The Role of Honor and Culture in Group-Based Humiliation, Anger and Shame

Humiliation experienced after in-group derogation may lead to different types of behavioural or expressive reactions, such as conforming to the norms of dominant persons or groups, attempting to escape further humiliation, developing resistance or seeking revenge (Smith, 2008). The question is why people react differently in response to a degrading treatment? We believe that the behavioral and expressive implications of humiliation are strongly affected by the loss of honor. Since the conceptualization of honor varies with cultures and social groups, it is necessary to examine the role of honor in different cultures, in order to better understand its role in the nature of humiliation.

Why is honor so relevant?

Honor is considered an important individual value in almost every culture. Being an honorable person, coming from an honorable family, or having an honorable profession is often regarded highly. This mentality is even more strongly emphasized in societies in which individuals maintain strong interdependent relationships with each other, and the personal reputation is crucial in the social organization of the society. Honor thus not only helps the preservation of one’s self-esteem, it is also important for the balance of intergroup relationships within a community. This makes honor a value shared among individuals in a group, thus a group attribute.

Honor-oriented groups offer a specific type of membership value to their members. Group membership generally forms a big part of people’s self-concept and has a special emotional value (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). Identification with a specific group and the importance that is attributed to group membership depends on several factors. One of the most important in-group identification determinants is the centrality of group membership to the self-concept (Leach et al., 2008). In honor-oriented groups, honor seems to serve the function of centrality. It makes the group events central to the personal experience. As a consequence, when losing honor, the individual and group reactions are usually intense.

In some cultures, losing honor means losing those properties that define an individual’s social status and reputation in society (Cohen et al., 1998). In order to protect one’s honor, individuals attempt to maintain stable and fair relationships within the community. By seeking harmony and mutual respect within the community, potentially humiliating events are prevented.

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However, when honor is being threatened or even violated, aggressive reactions may be incited. In some cases, these aggressive acts may lead to hurting and eliminating those that humiliate the self or the in-group. These crimes, widely known as honor crimes, “vendettas”, or “blood feuds”, aim at reinstating the lost honor of the family or other highly important in-groups (Cohen et al., 1998). These behaviors are more prevalent in cultures considered as “cultures of honor” (Cohen et al., 1996; Cohen et al., 1998). As a consequence, the gravity of emotional reactions that follow the loss of honor vary across different cultures.

Honor, Culture and Humiliation

To fully comprehend the development and expression of emotions, it is important to understand the cultural features of the social contexts in which they are instigated. Based on the level of cooperation, competition, and individuality, cultures are categorized in two groups: collectivistic and individualistic (Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Triandis et al., 1998). While collectivistic cultures are defined by “the self-definition based on the group, subordination of personal goals to in-group goals, concern for the integrity of the group and emotional attachment to the group” (Triandis et al., 1998, p. 335), individualistic cultures are characterized by self-definition based on personal goals and weaker emotional bonds with the groups. According to Triandis et al., (1998), the in-group is demarcated differently in different cultures. In collectivistic cultures people tend to consider the family and kinship related by blood their primary in-group, while in individualistic cultures people define their in-groups more broadly as "people who are like me in the social class, race, beliefs, attitudes, and values" (Triandis et al., 1998, p. 326).

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