American in Spain

Goatherds and Terrorism

April 26, 2010
Goat meeting

At the moment I'm reading this fascinating book called Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell (amazon). It's a fantastic read and I could easily write a few posts about each chapter, but I want to focus specifically on one theory, discussed in Chapter 6, about violence and honor...and goats. The author begins by telling a story of a small town in Kentucky where, in the early nineteenth century, the two richest families in town didn't get along. One thing led to another, and eventually they were hunting each other down with shotguns, with each attack spawning another retaliation. The story then pans back to look at all of Appalachia to reveal that such gun-wielding family feuds were actually quite rampant across the whole mountain range during the nineteenth century. But why? One theory, called Culture of Honor, suggests that the origin goes back many generations, back to the lifestyle of the Scottish highlanders that settled the Appalachian mountains.

The theory goes like this, quoting Gladwell:

Cultures of honor tend to take root in highlands and other marginally fertile areas. If you live on some rocky mountainside, the explanation goes, you can't farm. You probably raise goats or sheep, and the kind of culture that grows up around being a herdsman is very different from the culture that grows up around growing crops. The survival of a farmer depends on the cooperation of others in the community. But a herdsman is off by himself. Farmers also don't have to worry that their livelihood will be stolen in the night, because crops can't easily be stolen unless, of course, a thief wants to go to the trouble of harvesting an entire field on his own. But a herdsman does have to worry. He's under constant threat of ruin through the loss of his animals. So he has to be aggressive: he has to make it clear, through his words and deeds, that he is not weak. He has to be willing to fight in response to even the slightest challenge to his reputation - and that's what a "culture of honor" means. It's a world where a man's reputation is at the center of his livelihood and self-worth.

If this theory were true, what would it predict? Where might we find revenge-fueled violence from cultures of honor around the world? Well, where do we find "marginally fertile highlands" with lots of goatherds?

  • Scotland and Northern Ireland
  • The Basque Country
  • Sicily
  • Afghanistan

Is that a handpicked list of places that happen to fit the theory? Why yes, it is. Is it reasonable to make a blanket judgment about all people from these regions? Of course not. Like with most aspects of sociology and psychology, the best this theory can do is predict the likelihood of violent tendencies in a population as a whole. However, I still find this theory fascinating, and I'd be willing to bet that when it came to the question of "should we retaliate violently?", people from sheep and goat herding cultures would probably be more willing to vote yes.

From what I can tell, this theory originated with Richard E. Nisbett and Dov Cohen in their book Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South.