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 (I discuss my concerns more fully in an unpublished manuscript called “What Should Realists Say About Honor Cultures.”)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: