Friday, August 10, 2012

Does "Cultures of Honor" Explain Southern Murder Style? - More From Outliers

Here's the last Outliers post that I promised.

This is the part of the book where Malcolm Gladwell writes about Harlan County, Kentucky.  He proposes that the Scotch-Irish people who moved here and to other parts of the South, because of their herding cultural heritage, were quicker to respond to threats than more agricultural people.  The logic is that herders live in remote areas where they enforce their own law. Sheep and cattle can be stolen more easily than crops, so to save one's wealth, one needs to be known as someone who will attack quickly.  He calls these "cultures of honor."  We aren't just talking about the Hatfields and the McCoys in Harlan County.  He lists a lot of different family feuds in the area.
When one family fights with another, it's a feud.  When lots of families fight with one another in identical little towns up and down the same mountain range, it's a pattern. (p.249*)

Understanding the many feuds in this region, he tells us, requires us knowing some history. 

The backcountry states - he lists Pennsylvania's southern border, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, North and South Carolina and the northern parts of Alabama and Georgia -
"were settled overwhelmingly by immigrants from one of the world's most ferocious cultures of honor.  They were 'Scotch-Irish'  - that is, from the lowlands of Scotland, the northern counties of England and Ulster in Northern Ireland.
The borderlands - as this region was known - were remote and lawless territories that had been fought over for hundreds of years.  The people of the region were steeped in violence.  They were herdsmen, scraping out a living on rocky and infertile land.  They were clannish, responding to the harshness and turmoil of their environment by forming tight family bonds and placing loyalty to blood above all else." (251-252*)
When they got to the US, Gladwell writes, they found a similarly remote environment in Harlan County.

Gladwell recognizes that he's moving into touchy territory.
I realize that we are often wary of making these kinds of broad generalizations about different cultural groups - and with good reason.  This if the form that racial and ethnic stereotypes take.  We want to believe that we are not prisoners of our ethnic histories.
But the simple truth is that if you want to understand what happened in those small towns in Kentucky in the nineteenth century, you have to go back into the past - and not just one or two generations. (255)
"The simple truth is . . ." Hold on to that thought for later.

We've gone through period of strong racial and cultural stereotypes.   We're more enlightened as a whole, but there are still plenty of people stuck in old stereotypes or picking up new ones to match newer immigrants (who are both subject to, and bring their own, prejudices.)  Any time someone discusses groups of people like this there is a likely backlash. Often with good reason. How many violent people does a community need before we say everyone in that community has that trait?  What if only 10% of the people in Harlan County fit this herdsman culture?  Would that be enough to push whole communities into never ending feuds? Does that mean that everyone else wants to participate, or do they just have no choice?  It's interesting to explore these ideas, but it's pretty hard to prove that my great-great-great grandfather's behavior determines mine.  Though I do think there's plenty of evidence that behavior does get passed on genetically.  And if a community stays intact, it is easy to understand how behavior is passed on.

But since the Scotch-Irish also were a big part of the migration to the rest of the South, Gladwell goes on to say this heritage explains some Southern behavior.
"The triumph of a culture of honor helps to explain why the pattern of criminality in the American South has always been so distinctive.  Murder rates are higher there than in the rest of the country.  But crimes of property and 'stranger' crimes - like muggings - are lower. As the sociologist John Shelton Reed has written, "The homicides in which the South seems to specialize are those in which someone is being killed by someone he (or often she) knows, for reasons both killer and victim understand."  Reed adds:  "The statistics show that the Southerner who can avoid arguments and adultery is as safe as any other American, and probably safer."  In the backcountry, violence wasnt for economic gain.  It was personal.  You fought over your honor." (pp. 253-4*)
 That's a pretty sweeping generalization.  I think the idea is interesting, but that Gladwell is too quick to reach conclusions.  There just isn't enough evidence.  And is he only talking about white Southerners?   I don't think, for example, that the black population of the South has much Scotch-Irish blood.  Does 'both killer and victim understand' mean both the white lynch mob and the black victim understand it's because they are white and he is black?  While it might seem obvious to Gladwell, it would be helpful for this reader had he clarified his scope when writing things like, "pattern of criminality in the American South." 

I think it's human to want an explanation for things that don't make sense.  It's also human to take the first plausible explanation and stop looking further - especially when such an explanation allows us to keep our general world view.  (In fairness, Gladwell is challenging a US general world view - he's arguing that timing and culture play as big a role in individual success as the individual's own hard work.)

So it's tempting to take a neat explanation like cultures of honor to explain Harlan County feuding and the Southern trend to murder friends and relatives rather than strangers.  Is there an unspoken implication that the herdsman culture of the Scotch-Irish made slavery a natural development?  Just another form of herding?  After all, slaves were seen as less than human.  Gladwell didn't go there, but why not?  How does culture of honor explain segregation and lynchings?  Was this too touchy for Gladwell to discuss? (In the epilogue  he does talk about the advantages of lighter skin color among Jamaican blacks and how his successes are based on his forebearers' lighter skin.) Or is this too much of a leap?  If this is too much of a leap, why not the whole argument?  I haven't read the sources Gladwell cites.  Maybe they have a lot more evidence to support the claims they make.

Gladwell, too often says things like (quote - p. 255 - above) "The simple truth is . . ."   The truth about human behavior over generations and across continents, is never simple.

In the same paragraph he says:
"The "culture of honor" hypothesis says that it matters where you're from, not just in terms of where you grew up or where your parents grew up  . . . That is a strange and powerful fact." (p. 356*)
 From hypothesis to powerful fact in  50 words or less. 

I'm just saying that claims like this need to be treated cautiously.  Things are much too complicated than these rather neat A caused B explanations.

If being of Scotch-Irish background so significant, maybe the Census Bureau should put Scotch-Irish among its race choices.  Caucasian is just too limiting.  Whoops, I'm making my own leaps. 

I said in one of the previous posts that while I have problems, the many case studies raise very interesting ideas to consider.

The previous Outlier posts were:
*My page numbers are from the Big Print version of the book, so they won't work with a regular version.  These are all from the chapter on Harlan, Kentucky.


  1. Perhaps Gladwell is best proven wrong by counting the number of successful doctors, lawyers, teachers, and professors who are direct descendents of participants in the Turner-Howard feud. Their names may be Jones, Caywood, or Blanton now; but they are still direct descendents of the Turners and Howards. My great-grand mother was born in 1866. Her mother said that famous quotation. I was 16 when she died at 100; I knew her well. Just check the successful heirs to disprove Gladwell.

  2. Anonymous, I didn't detect anything in Gladwell's piece that spoke of success -- if it was there it was certainly tangential to his main point.

    WDIK, speaking as a Graham (epitomizes the Border Reiver), and Wallace (no milquetoasts there either), I can see the point Gladwell is making -- particularly when the Scotch Irish in America were socially isolated and looked down upon, and geographically isolated to boot. I think that a good part of Gladwell's point is that the social and geographic isolation encouraged continuation of familial traits rather than the assimilation that you might have had if the social and geographic isolation had not been present.

    Also, please remember that Gladwell's job is getting people to think outside the box, not to be a social scientist. I found "Outliers" to be generally helpful, personally.

  3. Geoff, I agree that 'Outliers' stimulates one to think beyond the every day. And I'm not saying he's wrong, just that he leaps from hypothesis to fact way too fast. If he stayed with hypothesis, I'd have no problem. It's interesting speculation.
    To the extent that he gets people to think, that's great. To the extent he gets people to replace one wrong theory for another one, it isn't. After the Asiana air crash, I did a lengthy post on his chapter on the ethnic theory of plane crashes. One reader directed me to the Ask a Korean blog which went through Gladwell's chapter and pointed out one problem after another. I urge you to read the Ask a Korean link. It suggests my instinct to raise questions here about Gladwell were good ones.

    After that I started looking even more closely. Gladwell seems to get an idea and then he gathers the evidence that supports it but he doesn't deal with the kinds of questions I raised that challenge the theory. His stuff sounds good, and is truly fascinating, but it's also pretty shallow research. Just because an explanation is plausible and explains things well, doesn't make it true.

    But, if it weren't interesting, I wouldn't have spent as much time as I did on Gladwell - several long posts.

    I do appreciate your taking the time to write a thoughtful comment. It made me go back and look at what I wrote and think about it again. Check out the Korean Pilot chapter and Ask a Korean's response. I should put that link up in the post as well.


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