Monday, August 27, 2012

Dissertation on shame. Chapter 1.0 Opening words

Part 1: Introduction

Part One consists of one chapter where I explain why I have chosen to write a dissertation on this subject and why I have chosen the Incest Center in Vestfold as the site for the emipircal research in this study. I also describe the critical-hermeneutical position I have chosen in this exploration and why I mean the existential-dialogical perspective of Søren Kierkegaard and Martin Buber are important for this study. Axel Honneth’s theory of recognition is explicated as being a girder for merging the existential-dialogical perspective within the context of social work practice.

1.0 Opening words

The problem of interest which I have chosen in this study is to explore how shame is used as a concept and how it appears as a phenomenon within the context of sexual abuse and within the settings of the Incest Centre in Vestfold. I have chosen to focus on sexual abuse because this is a field of social work where I have worked for many years, both as a social worker within child care and as a co-therapist in group therapy of sexual offenders. The Incest Centre in Vestfold is an institution which offers help to people who have experienced sexual abuse as children and their relatives. I have also cooperated with 18 other Centres (appendix 18) who work with the consequences of child sexual abuse. All of these 19 Centres have in one way or another contributed to information in this exploration and I am most grateful for their openhearted collaboration. I have chosen the Incest Centre of Vestfold as the site for the empirical research in this dissertation. The Centre is chosen because of I have known its founder and leader, Mary Ann Oshaug, since the Centre started in July 1988. Having a trusting relation to a contact within the research site has opened doors which otherwise might have been difficult to open. This contact has made possible for me to come in contact with users of the Centre, helped to evaluate who should be included in the interviews, and helped to establish contact with the other 18 Centres in Norway. It must be noted that other sites might produce different results than have come forth in this dissertation.  

Another reason for choosing The Incest Centre in Vestfold is that the Centre has been the main office for a national wide crisis telephone for child sexual abuse since August 2006. Establishing this nationwide telephone was passed by the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget) in March 2005 and the Incest Centre in Vestfold was in December 2005 asked by the Ministry of Children and Equality (Barne- og Likestillingsdepartementet) to have the responsibility for the telephone. Minister Karita Bekkemellem officially opened the crisis telephone on August 30th 2006. This telephone service, which is cost free for those who call (also from cell phones), is operated 24 hours a day and seven days a week by two social workers. They also offer face to face conversations with a professional social worker by appointment. The Incest Centre in Vestfold is organized as a foundation and is funded through both national and local governmental budgets, and through gifts from organizations and private donators.

The goal for the qualitative exploration has been to gain insight in the concept and phenomenon of shame by asking for reflecting narratives (stories of shame) both from those working at the Incest Centre and those using it. It is my pre-understanding, after two decades as a professional social worker, that shame is often experienced by not only by those who have suffered sexual abuse, but also by the helpers. Before I started this study, I was convinced that telling others about ones sexual abuse is by no means an easy matter. It takes a lot of courage and implies a feeling of security and confidence to the person one is opening oneself up to, in order to overcome the shame and confusion surrounding sexual abuse. The disclosure itself seems to be encased in shame (Hydén and Överlien 2005); shame seems to inscribe the body and becomes embedded (Kirkengen 2001); and enters the social field as a symbolic burden since it becomes shared and both agents must live with it as part of their relationship – the self becomes contaminated to some extent (Marthinsen 2003). How I was to make this disclosure possible, manifested by shame, taboo, fear and confusion, was therefore of crucial importance.

The method used is first and foremost qualitative, interviewing 19 men and women who either work at Vestfold Incest Centre or are users of the same Centre about shame. Some were able to give shame words and could speak about the concept of shame, while others spoke of their shame experiences without mentioning shame, and others seemed to show non-verbal markers of shame through their body language (appendix 20). Taking ethical considerations was important in the collection of shame narratives. Talking to people in a sensitive life situation about a sensitive subject puts a great demand on the researcher. Using focus group interviews, as I have done in this study, created a more natural situation within the context of the Centre, in my opinion, for the informants by letting them speak to each other about their shared concepts and experiences of shame, rather than speaking only to me, being an alien in their worlds. Överlien, Aronsen and Hydén (2003) have also shown that focus group interviews can be used for high-involvement topics such as sexuality and sexual abuse, and conclude that this method can give a “rich and varied set of data, in which individual opinions are formed in dialogue with others” (2003: 342).

I have also carried out two quantitative surveys in this exploration by using a social psychological test (TOSCA-3) that measures the proneness to six different self-conscious emotions; shame, guilt, externalization, detachment, and two forms of pride. These surveys have several findings, among others that there is a high correlation (r = .68) between shame-proneness and guilt-proneness in the group of participants who had experienced sexual abuse as children, and a moderate correlation (r=.42) in the group of university/college students. An interesting question which arises here is in my opinion if the high correlation shown in Incest 2005 can be explained because of the experiences of sexual abuse which this group has. This question is examined further in the focus group interviews carried out in the Incest Centre in Vestfold. Shame and guilt have historically been used interchangeably, but research during the last few decades has found significant distinctions between these moral emotions (Tangney 1991, 1994; Tangney, Wagner and Gramzow 1992). It must be noted that these studies have used university students in their research. Guilt can in these studies be seen as an adaptive and constructive moral emotion involving the self’s negative evaluation of some specific behavior (Tangney 1989). Shame, on the other hand, seems to involve an acutely painful experience that is overwhelmingly self-focused and more diffuse than guilt (Lewis 1971). Individuals who experience shame may feel a sense of worthlessness, incompetence, a generalized feeling of contempt for themselves, and negative evaluations can engulf the entire self (Tangney 1994). 

Shame related to sexually abused and traumatized people gives in my opinion an opportunity to explore the concept and phenomenon of shame as: the point of breakdown of humanity; a place of existence that might be experienced as the point of no return for many; where the results might bed severe psychotic illness, suicide and self harm. Shame due to sexual abuse at different times in the life course may inflict symbolic burdens (Marthinsen 2003) in the self to such an extent that people might exclude themselves from social relationships with others, understood as the place for respect and dignity. People in shame might also try to “hide from humanity” as Nussbaum (2004) expresses it. She argues that shame is:

A way of hiding from our humanity that is both irrational in the normative sense, embodying a wish to be a type of creature one is not, and unreliable in the practical sense, frequently bound up with narcissism and an unwillingness to recognize the rights and needs of others…Shame is likely to be normatively unreliable in public life, despite its potential for good…a liberal society has particular reasons to inhibit shame and to protect its citizens from shaming. (2004: 15)

Social work is in my opinion an inherently moral profession, because it is directly related to the welfare and well-being of others. Social work can be seen as a guardian for morality (Marthinsen 2003) and as Bache-Hansen (2001) argues; social work must be built upon an expanded basis for knowledge which is grounded in the norms and values which are prominent in society together with expert knowledge, and I agree with Høilund and Juul (2005) who argue that the goal for social work should be to support human prosperity (støtte menneskelig oppblomstring). An existential-dialogical approach to social work should seek, in my opinion, to secure the well-being of the individual, avoids blind recourse to any given set of rules, and serves as a reminder of the complexity of life. Social work is not, in my opinion, about having a collection of answers that may be applied to increasingly difficult situations. It is fundamental, in my opinion, that the education of social workers and the practice of social work reflect this insight.

Legal protection is important in my opinion because it has to do with the identity of citizens and their possibility for prosperity. There are in my opinion many citizens who are not met with recognition and a number of different areas of social work that could also have been of interest in this exploration of the concept of shame, e.g.: poverty; immigration; family and marriage problems; domestic violence; child abuse; clientizations and marginalization; criminal justice; war experience; and physical and psychiatric illness. These areas illustrate not only the possible loss of legal protection for those involved, but also to a lack of trust towards social institutions among citizens and social actors. The background for my particular area of interest grew out of my work with victims of sexual abuse and sexual offenders over many years. This has given me competence within this form of social work and access to the field that has been essential in my exploration. My goal has been to explore the concept and phenomenon of shame, as a researcher with a moral voice, without being moralistic. By this I mean that my intention has been to use a sound scientific approach, combined with the moral responsibility of not shaming those who have shared their lives and experiences with me further; I have aimed to treat them with recognition and respect (Honneth 1996). I focus on shame in this dissertation so to learn from them, because in my opinion, to focus on shame experiences which citizens have, gives an unspoken possibility for moral growth.

My exploration of the concept and phenomenon of shame gives a voice to sexually abused men and women through those who have participated in my study. These voices have usually been silenced and thus been unavailable to the general public. The contribution and courage of the participants shows how the negative aspects of shame can be transformed into a positive force in the lives of the sexually abused. Interviewing these 19 brave men and women has in my opinion, been a voyage to the margins of existence, to an area of life that is not possible to comprehend without being changed both emotionally and intellectually. Working for five years with this dissertation has made me both humble and grateful, and I am indebted to all those who have shared their experiences with me.

Finding my own voice and having the courage to speak out it in this dissertation has been a personal challenge. I am indebted not only to all the participants in the interviews, but also to among others: researchers; psychologists; sociologists; therapists; social workers; and philosophers. Coming out from behind their shadows and revealing my thoughts in an ocean of light with others has at times filled me with fear and trembling, but it has also led me to a deeper level of reflection both of myself and others.

My voice in this dissertation is characterized by existential and dialogical philosophy, and I will discuss my findings in this light. Social work for me involves meeting the pain, suffering and despair that humans endure and reflects many of the profound conflicts and contradictions of human existence. Blomdahl Frey (1988) argues in her doctoral dissertation that existential-relational philosophy can be used in practical social work and is an expression for both a personal and social holistic view. She argues that we can understand others better by use of I-Thou relationship, and has showed this in her dissertation by interviewing hospital patients. Thompson (1992) argues that existentialism, as a philosophy of freedom, is both a way of understanding the world and a way of tackling it; a programme for action. Sartre (1948/1973) argues that the quest for authenticity is a primary goal in existentialism and also forms the basis of humanism; commitment to fellow human beings and the difficulties they face. Humanism thus characterizes both existentialism and social work. It is my intention in this dissertation to explore if the application of existential-dialogical philosophy to social work can offer a scope for developing a form of social work which can, in turn, make a contribution to humanism.

Social workers deal, for the most part, with the more vulnerable, less powerful members of our society. Very often clients have struggled with painful and distressing circumstances for long periods at a time and feelings of helplessness tend in my opinion to be commonplace. An exploration into the concept and phenomenon of shame is a journey to the edge of existence, especially for the participants in this investigation who were sexually abused as children. It is exactly at this edge of existence that social work in my opinion has its primary function.

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