Shame And The Social Bond Research Paper

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Many theorists have at least implied that emotions are a powerful force in social process. Although Weber didn’t refer to emotions directly, his emphasis on values implies it, since values are emotionally charged beliefs. Especially in his later works, Durkheim proposed that collective sentiments created social solidarity through moral community. G. H. Mead proposed emotion as an important ingredient in his social psychology. For Parsons it is a component of social action in his AGIL scheme (Parsons and Shils 1955).

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Marx implicated emotions in class tensions in the solidarity of rebelling classes. Durkheim proposed that ‘… what holds a society together—the ‘glue’ of solidarity—and [Marx implied that] what mobilizes conflict—the energy of mobilized groups—are emotions’ (Collins 1990).

But even the theorists who dealt with emotions explicitly, Durkheim, Mead, and Parsons, did not develop concepts of emotion, investigate their occurrence, nor collect emotion data. Their discussions of emotion, therefore, have not borne fruit. The researchers whose work is reviewed here took the step of investigating a specific emotion.

1. Seven Pioneers In The Study Of Social Shame

Five of the six sociologists reviewed acted independently of each other. In the case of Elias and Sennett, their discovery of shame seems forced upon them by their data. Neither Simmel nor Cooley define what they mean by shame. Goffman only partially defined embarrassment. The exception is Helen Lynd, who was self-conscious about shame as a concept. Lynd’s book on shame was contemporaneous with Goffman’s first writings on embarrassment and realized their main point: face-work meant avoiding embarrassment and shame.

Helen Lewis’s empirical work on shame (1971) was strongly influenced by Lynd’s book. She also was sophisticated in formulating a concept of shame, and in using systematic methods to study it. Sennett’s work involved slight outside influence. He approvingly cited the Lynd book on shame in The Hidden Injuries of Class (1972), and his (1980) has a chapter on shame.

1.1 Simmel: Shame And Fashion

Shame plays a significant part in only one of Simmel’s essays, on fashion (1904). People want variation and change, he argued, but they also anticipate shame if they stray from the behavior and appearance of others. Fashion is the solution to this problem, since one can change along with others, avoiding being isolated, and therefore shame (p. 553). Simmel’s idea about fashion implies conformity in thought and behavior among one group in a society, the fashionable ones, and distance from another, those who do not follow fashion, relating shame to social bonds.

There is a quality to Simmel’s treatment of shame that is somewhat difficult to describe, but needs description, since it characterizes most of the other sociological treatments reviewed here. Simmel’s use of shame is casual and unselfconscious. His analysis of the shame component in fashion occurs in a single long paragraph. Shame is not mentioned before or after. He doesn’t conceptualize shame or define it, seeming to assume that the reader will know the meaning of the term. Similar problems are prominent in Cooley, Elias, Sennett, and Goffman. Lynd and Lewis are exceptions, since they both attempted to define shame and locate it with respect to other emotions.

1.2 Cooley: Shame And The Looking Glass Self

Cooley (1922), like Simmel, was direct in naming shame. For Cooley, shame and pride both arose from self-monitoring, the process that was at the center of his social psychology. His concept of ‘the looking glass self,’ which implies the social nature of the self, refers directly and exclusively to pride and shame. But he made no attempt to define either emotion. Instead he used the vernacular words as if they were self-explanatory.

To give just one example of the ensuing confusion: in English and other European languages, the word pride used without qualification usually has an inflection of arrogance or hubris (pride goeth before the fall). In current usage, in order to refer to the kind of pride implied in Cooley’s analysis, the opposite of shame, one must add a qualifier like justified or genuine. Using undefined emotion words is confusing.

However, Cooley’s analysis of self-monitoring suggests that pride and shame are the basic social emotions. His formulation of the social basis of shame in self-monitoring can be used to amend Mead’s social psychology. Perhaps the combined Mead–Cooley formulation can solve the inside–outside problem that plagues psychoanalytic and other psychological approaches to shame, as I suggest below.

1.3 Elias: Shame In The Civilizing Process

Elias undertook an ambitious historical analysis of what he calls the ‘civilizing process’ (1994). He traced changes in the development of personality and social norms from the fifteenth century to the present. Like Weber, he gave prominence to the development of rationality. Unlike Weber, however, he gave equal prominence to emotional change, particularly to changes in the threshold of shame: ‘No less characteristic of a civilizing process than ‘‘rationalization’’ is the peculiar molding of the drive economy that we call ‘‘shame’’ and ‘‘repugnance’’ or ‘‘embarrassment’’.’

Using excerpts from advice manuals, Elias outlined a theory of modernity. By examining advice concerning etiquette, especially table manners, body functions, sexuality, and anger, he suggests that a key aspect of modernity involved a veritable explosion of shame.

Elias showed that there was much less shame about manners and emotions in the early part of the period he studied than there was in the nineteenth century. In the eighteenth century, a change began occurring in advice on manners. What was said openly and directly earlier begins only to be hinted at, or left unsaid entirely. Moreover, justifications are offered less. One is mannerly because it is the right thing to do. Any decent person will be courteous; the intimation is that bad manners are not only wrong but also unspeakable, the beginning of repression.

The change that Elias documents is gradual but relentless; by a continuing succession of small decrements, etiquette books fall silent about the reliance of manners, style, and identity on respect, honor, and pride, and avoidance of shame and embarrassment. By the end of the eighteenth century, the social basis of decorum and decency had become virtually unspeakable. Unlike Freud or anyone else, Elias documents, step by step, the sequence of events that led to the repression of emotions in modern civilization.

By the nineteenth century, Elias proposed, manners are inculcated no longer by way of adult to adult verbal discourse, in which justifications are offered. Socialization shifts from slow and conscious changes by adults over centuries to swift and silent indoctrination of children in their earliest years. No justification is offered to most children; courtesy has become absolute. Moreover, any really decent person would not have to be told. In modern societies, socialization automatically inculcates and represses shame.

1.4 Richard Sennett: Is Shame The Hidden Injury Of Class?

Although The Hidden Injuries of Class (1972) carries a powerful message, it is not easy to summarize. The narrative concerns quotes from interviews and the authors’ brief interpretations. They do not devise a conceptual scheme and a systematic method. For this reason, readers are required to devise their own conceptual scheme, as I do here.

The book is based on participant observation in communities, schools, clubs, and bars, and 150 interviews with white working class males, mostly of Italian or Jewish background, in Boston for one year beginning in July of 1969 (p. 40–1).

The hidden injuries that Sennett and Cobb discovered might be paraphrased: their working class men felt that first, because of their class position, they were not accorded the respect that they should have received from others, particularly from their teachers, bosses and even from their own children. That is, these men have many complaints about their status. Secondly, these men also felt that their class position was at least partly their own fault. Sennett and Cobb imply that social class is responsible for both injuries. They believe that their working men did not get the respect they deserved because of their social class, and that the second injury, lack of self-respect, is also the fault of class, rather than the men’s own fault, as most of them thought.

Sennett and Cobb argue that in US society, respect is largely based on individual achievement, the extent that one’s accomplishments provide a unique identity that stands out from the mass of others. The role of public schools in the development of abilities forms a central part of Sennett and Cobb’s argument. Their informants lacked self-respect, the authors thought, because the schooling of working class boys did not develop their individual talents in a way that would allow them to stand out from the mass as adults. In the language of emotions, they carry a burden of feelings of rejection and inadequacy, which is to say chronic low self-esteem (shame).

From their observations of schools, Sennett and Cobb argue that teachers single out for attention and praise only a small percentage of the students, usually those who are talented or closest to middle-class. This praise and attention allows the singled-out students to develop their potential for achievement. The large majority of the boys, however, are ignored and, in subtle ways, rejected.

There are a few working class boys who achieve their potential through academic or athletic talent. But the large mass does not. For them, rather than opening up the world, public schools close it off. Education, rather than becoming a source of growth, provides only shame and rejection. For the majority of students, surviving school means running a gauntlet of shame. These students learn by the second or third grade that is better to be silent in class rather than risk humiliation of a wrong answer. Even students with the right answers must deal with having the wrong accent, clothing, or physical appearance. For most students, schooling is a vale of shame.

1.5 Helen Lynd: Shame And Identity

During her lifetime, Helen Lynd was a well-known sociologist. With her husband, Robert, she published the first US community studies, Middletown and Middletown in Transition. But Lynd was also profoundly interested in developing an interdisciplinary approach to social science. In her study On Shame and the Search for Identity (1961), she dealt with both the social and psychological sides of shame. She also clearly named the emotion of shame and its cognates, and located her study within previous scholarship, especially psychoanalytic studies. But Lynd also modified and extended the study of shame by developing a concept, and by integrating its social and psychological components.

In the first two chapters, Lynd introduced the concept of shame, using examples from literature to clarify each point. In the next section, she critiques mainstream approaches in psychology and the social sciences. She then introduces ideas from lesser known approaches, showing how they might resolve some of the difficulties. Finally, she has an extended discussion of the concept of identity, suggesting that it might serve to unify the study of persons by integrating the concepts of self, ego, and social role under the larger idea of identity.

Lynd’s approach to shame is much more analytical and self-conscious than the other sociologists reviewed here. They treated shame as a vernacular word. For them, shame sprung out of their data, unavoidable. But Lynd encounters shame deliberately, as part of her exploration of identity.

Lynd explains that shame and its cognates get left out because they are deeply hidden, but at the same time pervasive. She makes this point in many ways, particularly in the way she carefully distinguishes shame from guilt.

One idea that Lynd develops is profoundly important for a social theory of shame and the bond, that sharing one’s shame with another can strengthen the relationship: ‘The very fact that shame is an isolating experience also means that … sharing and communicating it … can bring about particular closeness with other persons’ (Lynd 1961, p. 66). In another place, Lynd went on to connect the process of risking the communication of shame with the kind of role-taking that Cooley and Mead had described: ‘communicating shame can be an experience of … entering into the mind and feelings of another person’ (p. 249).

Lynd’s idea about the effects of communicating and not communicating shame was pivotal for Lewis’s (1971) concepts of acknowledged and unacknowledged shame, and their relationship to the state of the social bond, as outlined below.

1.6 Goffman: Embarrassment And Shame In Everyday Life

Although shame goes largely unnamed in Goffman’s early work, embarrassment and avoidance of embarrassment is the central thread. Goffman’s E eryperson is always desperately worried about his image in the eyes of the other, trying to present herself with her best foot forward to avoid shame. This work elaborates, and indeed, fleshes out, Cooley’s abstract idea of the way in which the looking glass self leads directly to pride or shame.

Interaction Ritual (1967) made two specific contributions to shame studies. In his study of face work, Goffman states what may be seen as a model of ‘face’ as the avoidance of embarrassment, and losing face as suffering embarrassment. This is an advance, because it offers readily observable markers for empirical studies of face. The importance of this idea is recognized, all too briefly, at the beginning of Brown and Levinson’s (1987) study of politeness behavior.

Goffman’s second contribution to the study of shame was made in a concise essay on the role of embarrassment in social interaction (1967). Unlike any of the other shame pioneers in sociology, he begins the essay with an attempt at definition. His definition is a definite advance, but it also foretells a limitation of the whole essay, since it is behavioral and physiological, ignoring inner experience. Framing his analysis in what he thought of as purely sociological mode, Goffman omitted feelings and thoughts. His solution to the inside–outside problem was to ignore most of inner experience, just as Freud ignored most of outside events.

However, Goffman affirms Cooley’s point on the centrality of the emotions of shame and pride in normal, everyday social relationships, ‘One assumes that embarrassment is a normal part of normal social life, the individual becoming uneasy not because he is personally maladjusted but rather because he is not … embarrassment is not an irrational impulse breaking through social prescribed behavior, but part of this orderly behavior itself’ (1967, pp. 109, 111).

Even Goffman’s partial definition of the state of embarrassment represents an advance. One of the most serious limitations of current contributions to the sociology of emotions is the lack of definitions of the emotions under discussion. Much like Cooley, Elias and Sennett, Kemper (1978) offers no definitions of emotions, assuming that they go without saying. Hochshild (1983) attempts to conceptualize various emotions in an appendix, but doesn’t go as far as to give concrete definitions of emotional states. Only in Retzinger (1991, 1995) can conceptual and operational definitions of the emotions of shame and anger be found.

2. Lewis’s Discovery Of Unacknowledged Shame

Helen Lewis’s book on shame (1971) involved an analysis of verbatim transcripts of hundreds of psychotherapy sessions. She encountered shame because she used a systematic method for identifying emotions, the Gottschalk–Gleser method (Gottschalk et al. 1969, Gottschalk 1995), which involves use of long lists of keywords that are correlated with specific emotions.

Lewis found that anger, fear, grief, and anxiety cues showed up from time to time in some of the transcripts. She was surprised by the massive frequency of shame cues. Her most relevant findings:

(a) Prevalence: Lewis found a high frequency of shame markers in all the sessions, far outranking markers of all other emotions combined.

(b) Lack of awareness: Lewis noted that patient or therapist almost never referred to shame or its near cognates. Even the word embarrassment was seldom used. In analyzing the context in which shame markers occurred, Lewis identified a specific context: situations in which the patient seemed to feel distant from, rejected, criticized, or exposed by the therapist.

However, the patient’s showed two different, seemingly opposite responses in the shame context. In one, the patient seemed to be suffering psychological pain, but failed to identify it as shame. Lewis called this form overt, undifferentiated shame. In a second kind of response, the patient seemed not to be in pain, revealing an emotional response only by rapid, obsessional speech on topics that seemed somewhat removed from the dialogue. Lewis called this second response bypassed shame.

3. Shame, Anger, And Conflict

In her transcripts, Lewis found many episodes of shame that extended over long periods of time. Since emotions are commonly understood to be brief signals (a few seconds) that alert us for action, the existence of long-lasting emotions is something of a puzzle. Lewis’s solution to this puzzle may be of great interest in the social sciences, since it provides an emotional basis for longstanding hostility, withdrawal, or alienation.

She argued that her subjects often seemed to have emotional reactions to their emotions, and that this loop may extend indefinitely. She called these reactions ‘feeling traps.’ The trap that arose most frequently in her data involved shame and anger. A patient interprets an expression by the therapist as hostile, rejecting or critical, and responds with shame or embarrassment. However, the patient instantaneously masks the shame with anger, then is ashamed of being angry. Apparently, each emotion in the sequence is brief, but the loop can go on forever. This proposal suggests a new source of protracted conflict and alienation, one hinted at in Simmel’s treatment of conflict.

Although Lewis didn’t discuss other kinds of spirals, there is one that may be as important as the shame–anger loop. If one is ashamed of being ashamed, it is possible to enter into a shame–shame loop that leads to silence and withdrawal. Elias’s work on modesty implies this kind of loop.

4. Shame And The Social Bond

Finally, Lewis interpreted her findings in explicitly social terms. She proposed that shame arises when there is a threat to the social bond, as was the case in all of the shame episodes she discovered in the transcripts. Every person, she argued, fears social disconnection from others.

Lewis’s solution to the outside–inside problem parallels and advances the Darwin–Mead–Cooley definition of the social context of shame. She proposed that shame is a bodily and/or mental response to the threat of disconnection from the other. Shame, she argued, can occur in response to threats to the bond from the other, but in can also occur in response to actions in the ‘inner theatre,’ in the interior monologue in which we see ourselves from the point of view of others. Her reasoning fits Cooley’s formulation of shame dynamics, and also Mead’s (1934) more general framework: the self is a social construction, a process constructed from both external and internal social interaction, in role-playing and role-taking.

5. Shame As The Social Emotion

Drawing upon the work of these pioneers, it is possible to take further steps toward defining shame. By shame, I mean a large family of emotions that includes many cognates and variants, most notably embarrassment, humiliation and related feelings such as shyness, that involve reactions to rejection or feelings of failure or inadequacy. What unites all these cognates is that they involve the feeling of a threat to the social bond. That is, I use a sociological definition of shame, rather than the more common psychological one (perception of a discrepancy between ideal and actual self). If one postulates that shame is generated by a threat to the bond, no matter how slight, then a wide range of cognates and variants follow: not only embarrassment, shyness, and modesty, but also feelings of rejection or failure, and heightened self-consciousness of any kind. Note that this definition usually subsumes the psychological one, since most ideals are social, rather than individual.

If, as proposed here, shame is a result of threat to the bond, shame would be the most social of the basic emotions. Fear is a signal of danger to the body, anger a signal of frustration, and so on. The sources of fear and anger, unlike shame, are not uniquely social. Grief also has a social origin, since it signals the loss of a bond. But bond loss is not a frequent event. Shame on the other hand, following Goffman, since it involves even a slight threat to the bond, is pervasive in virtually all social interaction. As Goffman’s work suggests, all human beings are extremely sensitive to the exact amount of deference they are accorded. Even slight discrepancies generate shame or embarrassment. As Darwin (1872) noted, the discrepancy can even be in the positive direction; too much deference can generate the embarrassment of heightened self-consciousness.

Especially important for social control is a positive variant, a sense of shame. That is, shame figures in most social interaction because members may only occasionally feel shame, but they are constantly anticipating it, as Goffman implied. Goffman’s treatment points to the slightness of threats to the bond that lead to anticipation of shame. For that reason, my use of the term shame is much broader than its vernacular use. In common parlance, shame is an intensely negative, crisis emotion closely connected with disgrace. But this is much too narrow if we expect shame to be generated by even the slightest threat to the bond.

6. Conclusion

The classic sociologists believed that emotions are crucially involved in the structure and change of whole societies. The authors reviewed here suggest that shame is the premier social emotion. Lynd’s work, particularly, suggests how acknowledgement of shame can strengthen bonds, and by implication, lack of acknowledgment can create alienation. Lewis’s work further suggests how shame–anger loops can create perpetual hostility and alienation. Acknowledged shame could be the glue that holds relationships and societies together, and unacknowledged shame the force that divides them.


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