and foremost “face” cultures, Western countries as “dignity” cultures, and most African and Middle Eastern countries as “honor” cultures.

Friedrichs discusses two factors mediated by being a dignity, honor, or face culture. The first is “status anxiety.” People in dignity cultures are concerned about status, but it doesn’t define their sense of self-worth. Status does have this importance in honor and face cultures, however. Since in honor cultures you can do something about your status (recall it is contestable), relationships between honor cultures should be particularly unstable, especially if they are similarly-ranked. Face cultures, who seem to see their totally externalized honor as fixed by facts outside of their control (such as pedigree), can be quite peaceful as long as the rank-appropriate respect is shown by all sides concerned.

“In short, status is more salient for honor and face than for dignity cultures. In honor cultures, hierarchy is like a “pecking order” with “cockfights” rife among status-anxious rivals because the honor code requires defending honor against real or perceived challenges from peers. In face cultures, hierarchy is engrained in the collective consciousness of the group and status anxiety cannot burst into conflict because people must know their place. In dignity cultures, self-worth is a birthright so status and, by implication, status anxiety should matter less.”

Another factor Friedrichs discusses is “humiliation and resentment.” Dignity-minded individuals and cultures are harder to humiliate and easily brush off insults. Obviously humiliation matters a great deal to face and honor cultures, but Friedrichs thinks that humiliation (as a result of insult at least) is going to be rare in face cultures. It seems Friedrichs arrives at this opinion because, to a face-minded individual, a random insult here and there doesn’t by itself require action, as face is determined by positive social appraisal generally. Moreover, there isn’t much in face culture one can do to repair one’s face, at least in the sense of reprisal.

“What is more, people in a face culture know that they depend on their reference group for the restoration of their social reputation when, for whatever reason, a humiliation has occurred. They are therefore more likely to humbly plea for rehabilitation than to nurture a resentful attitude.”

Honor cultures are where humiliation and resentment is most explosive. This is because, Friedrichs thinks, insult of lower orders by higher orders will be fairly common, and vengeance by the lower orders will be sweeping if they get the opportunity.

I certainly see the truth in what Friedrichs is saying, but I wonder if a neater explanation might be offered for why insults matter more in an honor culture. In an honor culture, insults call the insultee’s right to respect in question. This isn’t the case in a perfect dignity culture, because one’s right respect cannot be questioned, nor can this happen in a face culture (as defined), since one has no right to respect in the first place (saying you have a “right” to honor-as-face would be as silly as saying you have a right to be sexually desired). That is to say, in honor cultures, your right to honor is something you can fight for—dignity cultures recognize the right but dispute the relevance of the “fight,” and face cultures dispute the existence of the “right.” Thus, any legitimate challenge to one’s right to respect in an honor culture must be addressed with all the vigor appropriate to this supreme good and our right to our share of it.

Friedrichs’ five hypotheses

Friedrichs structures the rest of his paper around five hypotheses flowing from this dignity-honor-face model. The first three hypotheses involve relations between cultures of the same type (intra-cultural relations) and the latter two cultures of different types (inter-cultural).

Hypothesis 1: Relations among honor cultures

a) Status hierarchy empowers superiors at the expense of inferiors.
b) Status anxiety is an important source of conflict among equals.
c) Conflict is rife when those humiliated claim equal status.

Hypothesis 2: Relations among face cultures

a) Status hierarchy is clear and rests on group consensus.
b) Clear and consensual hierarchy mitigates status anxiety.
c) While unlikely, humiliation may seriously destabilize relations.

Hypothesis 3: Relations among dignity cultures

a) Relations among dignity cultures are relatively benign.
b) Status and status anxiety are of limited importance.
c) The same applies to humiliation and resentment.

Hypothesis 4: Relations between dignity and honor/face cultures

a) Relations are difficult because it is hard for dignity cultures to grant honor and face
cultures recognition on their own terms.
b) Relations are particularly difficult when an honor culture is troubled by status anxiety.
c) The same applies when humiliation has occurred, especially when an honor/face
culture is the aggrieved party.

Hypothesis 5: Relations between face and honor cultures

a) When the face culture has higher status, relations tend to be positive and stable
because face cultures respect the self-worth of inferiors.
b) Relations are more difficult and unstable in situations of symmetry because the honor
culture may act aggressively due to status anxiety.
c) When the honor culture has higher status, lack of respect for the face culture may lead
to humiliation and resentment, disrupting relations.

Friedrichs supports his hypotheses with many examples of international relations past and present, and I encourage the reader to refer to the paper as I cannot do this portion of the paper justice. Instead, I’d like to close by raising the biggest question lingering in my mind.

Why are face cultures stable?

On this question, Friedrichs writes,

“In a face culture, your face denotes your place. Your community has given it to you, and your community can take it away. This has two effects. First, it yields clear and consistent status hierarchies that rest on group consensus. People will know their place…”

This move from externality to stability is a little quick for me. The mere fact that self-worth is extrinsic, alienable, and rests on group consensus doesn’t explain why that ranking would be stable.

Consider the world of girls in secondary school: as portrayed in films, at least, girls are ranked and these rankings are highly important to them. These rankings of course supervene on the opinions of the group, and the group can give or take away popularity in an instant. And yet the rankings are unstable, since a girl’s rank may go up or down on the basis of luck (a sudden blossoming in looks), the shifting standards of her cohort, or (un)successful lobbying for status by her or rivals. Moreover, the culture of teenage girls is rivalrous, scheming, deceitful, and not very measured in its aggression. So a system of extrinsic, alienable, and community-given face doesn’t seem to predict a stable hierarchy or good relations. This type of condition more generally might be called “popularity contests.”

(Maybe popularity contests are not face, but honor, cultures? It’s hard to say: popularity contests are contestatory and aspirational, as honor cultures are, but they lack the element of right—no one thinks that they have a right to be popular, they simply hope to do the things that would make them popular.)

So I wonder if the reason why face cultures are thought to be stable isn’t because they are face cultures as such, but because face is fixed by some stable mechanism in the cultures that happen to be face cultures. Maybe, for instance, the face cultures we all think of are stable because they are successful authoritarian cultures in which enough of the population buy into an acknowledged hierarchy.

I will leave my thoughts there. Again, I highly recommend Joerg’s paper and I look forward to more contributions from him on these topics, some of which I hope he’ll be sharing with us in this forum.