Family Honour and the Purity of the Family’s Essence: A Relational Models Approach

In cultures where honour is valued, chastity is one of the codes for honour. When this code is violated, the honour of the family is threatened. Relational Models Theory (Fiske, 1992) contributes to an understanding of this phenomenon. It posits that people often represent their families as sharing a common essence whose purity needs to be protected. According to the laws of sympathetic magic, contact and similarity are two conditions through which contamination of the essence can happen. Thus, a tight regulation of contacts, especially sexual ones, is a way to protect against contamination of the shared essence.

The Brazilian novel City of God from Paulo Lins tells the story of a nice and hardworking boy who sees his girlfriend being brutally beaten and raped by a band of gangsters. While this event happens, the gangsters have a weapon pointed to the boy’s head. Not being able to protect and defend his girlfriend from the gangsters, the main character decides that the only way to get his honour back is taking revenge. But to be able to take revenge, he would have to become a gangster.

This is fiction, but given the importance of honour in many cultures, it could as well be a true story. Honour is related to social reputation and to the respect one gets from others. When their honour is threatened, people in cultures of honour respond by trying to repair and maintain their social relations and construct new ones. The social status of the dishonoured person is at stake if she or he does not respond appropriately. Given the immense importance of honour for social relationships, we propose to apply Relational Models Theory (Fiske, 1992) to better understand honour concerns. The main goal of the current theoretical approach is to analyze the functions of honour-related phenomena for social relationships.


The sentiment of honour results from assessing how we are seen, judged and valued by others. Thus, honour concerns lead to a preoccupation with one’s social image and reputation, which reflects back on the self-image (Rodriguez Mosquera, Fischer, Manstead, & Zaalberg, 2008). Expressing the right feelings and behaving in the right way make others pay respect not only to oneself, but also the groups to which one belongs (Pitt-Rivers, 1968).

In addition to being associated with respect and personal reputation, honour is also associated with a reputation for being ready to physically defend oneself and one’s family (Pitt-Rivers, 1965; Wikan, 1984). Cultures of honour have developed in societies where law enforcement used to be weak and tended to fail (Cohen & Nisbett, 1994). Thus, the danger of robbery, assault etc. intensifies the need to protect oneself and the weaker members of the family. Compared to members of other cultures, members of cultures of honour show greater approval for violence when the family is affronted or needs to be defended (Cohen & Nisbett, 1994). This readiness to defend one another strengthens the family ties (Rodriguez Mosquera, Manstead, & Fischer, 2002) and reflects positively on the social reputation of the family (Cohen, Nisbett, Bowdle, & Schwartz, 1996).

Consequently, the family in honour cultures, often comprising several generations and several degrees of relatedness, is one of the most important groups of belonging. Family members have to defend the social reputation of their family, be careful of their public behavior, and avoid humiliations. The collective attribute of honour makes people more concerned with personal honour, given that the honour of one member of the family is shared with all members. If one member is judged as dishonourable, the whole family’s social reputation and status suffer (Fischer, Manstead, & Rodriguez Mosquera, 1999).

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