Honour as a code of behaviour defines the duties of an individual within a social group. Margaret Visser observes that in an honour-based society "a person is what he or she is in the eyes of other people". A code of honour differs from a legal code, also socially defined and concerned with justice, in that honour remains implicit rather than explicit and objectified.
One can distinguish honour from dignity, which Wordsworth assessed as measured against an individual's conscience rather than against the judgement of a community. Compare also the sociological concept of "face".
In the early medieval period, a lord's or lady's honour was the group of manors or lands he or she held. "The word was first used indicating an estate which gave its holder dignity and status." For a person to say "on my honour" was not just an affirmation of his or her integrity and rank, but the veracity behind that phrase meant he or she was willing to offer up estates as pledge and guarantee.
The concept of honour appears to have declined in importance in the modern West; conscience has replaced it in the individual context, and the rule of law (with the rights and duties defined therein) has taken over in a social context. Popular stereotypes would have it surviving more definitively in more tradition-bound cultures (e.g. Pashtun, Southern Italian, Polish, Persian, Turkish, Arab, Iberian, "Old South" or Dixie) in a perception akin to Orientalism. Feudal or other agrarian societies, which focus upon land use and land ownership, may tend to "honour" more than do contemporary industrial societies. Note that Saint Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033 – 1109) in Cur Deus Homo extended the concept of honour from his own feudal society to postulate God's honour.
An emphasis on the importance of honour exists in such traditional institutions as the military (serving officers may conduct a court of honour) and in organisations with a military ethos, such as Scouting organisations (which also feature "Courts of Honour").
Honour in the case of sexuality frequently relates, historically, to fidelity: preservation of "honour" equates primarily to maintenance of the virginity of singles and to the exclusive monogamy of the remainder of the population. Further conceptions of this type of honour vary widely between cultures; some cultures regard honour killings of (mostly female) members of one's own family as justified if the individuals have "defiled the family's honour" by marrying against the family's wishes, or even by becoming the victims of rape. Western observers generally see these honour killings as a way of men using the culture of honour to control female sexuality.
Skinners, executioners, grave-diggers, shepherds, barber-surgeons, millers, linen-weavers, sow-gelders, latrine-cleaners, and bailiffs and their families were among the "dishonourable people" (unehrliche Leute) in early modern German society.