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

Hence, according to the relational models approach, the killing of a female family member because of sexual intercourse outside marriage ( honour killing) represents the cleansing of the essence after contamination. Killing the dishonoured family member is seen as the only way to separate the family essence from the polluted essence, and thereby clean it. In addition, the killing serves as a punishment and has thereby deterring effects upon others (Fiske & Fiske, 2007). Thus, the killing is a collective responsibility of all family members or of the larger group for protecting the honour of the group. Because the deterrence is highest if all dishonourable acts are punished maximally, in some cultures of honour the larger group or even the state takes responsibility for honour killings.

In honour cultures, the protection of the shared essence is important for the group’s hierarchical position. Honourable families maintain their social statuses, reputations and respect. The loss of honour implies a loss of status. In other words, the purity of the common shared essence appears to be a prerequisite for social power.

Laws of Sympathetic Magic

To better understand the importance of shared essence and its connection to honour concerns, we draw on the laws of sympathetic magic (i.e., Frazer, 1959 [1890]; Mauss, 1972 [1902]; Tylor, 1974 [1871], cited in Nemeroff & Rozin, 1994), discovered by anthropologists more than 100 years ago. These laws are suggested to be universal principles of thinking that give rise to magical beliefs and practices in traditional cultures. The law of contagion describes the idea that things which are in contact influence each other through the transfer of some essence. However, this influence continues even after the contact has finished. The major idea is “once in contact, always in contact.” According to the law of similarity things that are similar to each other share basic properties. The image encloses the essence of its source and generates similar effects as the source. The main idea of this law is “the image equals the object.” Both of these laws work either with a positive or with a negative connotation. If an object is similar to or in contact with a positive person - such as a respected chief - the value of the object increases. If an object is similar to or in contact with a person of bad reputation- such as a prostitute - the object is devalued (Nemeroff & Rozin, 1994; Rozin, Millman, & Nemeroff, 1986)

Rozin and colleagues (1986) found support for the negative law of contagion in the United States. Across different domains, participants in their studies wanted to avoid contamination by negative objects (i.e., soup with spit; blouse of someone disliked). Other studies showed the effect of the negative law of similarity; participants tended to reject good food shaped into disgusting forms, and became less accurate when throwing darts at pictures of people they liked.

The negative law of contagion states that once someone is in contact with a negative object, there is contact between the essences of the two objects, and therefore, contamination. If the object of contact is negative, the “good essence” gets permanently contaminated with the “bad essence.” This means that in order to protect the group essence, group members should avoid behaving in ways that could contaminate it . Contact and similarity with negative objects lead to contamination of the shared essence within the group. Because avoiding this is of utmost importance to all family members, who may have contact with whom tends to be strictly regulated in cultures of honour. This is particularly true for sexual contact, presumably because it is a particularly intense form of contact with not only implied but factual exchange of substances. Therefore, if one member of a family violates the norms for sexual conduct in a given society, the honour and the social status of the family are threatened. An example of this is real or implied sexual intercourse of female family members outside marriage. The fact that the norms of sexual conduct and the punishments tend to be stricter for women than for men might stem from the fact that the net substance exchange tends to be asymmetric., It may also be attributed to a number of other factors, including the fact that women can get pregnant, the result of power relations in these societies, or some combination of these reasons.

Accordingly, Relational Models Theory and the Laws of Sympathetic Magic can jointly explain the psychological bases of sexuality-related honour concerns. Relational models theory is the more general theory and can explain the mental representation of relationships, such as those within a family. The laws of sympathetic magic show how relational thinking is universally and strongly influenced by “magical beliefs” about essences and contagion or contamination. If family members think about their family in terms of a shared essence, they feel more united. The social functionality of such an honour code, however, clearly goes beyond increasing the family’s cohesion and has to do with control over people, resources and reproduction. Such a functional analysis, however, is not the focus of the present article.

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