Aug 13, 2012

Violence and the "culture of honor:" The puzzle of the two Guatemalas

Cohen et al. (1996) attempt to explain why today in the US South (but not the US North) there is a ‘‘culture of honour,’’ where particular importance is placed in defending one’s reputation and honour, even if this requires aggression and violence. Their explanation for why this culture exists in the South but not the North is rooted in the different histories of settlement in the two areas. The North was primarily settled by groups with a farming background, while the South was settled primarily by the Celts who had been herders since prehistoric times and had never engaged in large-scale agriculture. They argue that historically in herding cultures, characterised by low population densities and weak states, protection of one’s property was left to the individual. Therefore, a culture of aggressive behavior arose and continues to persist even today. 
That is from the paper "Culture and the historical Process," Nunn (2012). I posted about this paper before, but today I looked at it more carefully.

This line of thought might actually help understand the puzzle of the two Guatemalas -the difference in violence between the east and the west, broadly speaking. 

Nunn continues: 
To test the culture of honour hypothesis, Cohen et al. (1996) conducted a series of experiments involving white males from the US North and US South. In the experiments, each individual was bumped by an accomplice and called an ‘‘asshole.’’ (The participants did not know this was part of the experiment.) Using a number of methods, including direct observation, psychological tests, and saliva samples, Cohen et al. compare the effects of this incident on Southerners relative to Northerners. They find the Southerners became more upset, were more likely to feel that their masculinity was threatened, became more physiologi- cally and cognitively primed for aggression (measured by a rise in testosterone and cortisol levels), and were more likely to engage in aggressive behavior subsequently. 
Recognising that the Cohen et al. (1996) experiments, in effect, only have two observations (those from the US North and those from the US South), Pauline Grosjean (2011) undertook a non-experimental study that examines variation across counties using historical US census data. The study finds that counties in the US South with more Scotch-Irish immigration prior to 1790 have higher homicide rates today. Interestingly, the relationship between the Scotch-Irish immigration and homicide only exists in the US South. This is potentially explained by the greater prevalence of lawlessness and weaker formal institutions in the South. These characteristics created an environment where the cultural traits remained beneficial and therefore persisted. In the North, with better- functioning formal institutions, a culture of honour was not beneficial and there- fore the trait did not persist. Her findings suggest that historical persistence may depend on the interaction between culture and institutions. Culture persists in the certain institutional environments and not others. It is also important to recog- nise that the institutions that arose in the South vs. the North may have been endogenous to original cultural differences. This dynamic, which we discuss in section 4, creates the potential for interesting interactions between culture, institutions and historical persistence.
Nunn's paper is a must for those interested in institutional economics, culture, and economic development.  

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