To be published in Symbolic Interaction
SHAME IN SELF AND SOCIETY*
Thomas J. Scheff
Abstract: Although shame may be the master emotion
of everyday life, it is usually invisible in modern societies because of
taboo. Evidence for a taboo is suggested by a review of shame studies.
The work that concerns shame by Cooley, Freud, Elias, Lynd, Goffman, Lewis,
and Tomkins has been largely ignored. Their work implies a vital connection
between shame and social life: shame can be seen as a signal of threat
to the bond. If so, understanding shame would be necessary for the study
of social systems. The taboo on shame in English still holds: current usage,
for the most part, assigns a singular meaning that is intense and narrow.
This meaning offends, on the one hand, and, on the other, misses the everyday
function of shame. Perhaps the problem can be approached, as it is in traditional
societies, by the use of a broader term, such as bond affect, or Shame.
Such a concept could lead to discovering the emotional/relational world.
*I would like to acknowledge my debt to Kathy
Charmaz and the reviewers she chose. Their comments on style and substance
have resulted in a final version that is considerably clearer and broader
than the draft that I originally submitted.
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.
Many sociological theorists have implied that
emotions are a powerful force . 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 implicated
collective sentiments in the creation of solidarity through moral community.
Parsons promoted emotion to a component of social action in his AGIL scheme
(Parsons and Shils 1955). Even Marx and Engels involved emotions in class
tensions and in the solidarity of rebellious classes.
But the classic formulations have led nowhere,
because they concerned emotions in general. Our knowledge of emotions is
not generalized, but particular. For example, we believe we know a great
deal about anger: sources from which it arises, different forms it can
take, and some of its outcomes. We also have similar kinds of beliefs about
other primary emotions, such as fear, grief, shame, contempt, disgust,
love and joy.
Our shared beliefs about specific emotions allow
us to communicate with each other on this topic, and restrain flights of
fancy. The different emotions may have several underlying similarities,
but what is much more obvious are the differences in origins, appearance,
and trajectories. It is for this reason that general statements have so
little meaning. Some of what Durkheim, Mead, and Parsons said about emotion
might appear plausible when applied to one emotion, say anger or fear,
but not to others.
In any case, even the theorists who dealt with
emotions explicitly did not develop concepts of emotion, investigate their
actual occurrence in real life, nor collect data. Their discussions of
emotion, therefore, have not resulted in knowledge that would improve upon
shared beliefs. In this essay I examine a specific emotion, shame, in some
The Taboo on Shame
The psychologist Gershen Kaufman has argued that
shame is taboo in our society:
American society is a shame-based culture, but
…shame remains hidden. Since there is shame about shame, it remains under
taboo. …. The taboo on shame is so strict …that we behave as if shame does
not exist (Kaufman 1989 Italics added; see also Kaufman and Raphael 1984;
In this article, I review earlier studies of shame,
showing the response to them has been, as Kaufman claims, to act as if
shame doesn’t exist. A large part of the cultural defense against shame
is linguistic; the English language, particularly, disguises shame. I will
review sociological and psychoanalytic approaches, with emphasis on the
contributions of Cooley on shame, and Goffman on embarrassment. I will
also show why it might be necessary to establish a new working concept
of bond affect that I propose to call Shame. This concept, together with
a theory and method of emotional/relational process and structure, could
lead to understanding the intimate links between self and society.
According to one current definition, a taboo involves:
The prohibition of an action or the use of an
object based on ritualistic distinctions of them either as being sacred
and consecrated or as being dangerous, unclean, and accursed…(Encyclopedia
Shame is not consecrated in modern societies.
Perhaps “unclean.” come closest to catching the flavor. Kaufman’s idea
that there is shame about shame explains, more precisely, why shame seems
to be taboo in modern societies. Because there is usually shame about shame,
one risks offense by referring to it. Defining taboo as an institution
that evokes shame, because it points to an identifiable process, may be
an improvement over other definitions.
The encyclopedia definition goes on to note a
very general point about taboos that will also be emphasized here:
…There is broad agreement that the taboos current
in any society tend to relate to objects and actions that are significant
for the social order and that belong to the general system of social control.
Although Elias (1939) didn’t use the term taboo,
his study of manners through hundreds of years of European history offers
an explanation of Kaufman’s idea in terms of social control. Elias found
that the civilizing process in Europe was built on two contradictory movements:
increasing use of shame as an internal control, on the one hand, and increasing
repression of shame, on the other. Elias’s findings will be further discussed
To understand the crucial function played by shame
in systems of social control, it will first be necessary to define it in
a way that is broader than current usage. The narrowest conceptions are
found in vernacular English, orthodox psychoanalytic theory, and experimental
social psychology. A broad conception is found in qualitative and micro-linguistic
research, and in vernacular usage in traditional societies . It is also
implied in theories developed by Mead, Cooley, and Goffman, as discussed
European languages other than English have two
kinds of shame. In German, for example, there is schande (disgrace shame)
and scham (everyday shame). French makes exactly the same distinction,
honte and pudeur. With the exception of English, the languages of all modern
societies have a word for everyday shame, and another word for disgrace
shame. Everyday shame usually carries no offense; a tacit understanding
of everyday shame (a sense of shame) is usually treated as a necessary
part of one’s equipment as a proper person. Since English has no word for
everyday shame, one cannot discuss shame in English without risking offense.
In this way, English, uniquely among all languages, blocks off a whole
area of personhood from discussion .
One way around the taboo is rather than referring
to shame, to use a softer, less offensive member of the same family of
emotions. Goffman took this route. The books that established his reputation
imply that embarrassment is the key emotion in social interaction, as Goffman
himself stated explicitly in his essay on embarrassment (1967). Brown
and Levinson (1987) observed the centrality of embarrassment
in Goffman’s work, but only in passing. Schudson (1984) noted this emphasis
but made an issue of it. He complained that although Goffman seemed to
be saying that embarrassment is crucially important, he never explained
why. A preliminary attempt to answer this question was offered by Heath
Embarrassment lies at the heart of the social
organization of day-to-day conduct. It provides a personal constraint on
the behavior of the individual in society and a public response to actions
and activities considered problematic or untoward. Embarrassment and its
potential play an important part in sustaining the individual’s commitment
to social organization, values and convention. It permeates everyday life
and our dealings with others. It informs ordinary conduct and bounds the
individual’s behavior in areas of social life that formal and institutionalized
constraints do not reach. (p. 137)
This paper seeks a more comprehensive answer.
Building on the work of earlier theorists, I propose a definition of shame
(in its broad sense) and a theory and method for studying its role in self
and society. The first issue to be faced is that shame is both a social
and a psychological phenomenon.
Shame Arises Because the Self is Social
Social conceptions of the self can serve
as the background for a broad definition of shame. Mead (1934) proposed
that the self is a social phenomenon as much as a biological one. His fundamental
insight into consciousness was that it arose out of role taking, of seeing
things from the point of view of the other(s), as well as from one’s own
point of view. This idea is central to the social psychology of Mead, Cooley,
Mead himself gave very little attention to shame
or any other emotion. The problem that he attacked was the basis of reflective
intelligence. He needed the idea of role taking to explain the origins
of intelligence and objectivity. However, a contemporary of Mead’s, Charles
Cooley, in his version of role taking, noted that reading the mind of the
other would usually generate emotions.
For Cooley (1922), shame and pride both arose
from seeing oneself from the point of view of the other. In his discussion
of what he called the “self-sentiments,” pride and shame are mentioned
as two of the emotions possible. But his concept of "the looking glass
self," which implies the social nature of the self, refers directly and
exclusively to pride and shame. Cooley saw self-monitoring in three steps
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 he thought 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, emphasis
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 reflec-tion
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 judg-ments
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.
The way in which Cooley linked intersubjective
connectedness, on the one hand, with pride and shame, on the other, could
have been the basis for a general social psychological theory of bond affect.
Even though the looking glass self was appreciated and frequently cited
in mainstream sociology and social psychology, the part involving pride
and shame was simply ignored. Why?
Like most of the pioneers in the study of emotions,
Cooley didn’t attempt to define what he meant by pride or shame. He simply
used these words as if their meaning were simple and singular. But in Western
societies, the meaning of pride and shame is neither simple nor singular.
The meaning of these words is complex, and laden with emotion. Unless prefaced
by an adjective like genuine or justified, the word pride carries a strong
connotation of arrogance and selfishness, the kind of pride that “goeth
before the fall.” The unadorned word pride, that is, is taken to be false
pride or vanity.
As already indicated, the word shame alone also
has negative connotations to the point that it is taboo. Perhaps because
he was born in the 19th century, when these words may have been less weighted
with feeling, Cooley could have been unaware of the problem. It appears
that his readers didn’t know what to make of his emphasis on pride and
shame. In any case, his insights into the relationship between attunement
and emotion were ignored until my review (Scheff 1990), a hiatus of 68
Goffman also pursued the idea of emotions arising
out role taking, but formulated it less directly than Cooley, dealing with
embarrassment rather than shame. But more than Cooley, and much more than
Mead, Goffman fleshed out the link between embarrassment and role taking
by providing many examples (1959; 1963; 1963a; 1967). These examples allow
the reader concrete understanding of ideas that are only abstractions in
Mead and Cooley.
The idea of impression management, crucial in
most of Goffman’s writing, made the avoidance of embarrassment a central
motive of interpersonal behavior. Goffman’s Everyperson is always desperately
worried about his image in the eyes of others, trying to present himself
with his best foot forward. Goffman’s work vivifies Cooley’s abstract idea
of the way in which the looking glass generates emotion, giving the idea
roots in the reader’s imagination.
Goffman also made the key sociological point about
embarrassment: it arises out of slights, real, anticipated, or just imagined,
NO MATTER HOW TRIVIAL they might appear to the outside observer. Everyone
is extremely sensitive to the exact nuance of deference they receive. This
is Goffman's key contribution to emotion knowledge.
Goffman affirmed Cooley’s point of the ubiquity
of emotion 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)
It was fortunate, perhaps, in terms of the size
of his readership, that Goffman chose to focus on embarrassment, without
connecting it to shame. It’s not clear whether Goffman chose that strategy
intentionally. One piece of the puzzle is suggested by his book Stigma
(1963a). Since shame is the central topic of this work, it provided him
with ample opportunity to explore the relationship between embarrassment
and shame. But he did not: shame is mentioned only a few times, and in
In fairness to Goffman, although he emphasized
embarrassment, in his early work he didn’t avoid shame completely. In the
30 pages of Chapter VI (1959), he mentioned shame or ashamed 4 times, guilt
and humiliation once each, and embarrassment 7 times. But this count underplays
his consideration of everyday bond affects, because there are many more
images that imply them.
One example from the same chapter should be enough
to make this point:
He may … add to the precariousness of his position
by engaging in just those defensive maneuvers that would employ if he were
really guilty. In this way it is possible for all of us to become
fleetingly for ourselves the worst person we can imagine that others might
imagine us to be. (236, Italics added)
This image, of seeing one’s self negatively in
the eyes of others, was perceived as the origin of shame or embarrassment
by Darwin, Cooley, and Goffman himself. Although I haven’t made an actual
count, I propose that it is invoked constantly by Goffman, particularly
in his most popular work. Although Goffman doesn’t credit Cooley directly,
the central theme of Presentation of Self, and much of Goffman’s later
writing, is an elaboration on Cooley’s thesis: since we live in the minds
of others, pride and shame (in its broad sense as bond affect), are the
master emotions of everyday life.
Surprisingly, Goffman was not content with only
a conceptual definition, but also offered an operational one:
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 of 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.
In cases of mild discomfiture, these visible and invisible flusterings
occur but in less perceptible form (Goffman 1967, emphasis added).
This definition links an interior emotion with
surface observables. With his usual uncanny instinct, in the last sentence
he even seems to hint at the need for further elaboration of the operational
definition: "these visible and invisible flusterings [that accompany embarrassment],
but in less perceptible form." This clause seems to point toward the development
of more elaborate coding systems for the verbal and gestural indicators
of shame and embarrassment, such as the one by Retzinger (1991; 1995).
Goffman’s attempt at defining embarrassment is
even more extraordinary in the context of contemporary social science.
The few social science theorists who emphasize emotions seldom define them,
even conceptually. There is no hint of even a conceptual definition in
Freud, Cooley, or Simmel (1904). Another example is Elias’s masterwork,
The Civilizing Process (1939). His proposition that the threshold for shame
is advanced in the civilizing process is the central thread. In a later
work of Elias’s, The Germans (1996), shame is again frequently evoked,
though not explicitly as in the earlier study.
Yet Elias offered no definition of shame in either
book, seeming to assume that the reader would understand the concept of
shame in the same way that he did. The Civilizing Process [TCP] entails
an analysis of shame in many excerpts from advice and etiquette manuals
in five languages over six centuries. The analysis of the excerpts
is intuitive, and in most cases, inferential. That is, the word shame is
sometimes used in the excerpts that he selected, but much more frequently
it is not.
Elias relied on unexplicated interpretations
of cue words and phrases in context. Even if his interpretations
were fairly accurate, he still gave little direction to future research
on the subject. Unlike Elias and most other analysts of emotion, Goffman
took at least the initial step toward overcoming this problem.
In opposition to Cooley and Goffman, Jack Katz
(Ch. 3, 1999) offers a complex but narrow definition of shame:
…an (1) eerie revelation to self that (2) isolates
one (3) in the face of an sacred community. What is revealed is a (4) moral
inferiority that makes one (5) vulnerable to (6) irresistible forces. As
a state of feeling, shame is (7) fearful, (8) chaotic, (9) holistic and
(10) humbling. (p. 147)
The way these ten components are closely linked
implies that there is only one type of shame, and each component also implies
crisis and disgrace, as in vernacular usage, rather than a continuing presence
in everyday life.
In contrast, Retzinger and I have defined shame
broadly. Retzinger’s central study concerned the exchange of feelings,
second by second, in marital quarrels (1991). From her analysis of discourse
in these quarrels, she developed a methodology for identifying shame and
anger, even when the subjects’ are not aware of their own feelings. Retzinger
also developed a theory of destructive conflict, based on a review of the
social science literature on conflict, as well as her own findings. My
own work on shame has relied on Retzinger’s, both her methods for identifying
shame and anger in discourse, and her theory of destructive conflict (Scheff
1994). Our work proposes that shame cannot be understood within an individualistic,
Social Definitions of Shame
There are also social definitions of shame in
maverick psychoanalysis, sociology, and psychology that define shame broadly.
The opening salvo was fired by Erikson (1950), who rejected Freud’s assumption
that guilt was the primary moral emotion for adults. He argued instead
that shame was the more elemental, in that it concerned the whole self,
not just one’s actions.
This idea was expanded by the sociologist Helen
Lynd (1958), whose exposition of the importance of shame to the self and
social life is remarkably clear. Her approach to shame did not test hypotheses,
but used concrete examples to clarify the idea of shame. She was the first
to recognize the need for a CONCEPT of shame that would be clearly defined,
and that would differentiate it from vernacular usage.
Tomkins, who recognized the central role that
shame plays in self-process, took the next step. In his volume on the negative
affects (1963, V. II) he devoted almost 500 pages to a very detailed and
comprehensive discussion of shame and humiliation. Tomkins argued explicitly
that embarrassment, shame, and guilt should be recognized as members of
a single affect family, as I do here.
The work that Tomkin’s did on emotions was extensive
and important, and has had considerable influence on emotion research.
His idea that has had the most influence is that the seat of the emotions
is in the face. There have been hundreds of studies of the facial expression
of emotion. But these studies have contributed little to shame knowledge,
for two reasons.
First, the leaders in this approach, Ekman et
al (1972), decided that there was no consensus on the facial expression
of shame, and therefore it wasn’t a genuine emotion. It is puzzling that
Ekman thought he was following Tomkins, yet ignored the emotion to which
Tomkins gave the most attention. The Ekman et al studies, and those of
most of the others who followed their lead, have ignored shame. Whatever
Ekman’s reasoning for excluding shame, the exclusion also suggests the
working of the taboo on shame .
A second difficulty is that even the facial expression
researchers who study shame look at only at still photographs, ignoring
context and the sequencing of affects. For these reasons, Tomkin’s work
and the work of those who have followed him has had limited usefulness.
Nathanson’s (1992) work, for example, is based on Tomkin’s affect theory,
but like Tomkins, fails to offer adequate conceptual and operational definitions
In contrast to Tomkins, the psychologist/psychoanalyst
Helen Lewis (Lewis (1971b) developed an elaborate conceptual definition
of shame and used an operational definition in her research. Her conceptual
definition is suggested by one of her schematics.
(Table 1 here)
Table 1 is from Retzinger (1991), adapted from
This table suggests the broadness of Lewis’s
shame concept. Unlike any other emotion, shame depends only on specific
aspects of social relationships. As implied by the table, one can generate
any specific bond affect by utilizing one or more of the six dimensions.
A second contribution by Lewis is the idea that
shame is inherently a social emotion (1971). Her formulation was biopsychosocial.
She asserted that human beings are social by biological inheritance. That
is, she implied that shame is an instinct that has the function of signaling
threats to the social bond. Just as the instinctual emotion of fear signals
danger to life and limb, shame also signals a potential threat to survival,
especially for an infant, threat to a social bond. In this same vein,
Kaufman (1989) proposed that shame dynamics are part of the interpersonal
bridge that connects individuals who would otherwise lead isolated existences.
On the basis of her empirical study of shame in
psychotherapy, Lewis contributed to a broad definition of shame by proposing
that most shame states seem to be outside of awareness. Her first 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 long lists of key words that
are correlated with specific emotions, such as anger, grief, fear, anxiety,
and shame. This method forced Lewis to encounter shame as the dominant
emotion in the sessions she analyzed. She found that anger, fear, grief,
and anxiety cues showed up from time to time in the transcripts. What she
was unprepared for was the massive frequency of shame cues. Her methodology
was complex, in that once a shame episode was located by Gottschalk’s method,
Lewis also applied a qualitative method, analyzing each episode word by
The findings from her study most relevant to
this article are:
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: Lewis noted that although
shame markers were frequent in all of the sessions, both patient and therapist
seldom referred to shame or it’s near cognates. Even the relatively mild
word embarrassment was little used. In analyzing shame episodes, 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 proposition that shame
arises from seeing one’s self negatively from the point of view of the
other (Darwin 1872; Cooley 1922).
However, patients 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 slightly 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. Finally, Lewis noted that there was an affinity
between shame and anger. She found that anger markers in the patient’s
speech were always preceded by shame markers. Apparently one way of hiding
shame is to become angry. This finding has implications for our understanding
of affects like resentment and guilt, which will be discussed below.
Lynd, Lewis, Tomkins, Retzinger, and Scheff defined
shame socially and broadly as all affects that arise from threats to the
bond. They also compared the modern narrow treatment of shame to the broad
usage in traditional societies. However, none of these researchers explored
the history of shame, how its meaning has changed in the transition from
traditional to modern societies. Although they report the repression of
shame in modern societies, they do not explain how it has come to be. This
is exactly the ground covered by Elias’s major study, the transition from
the time of the Middle Ages to the beginning of modern societies in the
Elias’s History of Shame
Elias’s analysis of the "civilizing process"
(1978, 1982) shows how shame went underground in modern societies. He traces
changes in the development of personality in the onset of modern civilization.
Like Weber, Elias gives prominence to the development of rationality. Unlike
Weber, however, he gives equal prominence 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' " (1982: 292).
Using excerpts from advice manuals in five languages
from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, Elias outlined a theory
of modernity. By examining advice concerning etiquette, especially table
manners, body functions, sexuality, and anger, he suggested that a key
aspect of modernity involves shame.
Although Elias's language differs from mine, his
analysis parallels it. His central thesis is closely related: decreasing
shame thresholds at the time of the breakup of rural communities, and decreasing
acknowledgment of shame, have had powerful consequences on levels of awareness
and self-control. The following excerpt gives the flavor of Elias's study.
He first presents an excerpt from a nineteenth-century work, The Education
of Girls (von Raumer 1857) that advises mothers how to answer the sexual
questions their daughters ask:
Children should be left for as long as is at
all possible in the belief that an angel brings the mother her little children.
This legend, customary in some regions, is far better than the story of
the stork common elsewhere. Children, if they really grow up under their
mother's eyes, will seldom ask forward questions on this point . . . not
even if the mother is prevented by a childbirth from having them about
her.... If girls should later ask how little children really come into
the world, they should be told that the good Lord gives the mother her
child, who has a guardian angel in heaven who certainly played an invisible
part in bringing us this great joy. "You do not need to know nor could
you understand how God gives children." Girls must be satisfied with such
answers in a hundred cases, and it is the mother's task to occupy her daughters'
thoughts so incessantly with the good and beautiful that they are left
no time to brood on such matters.... A mother . . . ought only once to
say seriously: "It would not be good for you to know such a thing, and
you should take care not to listen to anything said about it." A truly
well brought-up girl will from then on feel shame at hearing things of
this kind spoken of. (1978:180)
Elias first interprets the repression of sexuality
in terms of unacknowledged shame:
In the civilizing process, sexuality too is increasingly
removed behind the scenes of social life and enclosed in a particular enclave,
the nuclear family. Likewise, the relations between the sexes are
isolated, placed behind walls in consciousness. An aura of embarrassment,
the expression of a sociogenetic fear, surrounds this sphere of life. Even
among adults it is referred to officially only with caution and circumlocutions.
And with children, particularly girls, such things are, as far as possible,
not referred to at all. Von Raumer gives no reason why one ought not to
speak of them with children. He could have said it is desirable to
preserve the spiritual purity of girls for as long as possible. But even
this reason is only another expression of how far the gradual submergence
of these impulses in shame and embarrassment has advanced by this time.
Elias raises a host of significant questions about
this excerpt, concerning its motivation and its effects. His analysis
goes to what I consider to be the central causal chain in modern civilization:
denial of shame and of the threatened social bonds that both cause and
reflect that denial. I concur with Elias's analysis of the causal
process in repression, the arousal of shame and the denial of this arousal:
Considered rationally, the problem confronting
him [von Raumer] seems unsolved, and what he says appears contradictory.
He does not explain how and when the young girl should be made to understand
what is happening and will happen to her. The primary concern is the necessity
of instilling "modesty" (i.e., feelings of shame, fear, embarrassment,
and guilt) or, more precisely, behavior conforming to the social standard.
And one feels how infinitely difficult it is for the educator himself to
overcome the resistance of the shame and embarrassment which surround this
sphere for him. (1978:181)
Elias's study suggests a way of understanding
the social transmission of the taboo on shame and the social bond.
The adult, the author von Raumer, in this case, is not only ashamed of
sex, he is ashamed of being ashamed, in accordance with Kaufman’s analysis
of taboo. The nineteenth-century reader, in turn, probably reacted in a
way: being ashamed, and being ashamed of being ashamed, and being ashamed
of causing further shame in the daughter. Von Raumer's advice was part
of a social system in which attempts at civilized delicacy resulted and
continue to result in an endless chain reaction of unacknowledged shame.
The chain reaction is both within persons and between them, a "triple spiral"
Elias understood the significance of the denial
of shame: shame goes underground, leading to behavior that is outside of
Neither rational motives nor practical reasons
primarily determine this attitude, but rather the shame (scham) of adults
themselves, which has become compulsive. It is the social prohibitions
and resistances within themselves, their own superego, that makes them
keep silent. (1978:181; emphasis added)
Like many other passages, this one points
not only to a taboo on shame, but at the actual mechanisms by which it
is transmitted and maintained.
As indicated earlier, the translator of TCP from
German into English made what I consider to be a gross mistake. He
translated the word that Elias used, scham, into the word shame. Although
technically correct, it is an error in terms of emotional content. Perhaps
if he had used the word embarrassment instead of shame, the reception of
the book in the US might have been less tepid. Although one of the
great landmarks of social science research in England and Europe, the book
is still little known in the US.
Why was TCP well received in England? Because
of the long hiatus between the original publication in German in 1939 and
its first translation into English in 1987, the scholars in England who
became followers of Elias had read TCP only in German. Knowing German,
they were able to accept Elias’s emphasis on scham.
Writing about the early reviews of TCP in Europe,
Goudsblom (1977) noted that many of them were especially appreciative of
the first part, the history of manners. Since French and Dutch each have
a word that is the exact equivalent of “scham”, perhaps they were able
to take his unusual emphasis on shame in stride. If Elias had used the
word schande (the German equivalent of the word shame in English), rather
than scham, the book might have gotten a less enthusiastic reception in
Europe, paralleling its reception in the US.
In terms of taboo, it should also be noted that
many years passed before reviewers or users of TCP referred to the central
role of shame in Elias’s study of manners. Goudsblom didn’t note it in
his 1977 review, nor did any of the reviewers cited by Goudsblom. The only
researcher who made use of Elias’s shame work was Sennett, who cited Elias
in his own chapter on the way managers use shame to control workers (Sennett
1980). However, no reviewers or anyone else took note of that chapter.
Perhaps both Sennett and Elias noted the lack of response, since neither
one ever wrote directly about shame again. The taboo on shame is maintained
through silence, first by the readers of the books, then by the authors
themselves. This taboo extends even into psychoanalysis and social psychology,
disciplines in which emotion is a central concern.
Shame in Psychoanalysis and Social Psychology
Most writing in psychology ignores the social
component in shame. Vernacular conceptions of shame in English and the
European languages have a powerful hold on scholarly and scientific discussions.
Even though Freud used the German term for everyday shame (scham), he still
defined it narrowly, located within individuals. He assumed that -scham
arose out of a disparity between one’s own ideals and one’s actual behavior.
Because he saw so little evidence of shame in
himself and in his male colleagues, Freud was dismissive of shame as an
adult emotion in modern societies. He considered guilt to be the moral
emotion of adults, being acutely conscious of it in himself and his male
circle. Seeing little shame in himself and his friends, he found it, in
his earliest work (1895) in his patients, all of whom were women. Reflecting
the ageism, sexism, and racism of his time, Freud seemed to think that
shame was the emotion of children, women, and savages. Following Freud’s
idea that guilt was the adult emotion in modern societies, the anthropologist
Ruth Benedict (1946) proposed that traditional societies were shame cultures,
modern societies, guilt cultures. As will be discussed below, this
conception is misleading in several important ways.
Although in his later work Freud 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 (scham) 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, cognates, or a general name for emotional
pain. 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.
The idea that it is shame that causes repression
would give it the leading role in the causation of all mental illness,
not just hysteria. Oddly, in one of his statements many years later, Freud
declared that repression was the central motor of human development and
emotional illness, but psychoanalysis knew very little about it. Apparently
Freud had forgotten his earlier discovery that shame was the agent of repression.
With the publication of The Interpretation of
Dreams, Freud (1905) permanently renounced his earlier formulation in favor
of drive theory, especially the sexual drive. At this point, anxiety and
guilt became the central emotions in psychoanalytic theory. Since 1905,
shame has been ignored in orthodox formulations . Although psychoanalysts
have made crucially important contributions to shame knowledge, these contributions
helped make them marginal to mainstream psychoanalysis. Even in their own
work, shame usually goes unnamed or undefined.
Alfred Adler, Abraham Kardiner, Karen Horney,
and Erik Erickson provide examples of analyses that include or imply shame,
yet fail to define it (Kardiner and Erickson) or even name it (Adler and
Horney). 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, i.e., chronic shame.
Yet Adler never used the concept of shame. 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, as in Lewis
Like Adler, Horney (1950) didn’t name the emotion
of shame. But her formulations implied it. Her theory of personality was
based on what she called “the pride system.” Most of her propositions imply
that pride and shame are the keys to understanding both neurotic and normal
behavior. Her concept of the “vindictive personality” implies shame/anger
sequences as the emotional basis for vengeful behavior.
Kardiner was an anthropologist who applied psychoanalytic
ideas to small traditional cultures. One of his studies (1939) compared
the role of shame in four traditional societies. Unlike Adler and Horney,
he named the emotion of shame, and stated, like Freud and Breuer, that
shame is the emotion of repression. Like Adler, he also gave prominence
to prestige as a fundamental human motive. Going further than Adler or
Freud, he thought shame was the principal component of the super-ego, rather
Like Kardiner, Erikson also named shame, in his
analysis of the relationship between shame and guilt (1950). In his discussion
of these emotions, he proposed, contra Freud, that shame was the most fundamental
emotion and that it had a vital role in child developmental. 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 by analysts, even their followers, to their work
Although there has been a re-awakening of shame
studies by current psychoanalysts, still only a small minority of analysts
are involved. Even in this group, converting from drive theory to a social
affect 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. Only
Broucek (1991) both rebelled against drive theory and attempted a social
formulation of shame.
The largest number of studies of embarrassment
has occurred in experimental social psychology over the last twenty years.
Sharkey (2001) lists almost 400 studies, most of which are experiments.
Of those that consider the issue, all but one find embarrassment and shame
to be different affects (e.g., Edelmann 1987; Miller and Tangney 1994;
Lewis 1995; Tangney, Miller, Flicker, and Barlow 1996). Perhaps the key
problem with these studies is that most of them use methods that rely on
subject’s conscious classifications of affects. Since English-speaking
subjects distinguish embarrassment from shame, that is what these studies
Keltner and Buswell (1997) mainly use facial expression
to measure emotion, but conclude, like the studies above, that shame and
embarrassment are distinct. They distinguish embarrassment from shame in
two ways: 1. Difference in facial expression and 2. Source of the emotion.
In terms of facial expression, they propose that embarrassment often involves
a smile, where shame does not. However, that difference could be explained
as involving only a difference in intensity. Their second difference: embarrassment
is connected with breaking conventions, where shame is connected with moral
lapses. Again, this could also be a matter only of intensity. Furthermore,
as Sabini et al (2001) show, the difference between convention and morality,
in actual situations, can be unclear.
Sabini et al., (2001) measured subject’s emotion
categories, but interpret their results as failing to support the distinction
between shame and embarrassment. They conclude that shame and embarrassment
belong to “a single affect system” (p. 113). The do not name this system,
but note that it is tied to what they call “breakdowns in self-presentation.”
Since self-presentation inevitably involves others views’ of self, Sabini
and his colleagues seem to be moving toward a conception of shame/embarrassment
as a social affect.
Although they use subject’s emotion categories
like most of the other experimental research on embarrassment, Sabini and
his colleagues interpret their results in a way that contradicts the findings
of the other studies. Why? A complete answer would involve a careful comparison
of their methods and concepts to those of the earlier studies. But Sabini
and his colleagues mention in passing an idea that might be the most crucial
difference. They indicate “…we would distinguish what triggers an episode
from the totality of the episode” (p. 113).
Sabini et al. come closer to viewing the totality
of the episodes they studied than the researchers in the earlier experiments.
Edelman, Miller, and Tangney, and Keltner and Buswell focus only on the
experimental variables. Sabini et al consider these, but also others dimensions.
Their study comes closest to what I call “part/whole analysis” (Scheff
1997). The philosopher Spinoza argued that human beings are so complex
that we can begin to understand them only by taking into account the least
parts (words and gestures) in relationship to the greatest wholes (concepts,
theories, contexts, etc).
None of the experimental studies, moreover, explicitly
consider the social dimensions of emotion. They fail to notice, for example,
two social sources that are common to both shame and embarrassment. Most
of one’s personal ideals are held in common with other members of one’s
society. Personal ideals are largely social ideals. Secondly, and more
subtly, the interior theatre of the self, in which both shame and embarrassment
occur, is modeled on social interaction. One becomes ashamed by seeing
one’s self in the eyes of others, whether real or imagined. If shame in
its broad sense is a continuous presence in human conduct we would need
a new definition, a theory, and a method, in order to study it.
Proposal for a New Concept: Bond Affect or Shame
Shame might be considered to be the master emotion
because it has more functions than other emotions. First, shame is a key
component of conscience, the moral sense: it signals moral transgression
even without thoughts or words. Shame is our moral gyroscope.
Secondly, shame arises in elemental situations
of threat to a bond; it signals trouble in a relationship. Since an infant’s
life is completely dependent on the bond with the caregivers, shame is
as primitive and intense as fear. This idea subsumes the more usual one
that shame arises when one feels one has failed to live up to one’s standards,
since these standards are, for the most part, held in common with the significant
others in one’s life. The sense that one has failed to live up to
one’s standards would usually also signal a threat to one’s social relationships.
Finally, shame plays a central role in regulating
the expression, and indeed, the awareness of all of our other emotions.
Anger, fear, grief, and love, for example, are not likely to be expressed
outwardly to the degree that one is ashamed of them. One can be so ashamed
of one’s emotions that they can be repressed completely. Although Freud
later abandoned his finding, his discovery of shame (scham) as the agent
of repression (Freud and Breuer 1897), discussed above, was not an error.
If shame in the broad sense is so central to understanding
human conduct, it might be well to define it differentiate it from the
narrow meaning in the vernacular. There are many words that are used as
substitutes or cognates for the feeling that results from seeing one's
self negatively in the eyes of the other, such as feeling self-conscious,
rejected, unworthy, or inadequate. A first step toward a scientific definition
is to use the term Shame as a class name for a large family of emotions
and feelings that arise through seeing self negatively, if even only slightly
negatively, through the eyes of others, or only anticipating such a reaction.
This usage would therefore include all of Goffman’s work on embarrassment.
The complete definition will follow below (p. 16).
A social definition is in conflict with vernacular
usage, in which shame is defined narrowly, as disgrace shame. But
most Shame does not involve crisis or disgrace. It is sometimes available
in the interior theatre of the imagination as discretion-shame, but more
often, Shame occurs out of awareness. Lewis’s contribution to our knowledge
of the emotional/relational world was that Shame, or its anticipation,
is a continuing presence in most social interaction. Because he made embarrassment
central to social interaction, Goffman had made the same point on theoretical
Shame is indicated at different levels
of intensity and duration by the terms embarrassment (weak and transient),
shame, stronger and more durable, and humiliation, (powerful and of long
duration). What these three terms have in common is that they all signal
threat to the social bond. Many, many other terms are cognates or variants
of Shame, each emphasizing one or the other aspects of the feeling or the
situation. Self-consciousness, shyness, modesty, and conscience have already
been mentioned in the discussion of discretion shame. Retzinger (1991;
1995) lists hundreds of such words.
Most of the words that reference social affect
are codewords rather than cognates, because they have dual meanings. For
example, the word “awkward” can mean physically clumsy, but it is also
used as a codeword for embarrassment. The phrase “It was an awkward moment
for me” is an indirect way of referring to embarrassment. It’s not me that
is embarrassed (denial), but the moment that is awkward (projection). Helen
Lewis (1971) showed that even in psychotherapy sessions, references to
Shame were usually in code.
There is a parallel between the concept of Shame
and usage in reference to other emotions. The class name anger, for example,
includes irritation, annoyance, frustration, enraged, being pissed off,
and many other words and phrases. As is the case with Shame, anger is the
generic term for an elemental emotion class that includes many cognates.
But since the word anger is not offensive, the class name can be direct.
In addition to being a class name for many social
cognates and variants, Shame also combines with other emotions to form
affects. Resentment and guilt may be the two most important examples. Resentment
seems to be an affect of Shame and anger, with the anger pointed outwards.
Insulted, one may mask Shame with anger by hostility. Guilt seems to have
a similar make-up, but with the anger pointed back at self. One may address
oneself angrily: “How could I treat my mother that way? She was only trying
To be sure, guilt serves a vital social function,
leading one to make amends for one’s trespass. But at the same time, it
often serves to mask one’s Shame, since it focuses on external behavior:
one’s trespass, and the amends one is to make. Benedict’s (1946) idea that
modern societies have a guilt culture is a gloss on the hidden relationship
between guilt and shame. In the transition from traditional to modern societies,
guilt arises in association with individualism. It does not so much replace
Shame as serve as one of its many masks. Shame doesn’t disappear,
it goes underground. Elias traced this process in his study of the history
of manners, as already indicated.
Conceptual Definition: Drawing upon the work of
the pioneers reviewed here, I define Shame as the large family of emotions
that includes many cognates and variants, most notably embarrassment, guilt,
humiliation and related feelings such as shyness that originate in threats
to the social bond. This definition integrates self (emotional reactions)
and society (the social bond).
Operational Definitions: 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. A long list of gestures and codewords that
can be used as indicators of shame has been provided by Retzinger (1991;
1995). A second operational definition is available from Louis Gottschalk,
a professor of Psychiatry at UCI. His software deals with verbal texts
only, but has been validated in 26 languages (Gottschalk 1995).
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 points
to the slightness of threats to the bond that lead to anticipation of 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.
This fact points to the intersubjective nature of the cause of shame. Receiving
more deference than we expect is a threat to our sense of being connected
to the other, of understanding them as they understand us. Even praise
can be experienced as lack of attunement.
If, as proposed here, Shame were 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, since
it involves even a slight threat to the bond, is present or anticipated
in virtually all social interaction. Shame is the emotion that Durkheim
could have named as the social emotion, had he named a specific emotion.
Given our extraordinary sensitivity to even minute
differences between the deference we get and what we expect, EVERY social
situation is rife with Shame, either actual or anticipated. The ubiquity
of Shame in social life obtains not only between individuals but also between
groups. Not only duels, but also wars are usually fought over perceived
slights to our individual or collective sense of self (Scheff 1994).
A 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? My description of the history of shame studies by psychoanalysts suggests
similar questions, particularly Freud’s early discovery of shame and his
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 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.
The development of a concept of Shame could be
crucially important for research on emotion. 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 shame.
It is also not clear that subject’s reports of their own Shame and that
of others are accurate. Studies are needed to test the validity of subjective
reports of shame.
To continue to develop, the sociology and psychology
of emotions should follow up the leads offered by the authors reviewed
here. We might start by testing Elias’s hypothesis on collective shame:
it is increasing in modern societies, but at the same time awareness of
shame is decreasing. Another hypothesis, implied by 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 male domination
and racism increase the liklihood that women and blacks will experience
shame. 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 implication.
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 middle class 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, blacks and working class men 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 idea .
In process are two studies that apply the broad
concept of shame to empirical research. The first is on the role
of Shame in male violence (Scheff 2002). The second, co-authored with David
Fearon, outlines a theory of self-esteem (Scheff and Fearon 2002). In the
first, I propose three conditions under which Shame leads to violence:
the extents to which individuals are isolated, obsessed, and have completely
repressed shame. To illustrate the theory, I show how well these
conditions are indicated in the details of Hitler’s writings and biographies.
In the second study, Fearon and I propose that Shame and pride management
is the most elementary component of self-esteem. The theory is illustrated
by excerpts from interviews with subjects who took a standard self-esteem
test. When asked to elaborate on their answers to the test items, almost
all of their responses involved Shame and its management.
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 its effects on social systems.
It may be that the taboo on shame, defined narrowly,
is a way of upholding the status quo in the emotional/relational world.
This usage also influences the direction and results of research. The effect
on results is subtle, because it occurs covertly, as a result of taken-for-granted
classifications. These classification schemes, when generated by taboo,
have had strong effects on research and scholarship.
Several examples were given. First, it was suggested
that Cooley’s explicit use of the words shame and pride led readers to
ignore the implications of his idea of the looking glass self for many
years. Goffman’s avoidance of shame in favor of embarrassment helped insure
his wide readership, and the choice of the word shame rather than embarrassment
in the translation of Elias’s magnum opus into English may have accounted,
at least in part, for its tepid reception in the US.
Although purportedly following the lead of Tomkins’s
studies of emotion, Ekman et al (1972) omitted shame from his studies of
facial expression of basic emotions. Finally, the division of Shame into
shame and embarrassment in studies in experimental social psychology may
be an artifact of classifications of affect words by the researchers and
The most significant support for the idea of the
taboo on shame is the fact that all but one of the major contributors to
Shame knowledge abandoned this direction, with the exception of Lewis.
In 1905, Freud renounced the contribution he and Breuer made to Shame knowledge
in their Studies of Hysteria. After his first book, The Civilizing Process
(1939) focused on changes in the shame threshold, Elias never again returned
to his findings. Nor did Sennett continue with his investigation of shame
after devoting a chapter to it in his 1980 book. Goffman’s early work was
focused on embarrassment, but beginning with Frame Analysis, he moved away
from emotions entirely. Tomkin’s 1963 volume devoted much more space to
shame than any other emotion, but his subsequent work seldom mentioned
It seems very likely that one of the main reasons
for these changes in direction were that the parts of their work that dealt
with shame got virtually no response. Since everyone else acted as if shame
didn’t exist, Freud, Elias, Sennett, Goffman, and Tomkins followed suit.
The one exception to this pattern was Helen Lewis.
She was the boldest and most focused on shame of all the major contributors.
After her 1971 book she continued to publish studies of shame for the rest
of her life (She died in 1987). But her persistence apparently was not
due to positive responses the book received. In private correspondence
in 1986 she told me that although her book was occasionally cited, no one
seemed to have read it. The response to the key shame studies in this century
has been almost non-existent, as predicted by the hypothesis of taboo.
Can the taboo be overcome by taking a new direction
in conceptualized shame? The concept of Shame renews and integrates the
work of Freud, Elias, Lynd, Goffman, Lewis, Tomkins, and many others. For
the social science of emotions, this concept could correct for the individualist
bias in Western societies, making the invisible (the web of social relationships)
visible. Perhaps Shame can help lead the way toward further advances in
the study of the emotional/relational world by integrating social and psychological
To see the thesis of this article in the large,
it is necessary to ask, why is shame defined so narrowly in the vernacular
usage of modern societies? In this regard, it is helpful to bring in the
other master emotion, love, since it is defined so broadly in the vernacular
that it is almost meaningless. To the extent that alienation exists
in a society rather than solidarity, its emotion words, especially love
and shame, will be defined in a way that hide alienation. Defining
shame very narrowly, and love very broadly, helps to mask the otherwise
shocking lack of community and solidarity in the modern world. The extraordinary
breadth of the meaning of love, and a narrow conceptual definition that
might be helpful in social science, will be the subject of a future article.
1. Parts of this section and
sections 2, 3, and 5 modify and expand the thesis of Scheff 2000.
2. For the Maori case, see Metge
(1986). The Maori word for shame is the exact equivalent of bond affect,
as it will be discussed here.
3. A seeming exception to
the taboo on mentioning shame is the frequently used expression “What a
shame!” However, this usage isn’t an exception, since it is a formalism,
like “How do you do?” Just as the latter expression is not an actual inquiry,
but a formality, so is the expression “What a shame!” It is not a real
reference to shame since exactly the same meaning can be expressed as “What
4. Apparently Ekman (1998,
p. 38) has changed his mind: “‘I have not published my findings on shame
[that it is universal], but they are very well documented in my work among
the South Fore of Papua New Guinea [1967-68].” One wonders why these findings
didn’t keep him from excluding shame from the facial emotion test he and
Friesen (1972) developed, and of course, why it took him 30 years
to mention them.
5. Shame (scham) is also mentioned
repeatedly in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905). But by this
time shame has lost the pre-eminence that Freud had given it in 1895. Now
it is merely one of the forces that inhibit sexuality, along with “disgust
6. My chapter in Phillips, McKinnon,
and Scheff, (Editors, 2002) involves a textual analysis of the dialogue
of working class men in Sennett and Cobb (1973), and working class high
school boys in Willis (1977). I show that shame indicators are higher in
the dialogue of the working class men than in the authorial text, and for
the working class boys, both shame and anger indicators are higher.
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Table 1 Self/Other Relationship in Shame
|1. Object of scorn, contempt, ridicule;
|1. The source of scorn, contempt, ridicule
|2. Paralyzed; helpless; passive
||2. Laughing, ridiculing; powerful; Active
|3. Assailed by noxious stimuli: rage
Tears; blushing; fluster; blank
|3. Appears intact
|4. Feels childish
||4. Appears adult; going away; Abandoning
|5. Focal in awareness; being looked at;
|5. Also focal in awareness; looking at
|6. Functions poorly as an agent or
perceiver; Divided between imaging
self and the other; Boundaries are
permeable; vicarious experience of self and other
|6. Appears intact