Cultures of honour and cultures of law
One can contrast cultures of honour with cultures of law. In a culture of law there is a body of laws which must be obeyed by all, with punishments for transgressors. This requires a society with the structures required to enact and enforce laws. A culture of law incorporates an unwritten social contract: members of society agree to give up some aspects of their freedom to defend themselves and retaliate for injuries, on the understanding that transgressors will be apprehended and punished by society. From the viewpoint of anthropology, cultures of honour typically appear among nomadic peoples and herdsmen who carry their most valuable property with them and risk having it stolen, without having recourse to law enforcement or government. In this situation, inspiring fear forms a better strategy than promoting friendship; and cultivating a reputation for swift and disproportionate revenge increases the safety of one's person and property. Thinkers ranging from Montesquieu to Steven Pinker have remarked upon the mindset needed for a culture of honour.
Cultures of honour therefore appear among the Bedouin, and the Scottish and English herdsmen of the Border country, and many similar peoples, who have little allegiance to a national government; among cowboys, frontiersmen, and ranchers of the American West, where official law-enforcement often remained out of reach, as is famously celebrated in Westerns; among the plantation culture of the American South, and among aristocrats, who enjoy hereditary privileges that put them beyond the reach of codes of law. Cultures of honour also flourish in criminal underworlds and gangs, whose members carry large amounts of cash and contraband and cannot complain to the law if it is stolen.
Cultures of honour will often arise when three conditions exist: 1) a lack of resources; 2) where the benefit of theft and crime outweighs the risks; and 3) a lack of sufficient law enforcement (such as in geographically remote regions). Historically cultures of honour exist in places where the economy is dominated by herding animals. In this situation the geography is usually remote since the soil can not support extensive sustained farming and thus large populations; the benefit of stealing animals from other herds is high since it is main form of wealth; and there is no central law enforcement or rule of law. However cultures of honour can also appear in places like modern inner city slums. The three conditions exist here as well: lack of resources (poverty); crime and theft have a high rewards compared to the alternatives (few); and law enforcement is generally lax or corrupt.
Once a culture of honour exists, it is difficult for its members to make the transition to a culture of law; this requires that people become willing to back down and refuse to immediately retaliate, and from the viewpoint of the culture of honour, this tends to appear to be an unwise act reflecting weakness.