F.H. Stewart, Honor (1994)

Literature review

In the second half of the last century, anthropologists, especially those concerned with Mediterranean societies, began to show a very keen interest in the notion of honour, and the great number of publications on the subject surely give the impression that this whole concept has been thoroughly researched and understood. Nevertheless, as Frank Henderson Stewart points out, the question of “what exactly honour is” (p. ix) has been virtually ignored in previous anthropological investigations. An anthropologist himself, Stewart aims “to provide the outline of an answer” (p. ix) to this question, and he does so in his short and insightful essay, Honor.

After a brief methodological introduction, Stewart describes, first, the development of the notion of honour in the West. The idea that honour is divided into two dimensions, one internal (honourableness) and one external (reputation) – what Stewart calls the “bipartite theory” (p. 19) – is widespread, but does not account for all the numerous situations in which honour is into play (part one). Second, he gives an account, based on his own fieldwork, of the meanings and workings of the Bedouin notion of ‘ird, commonly translated as ‘honour’, within their communities, especially that of the Bedouin of central Sinai. In particular, Stewart insists on the role played by honour and dishonour in regulating disputes within a legal framework (part two). Finally, using a comparative approach, Stewart contrasts these two cultural systems – the Westerner and the Bedouin – to highlight how honour, conceptualised as a right to respect, can operate cross-culturally, regardless of the different contexts (part three).

Stewart’s book is significant in several ways. The main one is certainly the problematisation of the concept of ‘the Mediterranean’ as a homogeneous unity. This view was particularly in need of an assessment, because it had for so long hindered the correct interpretation of honour as something universal, a mechanism that has to do with our nature as social beings. For instance, Stewart argues that a concern for honour is by no means an exclusive trait of ‘Mediterranean’ societies, because it can be identified also in Northern European communities or among the Bedouin of central Sinai. Bedouin society is also extremely informative with respect to honour and social stratification: by observing the way in which the Bedouin negotiate honour relations with one another, Stewart challenges the misconception of honour as an elite phenomenon, showing how it can operate not only cross-culturally, but also at different levels within the same society. In fact, Stewart demonstrates that, contrary to what is generally believed, there need be no direct correlation between honour and wealth – the richest members of a community are not by necessity the most prominent in terms of honour.

Stewart is also one of the first authors to highlight the difference between vertical (hierarchical) and horizontal honour (egalitarian, among the members of the peer group), and to describe “personal honour” as “a particular type of horizontal honor” (p. 54). The conceptualisation of personal honour as a right to respect, which can in some societies at some periods be enforced through legal means, is interesting, for it allows a long-awaited reconciliation between honour and the law. In this respect, Stewart’s conclusion appears complementary to Welsh’s (2008) point of view on honour in legal settings: whereas Welsh sees honour as a moral imperative, which more often than not will advise the agent to act in accordance with the law, Stewart places honour, more radically, within the range of matters specifically regulated by different law codes. More interestingly, this reconciliation is achieved by analysing the peaceful settlement of disputes within a legal framework in an Arab community, thus debunking the stereotype of the allegedly primitive honour-codes of Muslim societies, still regrettably widespread in the West (e.g., Bowman 2006).

However, Stewart’s account of the history of honour in the West is somewhat vitiated by his traditional developmental approach, for he sees it as a slow moralisation and internalisation of the concept, which progressively shifted from ‘public reputation’, seen as its original meaning, towards the ‘innovative’ idea of honour as a right. Yet this idea was present already in fourth-century Athens, where timê (honour) and atimia (dishonour) played an unmistakably central role in law, politics, and society. Furthermore, when considering the Greek notion of timê (p. 60), Stewart seems to endorse the idea of honour as a pre-eminently masculine, violent, and aggressive element of ‘zero-sum’ competitions, thus subscribing to the anthropological stereotype which he otherwise questions consistently in his essay. As for the methods employed, there appears to be too much emphasis on the lexical approach, which results in a failure to understand and analyse the relevant behavioural patterns connected to honour, and those situations in which honour is undoubtedly present, though not specifically referred to as such. This is perhaps the reason why Stewart detects a “collapse of honour” (p. 47) in contemporary Western societies, establishing an undue connection between the infrequency with which the word is used and the supposed disappearance of the phenomenon itself.

Despite these difficulties, this sharp and agile book represents an excellent starting point for tackling the essential issues that the investigation of honour as a transcultural concept presents, and gives a precise and informative, as well as critical, overview of the anthropological literature on the topic, laying bare its idiosyncrasies and beginning the process of righting its wrongs.

Linda Rocchi, 27/11/18

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