Shame and the Social Bond: A Sociological
Thomas J. Scheff
Emotion has long been recognized in sociology as crucially important, but
most references to it are generalized and vague. In this essay, I nominate
shame, specifically, as the premier social emotion. First I review the
individualized treatment of shame in psychoanalysis and psychology, and the
absence of social context. Then I consider the contributions to the social
dimensions of shame by six sociologists (Georg Simmel, Charles Cooley, Norbert
Elias, Helen Lynd, Erving Goffman, Richard Sennett)
and a psychologist/psychoanalyst (Helen Lewis). I show that Cooley and Lynd,
particularly, made contributions to a theory of shame and the social bond.
Lewis’s idea that shame arises from threats to the bond integrates the
contributions of all six sociologists, and points toward future research on
emotion, conflict, and alienation/ integration.
Many sociological theorists have at least implied that emotions are a powerful
force in the structure and change of societies. Although Weber didn’t refer to
emotions directly, his emphasis on values as the foundation of social structure
implies it, since values are emotionally charged beliefs. Durkheim was more
explicit about the role of emotions. Especially in his later works, he strongly
implicated emotions and collective sentiments in the creation of social
solidarity through moral community. G. H. Mead implied that emotion was an
important ingredient in his social psychology. And Parsons promoted it to one
of the components of social action in his AGIL scheme (Parsons and Shils 1955).
Even Marx and Engels, who intended a purely structural theory, implicated
emotions in class tensions and in the solidarity of rebellious classes.
Durkheim, especially, implied 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). However, the classic formulations have not led to any
theoretical or empirical pay-off. One reason is that they concerned emotions in
general, a rarefied abstraction, rather than specific emotions.
WHY SPECIFIC EMOTIONS ARE NECESSARY FOR THEORY AND RESEARCH
The inclusion of emotions in classic sociology was abstract and therefore
virtually meaningless. Generalized emotions have only ambiguous reference. Our
knowledge of emotions is not generalized, but particular. For example, we all
know a great deal about anger. No doubt some of what we think we know may not
be the case. But much of what we know is probably accurate or at least accurate
enough to often be able to understand each other. About anger we know or
believe we know sources from which it arises, different forms and gradations it
can take, and some of the outcomes that it can lead to. We also have similar
kinds of knowledge and beliefs about other primary emotions, such as fear,
grief, shame, contempt, disgust, love and joy.
Our knowledge about emotions held in common allows us to communicate with
each other on this topic, and restrains flights of fancy. The different
emotions may have several underlying similarities, but what is
much more obvious is the great differences in origins, appearance, and
trajectories. It is for this reason that general statements about emotions in
the abstract have so little meaning. Some of what Durkheim, Mead, and Parsons
said about emotions might appear plausible when applied to one emotion, say
anger or fear, but not to most of the others. The sources, appearance and
consequences of anger and fear are so different as to forbid lumping
Treating all emotions together under a single heading amounts to a kind of
dismissal. A current parallel can be found in rational choice theory, which
divides behavior into the rational and the non-rational. In this theory,
attention is given only to rational behavior. As in classical theory, the
non-rational, the irrational, and emotional behavior
is simply dismissed.
In any case, even the theorists who dealt with emotions explicitly,
Durkheim, Mead, and Parsons, did not develop concepts of emotion, investigate
their actual occurrence in real life, nor collect data that might bear on
propositions about the role of emotions in human conduct. Their discussions of emotion,
therefore, have not borne fruit.
The researchers whose work I review took the step of investigating a
specific and therefore concrete, emotion. In their various studies that I will describe,
they didn’t always emphasize the name of the emotion. Sennett and Cobb, for
example, in the Hidden Injuries, made no move to develop a concept of
shame, and named it infrequently, but their findings and many of their
interpretations clearly imply it. As it turns out, the act of explicitly naming
and defining is an important part of investigation. Before turning to these
authors, however, I review the treatment of shame by psychoanalytic authors, in
order to show the problem that the sociologists and Lewis solved.
Shame in Psychoanalytic Theory
The treatment of shame in most psychoanalytic writing is problematic because
it leaves out the social matrix. Like most psychological theory, Freud’s
formulations concern emotions in isolated individuals, ignoring the social
context. Individualistic formulations give rise to what might be called the
inside/outside problem. If one ignores the context in which emotions arise, it will
inevitably be difficult to understand their place in human behavior. Freud’s
solution to the inside/outside problem was to ignore the outside.
Although in his later work Freud also ignored shame, it had an important
role in his first book. In Studies on Hysteria (1895), Freud and Breuer
stated early on (p. 40) that hysteria is caused by hidden affects, and named
the emotion of shame as one of these affects. Near the end of the book, this
idea is urged more strongly:
"[The ideas that were being
repressed] were all of a distressing nature, calculated to arouse the affects
of shame, self-reproach and of psychical pain and the feeling of being
harmed" (pp. 313).
Note that all of the affects mentioned can be considered to be shame
derivatives or cognates. Self-reproach is a specific shame cognate, the feeling
of being harmed (as in rejection) somewhat broader, and finally, the quite
abstract phrase "psychical pain", which, like "hurt" or
"emotional arousal" can be applied to any emotion. In this passage
and several others, shame is given a central role in the causation of
psychopathology. Freud and Breuer also proposed that shame is the inhibiting
emotion that leads to repression, therefore giving it a central role in the
development and maintenance of psychopathology. The idea that it is shame that
causes repression would also give shame the leading role in the causation of
all mental illness, not just hysteria, if Freud had stayed with it.
However, in 1905, with the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams,
Freud permanently renounced his earlier formulation in favor of drive theory,
especially the sexual drive. In Freud’s thinking, shame was replaced by anxiety
and guilt, the appropriate emotions for responsible adults, especially male
adults. By this time, Freud had become biased about shame. He thought that it
was regressive emotion, seen only in children, women, and savages. His
rejection of his earlier work on shame can be seen as a lapse into the
ethnocentric and sexist attitudes that prevailed at the time, as well as being
Since 1905, shame has been largely ignored in orthodox psychoanalytic
formulations. Although several psychoanalysts made crucially important
contributions to shame knowledge, these contributions helped make them marginal
to psychoanalysis. Shame also goes unnamed and/or undefined even in these
marginal analysts. Alfred Adler, Abraham Kardiner, Karen Horney, and Erik
Erickson provide examples.
Adler’s formulation of the core position of prestige seeking in human
behavior, and his concept of the inferiority complex are clearly shame based
ideas. To make the search for prestige and honor a central human motive is to
focus on the pride/shame axis, as Cooley did. Similarly, the concept of an
inferiority complex can be seen as a formulation about chronic low self-esteem,
or the put it more bluntly, chronic shame.
Yet Adler never used the concept of shame to integrate the various
dimensions of his work, as he might have. His theory of personality was that
children deprived of love at key periods in their development would become
adults with either a drive for power or an inferiority complex. This theory can
be restated succinctly in terms of a theory of shame and the social bond:
children without the requisite secure bonds will likely become adults whose
affects are predominately bypassed (drive for power) or overt shame
(inferiority complex) (Lewis 1971).
Like Adler, Karen Horney (1950) didn’t name the emotion of shame. But her
formulations clearly implied it. Her theory of personality was based on what
she called "the pride system." Most of her central propositions imply
that pride and shame are the keys to understanding both neurotic and normal
behavior. Her concept of the "vindictive personality" seems to imply
shame/anger sequences as the emotional basis for vengeful behavior.
Abraham Kardiner was an anthropologist who applied psychoanalytic ideas to
his studies of small traditional societies. In The Individual and His
Society: the Psychodynamics of Primitive Social Organization (1939), he
offered an extensive analysis of the role of shame in four traditional
societies. Unlike Adler and Horney, he named the emotion of shame clearly, and
stated directly, like Freud and Breuer, that shame is the emotion that leads to
repression. Like Adler, he also gave prominence to prestige as a fundamental
human motive. Going further than Adler or Freud, he named shame as the
principal component of the super-ego, that is, of conscience.
Like Kardiner, Erik Erikson also named shame directly, in his analysis of
the relationship between shame and guilt (1950). In his investigation of these
emotions, he proposed, again contra Freud, that shame was the most fundamental
emotion and that it had a vital role in the developmental stages through which
all children must pass. His analysis of shame was an important source for Helen
Lynd’s work on shame; reading Erikson might have been the beginning of Lynd’s
interest in shame. Like most theorists who discuss shame, neither Kardiner nor
Erikson tried to define it.
The work on shame by these four analysts was not recognized by the
psychoanalytic establishment. Both Adler and Horney were excluded for their
deviationism. Although neither Kardiner nor Erikson were
excluded, there was no response to their contributions on shame, with the
exception of Helen Lynd to Erikson. It is also of interest that among the
disciples of Adler and of Horney that there was also no response to their work
Although there has been a re-awakening of interest in shame by current
psychoanalysts, still only a small minority of analysts are involved. Even in
this group, converting from drive theory to shame language is a struggle. The
work of Lansky (1992; 1995) on shame preserves drive theory. Morrison (1989)
has translated drive theoretic formulations into shame dynamics, trying to
bridge the two worlds. Broucek (1991) has rebelled against drive theory, but doesn’t
attempt a social formulation of shame. Only Lewis (1971) has succeeded in
throwing off drive theory, recasting shame in social terms. I return to her
work after considering sociological contributions to the study of shame.
Sociological Pioneers in the Study of Shame
Five of the six sociologists I reviewed acted somewhat independently of each
other and of other researchers on emotion. In the case of Elias and Sennett, their
discovery of shame seems forced upon them by their
data. Certainly Elias’s work on shame thresholds in the history of four
European cultures appears to arise from nowhere. Neither Simmel nor Cooley
define what they mean by shame. Goffman partially developed a conceptualization
of 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. She cited his article on face-work, and
realized that its main point was that face-work meant avoiding embarrassment
and shame. Even though Lynd was a sociologist, she was also interested in
psychoanalytic theory; her book surveys the fugitive psychoanalytic literature
Helen Lewis was both a research psychologist and a psychoanalyst. In her
empirical work on shame (1971), she was influenced by the work of Lynd more
than by the scattered psychoanalytic literature on shame. 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 he has a
chapter on shame in his book Authority (1980) in which he cites the English
translation of Elias’s The History of Manners (1978). As I will suggest,
shame is a central thread in The Hidden Injuries, Sennett’s first
approach to shame, even though there is no concept of shame in that book. The
reverse is true in the case of Elias; the concept of shame is central to The
Civilizing Process (1939), but goes underground in The Germans
(1996), though shame tacitly forms the central core of the book. I will refer below
to the parallels and connections between Elias’s and Sennett’s work.
Simmel: Shame and Fashion
Shame plays a significant part in only one of Simmel’s essays, the one on
fashion (1904). In his analysis of the origins of fashion, he clearly states that
the emotion of shame is it’s source. 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 the dynamics of alienation.
There is a quality to Simmel’s treatment of shame that is somewhat difficult
to describe, but needs description, since this quality will characterize 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 this paragraph.
He doesn’t conceptualize shame or define it, seeming to assume that the reader
will automatically know the meaning of the term. Similar problems are prominent
in Cooley and Elias, and somewhat less flagrantly, in Sennett and Goffman. Lynd
and Lewis are exceptions, since they both attempted to
define shame and locate it with respect to other emotions.
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. To be sure, in his discussion of what he called the
"self-sentiments," pride and shame are mentioned only as two of other
possible emotions. But his concept of "the looking glass self," which
implies the social nature of the self, refers directly and exclusively, at the
level of emotions, to pride and shame. Cooley saw self-monitoring in terms of
three steps (l84): "A self-idea of this
sort seems to have three principal elements: the imagination of our appearance
to the other person; the imagination of his judgment of that appearance, and
some sort of self-feeling, such as pride or mortification."
In this passage he restricts self-feelings to the two which he seems to
think are the most significant, pride and shame (considering
"mortification" to be a shame variant). To make sure we understand
this point, he mentions shame three more times in the passage that follows (l84-85,
"The comparison with a looking-glass
hardly suggests the second element, the imagined judgment, which is quite
essential. The thing that moves us to pride or shame is not the mere
mechanical reflection of ourselves, but an imputed sentiment, the imagined
effect of this reflection upon another's mind. This is evident from the fact
that the character and weight of that other, in whose mind we see ourselves,
makes all the difference with our feeling. We are ashamed to seem
evasive in the presence of a straightforward man, cowardly in the presence of a
brave one, gross in the eyes of a refined one and so on. We always imagine, and
in imagining share, the judgments of the other mind. A man will boast to one person
of an action—say some sharp transaction in trade—which he would be ashamed to
own to another."
Although Cooley is explicit in suggesting that pride and shame are social
emotions, 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 over not
defining emotions such as pride: In English and other European languages, the
word pride used without qualification usually has an inflection of arrogant
pride 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 an invitation to the Tower of Babel.
However, Cooley's analysis of self-monitoring suggests that pride and shame
are the basic social emotions. At this point intellectual history takes a somewhat
surprising turn. Elaborating on Cooley’s idea of self-monitoring, G.H. Mead and
John Dewey based their entire social psychology upon the process of role
taking, the ability of humans to continuously monitor themselves from the point
of view of others. Yet neither Mead nor Dewey mention what was so obvious to
Cooley, that social monitoring usually gives rise to feelings of pride or
shame. Mead and Dewey treat role taking, their basic building block of human
behavior, as entirely a cognitive process. Neither has anything to say about
pride and shame, as if Cooley never existed.
Furthermore, until quite recently, all other readers of Cooley have also
ignored the central role in human experience he gave to pride and shame. The
"looking-glass self" is by far the best known of Cooley’s
formulations. Particularly puzzling is the obliviousness of current symbolic interaction
to Cooley’s presentation of shame. How could the blatant attention he gave to
pride and shame be ignored?
Cooley’s 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.
Elias: Shame in the Civilizing Process
In the first book he wrote, Elias undertook a historical analysis of what he
calls the "civilizing process" (1994). He traced changes in the
development of personality and social norms from the onset of modern
civilization to the present. Like Weber, he gave great 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" (292, l982)."
Using excerpts from advice manuals over a very long historical span, the
last five centuries, he 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. Although he uses somewhat different terminology, Elias'
central thesis concerning modernity is closely related to my own (Scheff,
l990). In my analysis of modernity, I point to what I consider the alienating
consequences of modernity: decreasing shame thresholds at the time of the
break-up of rural communities, and decreasing acknowledgment of shame, which
also may have had powerful consequences on levels of awareness and
I will cite only one of many advice excerpts used by Elias. He first
presents a lengthy excerpt from a l9th century advice book, The Education of
Girls (von Raumer, l857), that advises mothers how to answer sexual
questions. In response to the question "Where do babies come from? Von
Raumer suggests "Children should be left as long as possible in the belief
that an angel brings the mother her little children..." If the issue comes
up again, the child is to be sternly warned: ‘ It is not good for you to know such
a thing, and you should take care not to listen to anything said about it.’
" Von Raumer concludes this passage with advice that both shames the
mother and advises her to shame the daughter: "A truly well-brought-up
girl will from then on feel shame at hearing things of this kind spoken
This advice suggests three different puzzles:
l. Why is the author, von Raumer, offering the mother such absurd advice?
2. Why does the mother follow his advice (as most did, and still do)?
3. Why do the daughters follow their mothers’ advice (as most did, and still
Modern feminist theory might respond to the first question that von Raumer's
advice arises from his position of power: he sought to continue male supremacy,
by advising the mother to act in a way that is consonant with the role of women
as subordinate to that of men. That is, he was promulgating the woman's role as
Kirche, Kueche, Kinder (church, kitchen, children). Keeping women
ignorant of sexuality and reproduction would help to continue this system.
This formulation is probably part of a complete answer, but it does not
attend to the other two questions. Why do mothers and daughters submit to
ignorance and shame? Elias's formulation provides an answer to all three questions,
without contradicting the feminist answer. Each of these persons, the man and
the two hypothetical readers, the mother and the daughter, is too embarrassed
about sexuality to think clearly about it. It could be true that von Raumer's
advice is part of his male chauvinist position, and also true that he is too
embarrassed to think about the meaning of his advice. Thoughts and emotions are
both parts of a causal chain.
Elias's study suggests a way of understanding the social transmission of a taboo
on shame. The adult, the author von Raumer in this case, is not only
ashamed of sex, but he is ashamed of being ashamed, and probably ashamed of the
shame that he will arouse in his reader. The mother responding to von Raumer's
text, in turn, will probably react in a similar way, being ashamed, and being
ashamed of being ashamed, and being ashamed of causing further shame in the
daughter. Von Raumer's advice is part of a social system in which attempts at
civilized delicacy result in an endless chain reaction of unacknowledged shame.
The chain reaction is both within persons and between them, three spirals (one
spiral within each party, and one between them. The spiral idea integrates
social and psychological processes, and suggests a solution to the usual
separation of inside and outside, as I suggest at the end of this article.
Elias showed that there was much less shame about manners and emotions in
the first part of the period he studied, than there was in the 19th century,
and therefore, I infer, far fewer shame loops. In the late l7th and early l8th
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, open justifications are offered less and 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 l8th 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 l9th century, Elias proposes, 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, as suggested in
the text interpreted above. In modern societies, socialization of most children
automatically inculcates and represses shame.
Although Elias’s analysis of the changing shame threshold in European
history now seems extraordinarily important, it is the last time that he
explicitly referred to this process. None of his many subsequent works return
to an explicit analysis of shame.
Richard Sennett: Is Shame the Hidden Injury of Class?
Although The Hidden Injuries of Class (1973) carries a powerful
message, it is not an easy book to summarize. The narrative is developed from quoted
excerpts from the interviews, and the authors’ brief, low-level interpretations
of the meanings of these quotes. They do not devise a conceptual scheme and a
systematic method for analyzing their interviews and observations. For this
reason, readers are required to devise their own conceptual scheme, as I will
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. 40-41).
The hidden injuries that Sennett and Cobb discovered might be paraphrased in
this way: their working class men felt that first, because of their class and
occupational position, they were not accorded the respect that they should have
gotten from others, particularly from their teachers, bosses, and even from
their own children. That is, these men have many complaints about their
relationships. Secondly, a more subtle injury: these men also felt, in some ways,
that their class and occupational 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 American society, the respect one receives is
largely based on one’s individual achievement, the extent that one’s
accomplishments give one 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 the sociology of emotions, they carry a
burden of feelings of rejection and inadequacy, which is to say chronic low
Sennett, who did the participant-observation part of the study, reported
most fully on a particular grammar school, "Watson School,"
that he observed. He suggests that "teachers act on their expectations of
the children in such a way as to make the expectations become reality" (p.
81). One of his observations concerns a second-grade class:
(Indent) In this class there were two children, Fred and Vincent, whose
"...clothes were pressed and seemed better kept" than the other
children’s’ clothes. "In a class of mostly dark Italian children, these
were the fairest skinned. From the outset the teacher singled out these two
children...To them he spoke with a special warmth in his voice. He never
praised them openly... but a message that they were different, and better, was
spontaneously conveyed" (p. 81). (End indent)
Sennett and Cobb argue that teachers single out for attention and praise
only a very small percentage of the students, usually students who are either
talented or middle class or closest in actions and appearance 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.
"... by the time the children are ten or eleven the split between the
many and the few who are expected ‘to make something of themselves’ is out in
the open... [The mass of] boys in class act as though they were serving time,
as though schoolwork and classes had become something to wait out, a blank
space in their lives they hope to survive..." (pp. 82-83).
This statement is a damning indictment of public schools. There are a few
working class boys who achieve their potential by virtue of their superior
academic or athletic talents. But the large mass does not. For them, rather
than opening up the world of culture and accomplishment, public schools close
this vision off. Education, rather than becoming a source of personal and
cultural growth, provides only shame and rejection. For the majority of
students in public schools, surviving the days and years of large classes means
running a gauntlet of shame and embarrassment every day. These students learn by
the second or third grade that is better to be silent in class rather than risk
ridicule or 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.
Helen Lynd: Shame and Identity
During her lifetime, Helen Lynd was a widely known sociologist. With her
sociologist husband, Robert, she published the first American 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 Identify
(1958), she dealt equally 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 introduces the concept of shame, using
extended examples from literature, often discourse, to clarify every point she
makes. In the next section, she critiques mainstream approaches to emotion and
behavior in psychology and the social sciences. She is especially critical of
the orthodox psychoanalytic and the conventional quantitative approaches. 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 approach
to persons in the social sciences by integrating the concepts of self, ego, and
social role under the larger idea of identity. This latter idea strikes me as
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,
rather than as a concept. For them, shame sprung out of their data,
unavoidable. But Lynd encounters shame deliberately, as part of her exploration
of identity. First she explains her discomfort with mainstream approaches and
domains in the social sciences:
...techniques for the study of human nature were never so abundant; there
were never so many people engaged in using them. If understanding of
identity... could be discovered by such means, [the problem of identity] would
be assured of solution. But since every way of seeing is also a way of not
seeing, the very multiplication of categories and the very precision of
techniques may ... act as barriers...
Certain pervasive experiences, not easily labeled, may slip through the
categories altogether, or if given a location and a name, may be circumscribed
in such a way that their essential character is lost...Among such experiences
are...shame, anxiety, joy, love, sense of honor, wonder, curiosity, longing,
sense of pride, self-respect. Of these, only anxiety has been the subject of
extensive specialized study (1958 p. 16).
Note that Lynd’s list contains three other topics besides shame that are
closely related to shame: sense of honor, sense of pride, and self-respect. The
large-scale cross-cultural study of emotions by Paul Ekman (1972) is a good
example of what she is saying about shame slipping through the technique net
altogether. Although shame is obviously a central emotion in all cultures and
historical eras, Ekman and his co-workers have left it out completely, as have
many other students of emotion.
Lynd explains that shame and its cognates and related emotions get left out
because it is more deeply hidden, but at the same time so pervasive in human
affairs as to be like water for fish. She makes this point in many ways,
particularly in the way she carefully distinguishes shame from guilt. She notes
that guilt is usually extremely specific and therefore close to the surface; it
involves specific acts done or not done. Guilt is about what one did, shame is
about the self, what one is. Guilt also involves feeling that the ego is
strong and intact: one is powerful enough to injure another, and one is also
powerful enough to make amends. By contrast, shame feels like weakness and
dissolution of the self, even for the wish that the self would disappear. Guilt
is a highly individualist emotion, reaffirming the centrality of the isolated
person; shame is a social emotion, reaffirming the emotional interdependency of
One point that Lynd makes is profoundly important for a social theory of shame
and the bond, that sharing one’s shame with another can strengthen the
The very fact that shame is an isolating experience also means that if one
can find ways of sharing and communicating it this communication can bring
about particular closeness with other persons" (Lynd 1958 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
mid 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.
Goffman: Embarrassment and Shame in Everyday Life
Since his Interaction Ritual (1967) and other books that I will
mention are the most widely appreciated of the studies reviewed here, Goffman
advanced the idea of the centrality of shame in social relations more than any
of the other sociologists. Although shame goes largely unnamed in his early
work on presentation of self, embarrassment and avoidance of embarrassment is the
central thread. Goffman’s Everyperson 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, giving the idea roots in the reader’s imagination.
Interaction Ritual made two further contributions to shame studies.
In his study of face-work, Goffman states what may be seen as a crucial 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; otherwise the idea of face is
only an ambiguous metaphor. The importance of this idea is recognized, all too
briefly, at the beginning of Brown and Levinson’s (1987) study of politeness
behavior. In this work, the authors define politeness as the maintenance of
face, and, following Goffman, state that maintaining face involves avoiding
embarrassment (p. 61). Oddly, however, following this introduction,
embarrassment is seldom referred to in the rest of the book; none of the
empirical studies use it as a concept, and it is mentioned infrequently and in
passing. Embarrassment, since it is one type of shame, has a slippery quality,
even for those authors who don’t completely ignore it, its usual fate.
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
"An individual may recognize extreme embarrassment in others and even
in himself by the objective signs of emotional disturbance: blushing, fumbling,
stuttering, an unusually low- or high-pitched voice, quavering speech or
breaking of the voice, sweating, blanching, blinking, tremor of the hand,
hesitating or vacillating movement, absentmindedness, and malapropisms. As Mark
Baldwin remarked about shyness, there may be "a lowering of the eyes, bowing
of the head, putting of hands behind the back nervous fingering of the clothing
or twisting of the fingers together and stammering, with some incoherence of
idea as expressed. in speech." There are also symptoms af a subjective
kind: constriction of the diaphragm, a feeling of wobbliness, consciousness of
strained and unnatural gestures, a dazed sensation, dryness of the mouth, and,
tenseness of the muscles."
This definition is a definite advance, since it sets the stage for an
operational definition of shame that can be used in systematic research. But it
also foretells a limitation of the whole essay, since the defnition is
behavioral and physiological, rather than concerning inner experience. The part
that Goffman refers to as "subjective" is entirely physiological. He
makes no attempt to include the ideation of embarrassment. Framing his analysis
in what he thought of as a Durkheimian, purely sociological mode, Goffman
therefore omitted most of the feelings and thoughts experienced in
embarrassment. 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. In Goffman’s
language: "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, p. 109 and 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. Hochschild
(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.
Goffman, like Sennett and Elias, named the emotion of shame infrequently. In
his early work on presentation and self and on facework, embarrassment and
avoidance of embarrassment is the central thread, but goes largely unnamed.
When he does clearly name embarrassment in his essay on this affect, he
carefully avoids a complete analysis, which would include both its social and
its psychological side. Although only implicitly, he seems to separate
embarrassment from shame, as if they did not belong too the same family of
emotions. In his studies of stigma and asylums, shame again is a key element,
but he mentions it only in passing.
Lewis’s Discovery of Unacknowledged Shame and its Social Implications
Helen Lewis was a research psychologist and a psychoanalyst who published
many systematic studies in psychology. Like Elias and Sennett, her discovery of
shame seemed forced upon her by her data. Her book on shame (1971) was based on
an analysis of verbatim transcripts of hundreds of psychotherapy sessions.
She encountered shame because she used a systematic method for identifying
emotions in verbal transcripts, the Gottschalk-Gleser method (1969; 1995). This
method involves use of long lists of key words that are correlated with
specific emotions, such as anger, grief, fear, anxiety, and shame.
Lewis found that anger, fear, grief, anxiety cues showed up from time to
time in some of the transcripts. What she was unprepared for was the massive
frequency of shame cues. The findings from her study most relevant to this
1. Prevalence: Lewis found a high frequency of shame markers in all the
sessions, far outranking markers of all other emotions combined. This finding
alone suggests that shame was a dominant force in the sessions she analyzed.
2. Lack of awareness; two forms: Lewis noted that although shame markers
were frequent in all of the sessions, patient or therapist almost never
referred to shame or its near cognates. Even the relatively mild 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,
generated a cloud of shame markers. This context fits the Darwin/Cooley
proposition that shame arises from seeing one’s self negatively from the point
of view of the other.
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. Identifying or calling shame by its
right name seems to be an important aspect of understanding and managing it.
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 be extended 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, but stated explicitly by Lewis.
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,
as already suggested in the discussion of Elias’s work above.
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, of
being adrift from understanding and being understood by the other.
Lewis’s solution to the outside/inside problem parallels and advances the
Darwin/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.
Lewis’s formulations also suggest a correction to the sociologists’ analysis
of shame. Perhaps Goffman’s analysis of the harried Everyperson desperately seeking
to maintain face may be somewhat overgeneralized. Most of Goffman’s examples of
persons presenting self in everyday life seem to be either bypassing shame, or
experiencing it only in its overt, undifferentiated form, to use Lewis’s
terminology. This formulation suggests that Goffman’s people have insecure
bonds, to the extent that they are unable to acknowledge, and therefore dispel
shame. His analysis might be most appropriate to persons alienated from self
and/or others. Similarly, Sennett and Cobb’s workmen seem to experience shame
only in its overt/undifferentiated form, again suggesting alienation. Similar
reasoning may also apply to Simmel’s fashion seekers. Like Goffman and Sennett,
Simmel may be considering only the alienated.
Naming and Unnaming Shame
Lewis’s analysis of unacknowledged shame has implications for this review of
the sociological exploration of shame. Although Elias made it clear in The
Civilizing Process that shame analysis is a key element in his argument, it
is much less clear in his study (with Scotson), The Established and the
Outsiders (1965). Shame was not the central concern, but it is indirectly
present in the idea that outsiders are stigmatized. In his study of the Germans
(1996), though again not made explicit, shame plays a much larger role.
Although the word shame and its variants (embarrassment, humiliation, low
self-esteem, lack of self-confidence, etc) occur repeatedly, Elias does not
make explicit that shame is a key concept, as he did in TCP. (In a word
count from a file of the ms. of The Germans I found more than five
hundred references to shame and its cognates). For reasons that are not
immediately obvious, in the later two books shame was demoted from a central
issue to its common cognates.
Elias's argument was that the Germans, both as persons and as nation,
historically have been unable to respond to humiliation in any other way than
fighting. His argument is quite similar to my analysis of the humiliated fury
that arose during the period of the three Franco-German wars, 1870-1945
(Scheff, 1994). I was unaware of this similarity until after I had published my
book. I proposed that because of the French defeat in 1871, unacknowledged
shame was a key element on the French side leading to the First World War, and
following their defeat in 1918, on the German side leading to the Second World
War. Like Elias, I propose unacknowledged shame as one source of protracted
Following his success in analyzing shame in The Civilizing Process,
why did Elias not develop a technical conception of shame, just as he moved
toward a technical conception of interdependence? There is no sure way of
answering this question, but one possibility concerns the response of the
audience to that book. Unless I am mistaken, there was virtually no response to
his shame analysis, even though it plays a central role in his overall thesis.
The only mention I have been able to find is by Sennett (1980), who recognized
the applicability of Elias's shame analysis to the problem of social control.
Sennett argued that shame and social-economic dependence are intertwined (pp.
45-49), and that shame plays a central role as a tool of discipline of workers
by management (pp. 92-97).
Although shame was the key injury in Sennett and Cobb’s earlier study, The
Hidden Injuries of Class (1971), the authors had not conceptualized it as such.
Although they refer approvingly to Lynd’s (1958) book on shame (p. 127), their
study of working class men is couched largely in the men’s own vernacular.
These men spoke of feeling that it was their fault that they had not gotten
ahead, that there must be something wrong with them, that they lacked
self-respect. The phrase "lack of self-respect" occurs frequently, if
not universally in the men’s litany of complaints about themselves. Sennett and
Cobb did not classify these various responses as shame clues (Retzinger 1990;
1995). Instead they used the same codewords the men did, to continue to hide
the already hidden injury.
Apparently the publication of The Civilizing Process in English
(1978), with its open conceptualization of shame as a key component of the
civilizing process, encouraged Sennett to point to shame directly and openly in
Authority (1980). However, just as there was virtually no response to
Elias's shame analysis, there was also none to Sennett's. Just as Elias failed
to develop a technical concept of shame, this emotion disappeared from
Sennett's later work. It might not be stretching a point to conclude that both
Elias and Sennett were shamed into silence by the silence of their audiences.
Just as shame goes unacknowledged in most social interaction, it is also
unacknowledged, and for similar reasons, in social science.
Shame as the Social Emotion
Drawing upon the work of the pioneers reviewed here, 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 rage 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 my definition will
usually subsume the psychological one, since most ideals are social, rather
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. I propose that shame is
the emotion that Durkheim should have named as the social emotion. 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
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 continually, but only implicitly, points to the
slightness of threats to the bond that lead to anticipation of shame or
My use of the term shame is much broader than its vernacular use. In common
parlance, shame is a 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. Because Simmel, Cooley, Elias, Goffman and
Sennett used only the vernacular word, when they named the emotion of shame at
all, there is considerable confusion in interpreting their work today.
An obvious question arises from my description of the zigzag progress of
shame studies described above. What gives rise to the slipperiness of the
concept of shame? Why did Elias, Sennett, Goffman and others make fundamental
contributions to shame knowledge, yet fail to explicitly name and define the
emotion they studied as shame, or ignore it in their later work? Why did Mead
and Dewey ignore the obvious importance of shame in Cooley? Why did Brown and Levinson
recognize the importance of Goffman’s concept of face as the avoidance of
embarrassment, but fail to utilize it in their empirical studies? My
description of the history of shame studies by psychoanalysts suggests many similar
questions, particularly Freud’s early discovery of shame and his later
My explanation derives from Elias’s idea of the advance of the shame
threshold, and Lewis’s work on unacknowledged shame. Elias's response to his
data led him to an analysis of the underlying process in our civilization that
was too advanced for his audience. In Western societies, as Elias pointed out,
the threshold for shame has been decreasing for hundreds of years, but at the
same time awareness of this emotion has been declining. As his own analysis
could have predicted, in our era the level of awareness of shame is so low that
only those trained to detect unacknowledged shame could understand the point
that Elias was making. Because Retzinger and I were guided by Lewis's (1971)
work, we were responsive to Elias's shame analysis. Within psychology and psychonalysis,
Lewis’s work is widely acclaimed but seldom used.
The development of a concept of shame, which includes both analytical and
operational definitions of shame, is crucially important for the scientific
study of shame. It would appear that subjects’ testimony about shame states,
and indeed the presence or absence of any other emotion, may not be valid.
Perhaps most emotional states are disavowed or exaggerated. Following, Lewis, it
would appear that most shame states are not experienced in consciousness, but
are either unconscious or misnamed (bypassed or overt, undifferentiated shame,
in Lewis’s (1971) terminology). For this reason studies that rely on testimony
of subjects, rather than analysis of their behavior and their discourse, are
apt to leave out most shame. It is also not clear that subject’s reports of
their own shame and that of others accurate. Studies are needed to test the
validity of subjective reports of shame. In my view, such a test would mean
validating standardized shame measures against analysis of discourse.
To continue to develop, the sociology and psychology of emotions should
follow up the leads offered by the authors reviewed here. If we could agree
upon a method for studying shame that would be reliable and valid, we might
start by testing the key hypotheses on collective shame Elias stated: shame is
increasing in modern societies, but at the same time awareness of shame is
decreasing. Another hypothesis, following Sennett and Cobb, is that members of
the working and lower classes are shamed by their status.
One direction that a sociology of emotions might take concerns the dynamics
of racial, gender, ethnic, and class relationships. In her chapter "Honor
and Shame", Howard (1995) proposes that women and blacks are likely to be
ashamed of themselves. She suggests that they are dishonored, that their status
is consistently derogated. To coordinate their actions in a white male
dominated society, women and blacks must take the role of white males, which
leads to seeing themselves as they are seen. She supports this idea by pointing
to the amount of "self-mutilation" that women and blacks undergo in
attempting to fit themselves into the male or white ideal. She argues that women’s
sustained attempts to be slender and have small waists and feet, to the point
of self-starvation, suggest shame in these women. Similarly, she proposes that
hair straightening and the high status of light skin among blacks has the same
Howard’s analysis of shame and honor in race and gender relations is
suggestive, but is only a first step. If her formulation is accurate, it would
mean that there is an emotional/relational structure that sustains the
domination of white males, in addition to legal, political and economic causes.
In order to test this idea, however, shame would need to be investigated so that
its presence or absence in women and blacks could be documented. Retzinger’s
theory of conflict (Retzinger 1991) and my application of it to collective
conflict (Scheff 1994) suggest that protracted and intense hatred, resentment,
and envy are all products of unacknowledged shame. Research on gender, race,
ethnic and class emotional tensions and alienation could be inspired by this
As indicated at the beginning of this article, 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 and in much more detail suggests how
shame/anger loops can create perpetual hostility and alienation. Acknowledged
shame, it seems, could be the glue that holds relationships and societies
together, and unacknowledged shame the force that blows them apart. Since we
are now in a position to clearly define shame as a working concept, perhaps the
time has come to begin systematic empirical studies of the effect of individual
and collective shame on social solidarity and alienation.
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