Wednesday, May 9, 2012
Sociological theories of shame
Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) has in a number of books discussed the importance of social bonds, societal relations and solidarity, and has been a great inspiration for Scheff, especially theoretically in Microsociology (1990a) and Emotions, the Social Bond, and the Reality (1997), but also in practical research documented in Emotions and Violence (1991) written together with Suzanne M. T. Retzinger. In Suicide (1897/1997) Durkheim’s analysis suggests that suicide is caused by pathological social bonds. Regretfully, Durkheim did not discuss the structure of normal bonds. Even though the methods Durkheim used in his analysis documented in Suicide have had great effect in the field of social sciences, it is perhaps his formulations in The Division of Labor (1902/1997) that have the greatest effects. Durkheim offered a methodology for systematic research. His use of statistical summaries made it possible to detect patterns of solidarity which was irrespective of particular persons.
Charles Herbert Cooley’s (1864-1929) concept of the “looking-glass self” has been adopted by Scheff, and is also well known in most parts of both sociology and psychology. Cooley describes the “looking-glass self” in his book Human Nature and the Social Order (1902/2006) in three steps. First we picture our appearance of ourselves, traits and personalities. Thereafter we use reactions of others to interpret how others visualize us. Finally we develop our own self-concept, based on interpretations. Our self-concept can be enhanced or diminished by our conclusions. This picturing of our selves generate a evaluation of self, which leads us to experience either pride or shame. Pride is a positive emotion which leads to mutual respect, strong social bonds and high solidarity. Shame can also create strong social bonds if it is acknowledged, but it is also a “force behind both individual- and societal-level pathologies” (Turner and Stets, 2005, p. 154). Scheff has adopted Cooley’s perspective of pride and shame, and the importance of a constant state of self-feeling. Cooley pointed towards the need for microsociology (Scheff, 1990a) and focused on the moral and emotional aspects of social order. Cooley was among the first to specify social emotions, like pride and shame, which occurs when we see ourselves from the viewpoint of others (Scheff, 1988; Scheff and Retzinger, 1991). Cooley (1902/2006) wrote that shame (and pride) served as bodily signs of that state of the system that is otherwise difficult to observe. Shame serves as an instinctive signal, both to the self and to others, and communicate the state of the bond. The bond being a mixture of solidarity and alienation in a particular social relationship.
George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) is of special importance for Scheff because of the problem with reference. Scheff (1990a) says that
“For Mead, meaning is created in the process of role taking: in an encounter, each
person can solve the problem of reference by a method of successive approximation, which involves shuttling back and forth between imagination and observation. Observing the outer signs, the words and gestures, one imagines the reference…This cycle, which involves a movement from outer signs to inner experience, can be repeated, many times, until one is virtually certain of the reference” (p.39).
This interpretive understanding involves a process between people who interact with each other through what Mead calls role taking. Each person can come very close to sharing inner experiences with other people. People can therefore come very close to intersubjective understanding (Scheff, 1984, 1990a). It is through this sharing with others that our self develops. The self is not innate, but as Mead (1934/1967) says “develops in the given individual as a result of his relations to that process as a whole and to other individuals within that process” (p.135). Mead also distinguishes clearly between the self and the body.
“The body can be there and can operate in a very intelligent fashion without there
being a self involved inn the experience. The self has the characteristic that it is an object to itself, and that characteristic distinguishes it from other objects and from the body…The parts of the body are quite distinguishable from the self. We can lose parts of the body without any serious invasion of the self…The body does not experience itself as a whole, in the sense in which the self in some way enters into the experience of the self” (1934/1967, p.136)
This understanding of the self and body is and important factor in my analysis of interviews in my exploration. Many informants talk about this split between them, that they have experienced that their body has been exploited, misused, raped, but at the same time experienced that there mind has “flown away like a bird” and in a way not been a part of the transgression. This creates a problem for the person involved because, even though the self and the body can be distinguished from each other, the body still belongs to the self. “The foot and hand belong to the self” (Mead, 1934/1967, p 136). When one feels that the body no longer belongs to one self, as my informants tell of, there arise serious problems. I will comment further on this latter.
Erving Goffman (1922-1982) is as Scheff (2006) describes one of the three most gifted sociologists of the twentieth century. The other two are Norbert Elias (1897-1990) and Harvey Sacks (1934-1975). Goffman was primarily focused of the microworld of emotions and relationships, and this is the foundation of his whole approach. Social science is traditionally more concerned with behavior and cognition. Goffman realized, as Scheff (2006) writes that the conventional social and behavioral science was blind to emotions and relationships, and might as well be blind to many other arenas as well. In everything Goffman wrote, he tried to attack this problem. How to make the invisible (backstage), visible. To do this he had to create a new vocabulary and a new point of view. He realized that most people (if not all), live the world of everyday life. In this everyday life we use much of our time in relationships and emotions. He was especially concerned with the emotions of embarrassment and shame, and with loneliness, disconnectedness, and alienation when writing about relationships.
Goffman adopted Cooley’s idea of the “looking-glass self” and brought it a step further. Goffman’s fourth step focused on how we manage with the emotions we have after the three steps mentioned by Cooley. His conclusion is the most of the time we use a lot of energy in trying to avoid some emotions and to emphasize others. We suppress emotions that we assume are signs of weakness, and exaggerate emotions we believe give the impression of strength. Not only was Goffman concerned with words and gestures we use. In his book Interaction Ritual (1967/2006) he writes:
“The human tendency to use signs and symbols means that evidence of social worth and of mutual evaluations will be conveyed by minor things, and these things will be witnessed, as the fact that they have been witnessed. An unguarded glance, a momentary change of voice, an ecological position taken or not taken, can drench a talk with judgmental significance. Therefore, just as there is no occasion of talk in which improper impressions could not intentionally or unintentionally arise, so there is no occasion of talk so trivial as not to require each participant to show serious concern with the way in which he handles himself and the others present” (p. 33).
Cooley, Goffman, especially Elias (1939/2000, 1989/1998) were all concerned with the concept of shame and they agreed that shame was a repressed emotion in our western society, but they treated the phenomena of shame indirectly most of the time. Goffman referred often indirectly to shame or shame-related affects. He did not have or us a working concept of the relation between shame as an emotion and as a behavior. Without this it is not possible, for Goffman or others, to show the central role shame has in mental illness and the societal reaction (Scheff, 1984).
Norbert Elias (1897-1990) has carried out an impressive historical analysis of shame in his book called The Civilizing Process (1939/2000). Scheff (2004) describes how Elias in his study analyses excerpts from advice manuals fro, five languages from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, and outlined a theory of modernity. He suggested that the key aspect to modernity involves shame. Elias shows the connections between changes in the structure of society and changes in the structure of people’s behavior and psychical habitus. He writes in the preface of this book:
“…the nature of historical processes, of what might be called the “developmental
mechanics of history”, has become clearer to me, as has their relation to psychical processes. Terms such as socio- and psychogenesis, affective life and drive-moulding, external and internal constraints, embarrassment threshold, social power, monopoly mechanism, and a number of others give expression to it” (1932/2000, p. xiv-xv).
And when it comes to shame, he writes:
“The feeling of shame is a specific excitation, a kind of anxiety which is automatically
reproduced in the individual on certain occasions by force of habit. Considered superficially, it is fear of social degradation or, more generally, of other people’s gestures of superiority. But it is a form of displeasure or fear which arises characteristically on those occasions when a person who fears lapsing into inferiority can avert this danger neither by direct physical means nor by any other form of attack (1932/2000, p. 414-415).
His central thesis is that decreasing shame thresholds at the time of the breakup of rural communities, and decreasing acknowledgement of shame, have had powerful consequences on levels of awareness and self-control. His analysis includes the central causal chain in modern civilization – denial of the emotion of shame and of the threatened social bonds that cause and reflect that denial. Not only are we ashamed, says Elias, but we are ashamed of being ashamed, and also ashamed of causing further shame. Shame has gone underground, leading to behavior that is outside of awareness and compulsive:
“Neither rational motives nor practical reasons primarily determine this attitude, but rather the shame of adults themselves, which has become compulsive. It is the social prohibitions and resistances within themselves, their own superego, that makes them keep silent” (1939/2000, p. 153).
Thomas J. Scheff is considered one of the leading sociologists in the field of the sociology of emotions today. He is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and also holds a professorship at Karlstad University, Sweden. On his website one can read that he is a former Chair of the section on the Sociology of Emotions, American Sociological Association, and President of the Pacific Sociological Association. His fields of research are social psychology, emotions, mental illness, and new approaches to integrating theory & method. His current studies concern, forgiveness, solidarity-alienation, and alternative methods of crime control.
Jonathan H. Turner and Jan E Stets state in The Sociology of Emotions (2005) and Turner in Psychoanalytic Sociological Theories and Emotions (2006) that Thomas J. Scheff is a sociologist within the tradition of symbolic interactionism, working with psychoanalytic ideas in the field of the sociology of emotions.
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