Friday, December 7, 2012

Can dignity be subjected to scientific research?

Burrhus Frederic Skinner
But we have yet to define what dignity is. To investigate a scientific phenomenon, without being able to define it, is problematic. This is a problem we often struggle with in social work. We work with domestic violence, sexual assault, abuse, neglect, illness, disability, illness,- yet how we define these terms? B. F. Skinner has written an interesting book about the problems we face when dignity is tp be investigated scientifically. The book is called "Beyond Freedom and Dignity," written in 1971 and was reprinted in 2003. Skinner understands dignity as our expectation of a reward for something we've done. We often looked up to people because of their actions, says Skinner, even though we can no longer explain their actions, -we only look up to certain people. We usually admire and love certain people  because of their actions, and they seem to have greater dignity for us than those we look down on or mislike/hate. Skinner says that literature on dignity is committed to preserving the positive evaluation of valuable people and this prevents us from analyzing dignity as a phenomenon in a scientific way. I disagree with Skinner's interpretation of what dignity is. I think he confuses dignity with respect. Respect is linked to our actions. But I think the challenge Skiner gives us to explore the concept and phenomenon of dignity in a scientific way, is very interesting and necessary. Science seeks robust arguments and does not accept the mystery that surrounds our existence. We see faces around us and their dignity shines towards us almost on a mysterious and silent manner. The challenge is to take a step further and describe what we see in a scientific way.

It's been some years since Skinner wrote about dignity in 1971. I have searched the library's EBSCO article search engine and found what has been published in scientific articles since 1971 and up to 2012 in terms of dignity. There are 30,591 articles written about dignity, of which half of these, 14,505, are peer refereed scientific articles. I have not gone through all of these articles, even though that could have been interesting. But I've narrowed the search on articles about dignity and social work and this search showed that there has been written 469 articles on this topic, of which 335 are peer refereed scientific articles. Of these, 165 can be downloaded in full text. I have reviewed all of these 165 articles and categorized them. I asked myself: if I look at these 165 peer refereed scientific articles about dignity and social work, how is dignity discribed and in what context?

Number of articles
Health: Therapy, AIDS, Assisted Suicide
Welfare/Social Policy
Childe Welfare
Theoretical reflections
Care for the elderly


My review of these 165 refereed peer-reviewed scientific articles on human dignity and social work shows that dignity is applicable in many of the areas we work within. But I see that almost all of the articles focus on what dignity is not (indignity) and none of them provides a clear explanation of what dignity is. To investigate a phenomenon based on its opposite is a method called negativistic dialectic. Dignity is possibly a concept or phenomenon that must be investigated indirectly. In almost all of the 165 above articles, dignity been operationalized by relating digniy to indignity, ie specific violations of dignity that can be examined.

Let me give you two examples of how dignity is defined in these articles in a way that makes it impossible, in my opinion, to explore dignity in a scientific way. In one of the articles in the journal, Journal of Community Nursing, it is stated that "dignity is both spiritual and personal: whatever dictionaries say, everyone will have a different understanding of what it means to have dignity." Here dignity is described as a social construction formed through recognition, which means that its existence is dependent on the relationship between individual, society and the environment which it appears in.

In another research article in the Journal of International Social Work it is stated that "dignity is a non-observable
something which is inseparable from human nature. This something is innate and common to all human beings, each of which are unique creatures. Depending on the individual's perspective, this includes all human qualities such as: abstract thinking, language, consciousness, free will, and a divine touch that comes from (according to the Judeo-Christian belief) the fact that all people are created in Gods Image (Genesis 1: 26-7, 5:1 and 9:6)."

Both of these articles make dignity to something mysterious and indefinable. This is not acceptable from a scientific view, and I wonder how such speculative statements have been approved in peer-review scientific journals. But they are unfortunately only two examples and are fairly typical of the 165 articles I have reviewed. 

But there is something going on.

I'm in an international research group that tries to make this spiritual something, this innate God's image, to a phenomenonwhich is more concrete and feasible for scientific research. This is a research network called Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies and led by Evelin Gerda Linder. In 1974-1975 she studied Law and Sinology at the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main. She was a psychologist in 1978 and medical doctor in 1984, both at the University of Hamburg and the University of Heidelberg. Moreover, she studied philosophy at the University of Hamburg. She took a doctorate in social medicine at the University of Hamburg in 1994. From 1997-2001 she was a PhD student at the Department of Psychology at the University of Oslo, and took there a second doctorate in 2001, this time in social psychology and wrote a dissertation on the Psychology of Humiliation , a Study of the Genocide in Rwanda and Somalia. She has since tried to develop an interdisciplinary theory of humiliation that draws on such academic fields as: anthropology, history, social philosophy, social psychology, sociology and political science. She established the research network Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies in 2001. Today it includes about a thousand members, publishes the Journal of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies and organizes conferences. She moved from Germany to Norway in 1977 and operates the network of researchers from the University of Oslo, but she's actually "homeless", i.e. with no permanent address and travels almost constantly around the world with what is called a "world passport". Her work is an example of how dignity can be scientifically defined and studied. She defines dignity as a human right and refers to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was adopted by the UN in December 1948, which states that "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and relate to each other with brotherhood. " Indignity is thus a humiliation for the legitimate expectation of every human being possesses basic dignity and rights are not observed. 

In addition to human rights based her understanding of the dignity of the African concept of Ubuntu, which I mentioned earlier. "I exist as a human being because you exist as a human being", this means that if I give you recognition, you exist for me. Ubuntu helps us to operationalize the concept of dignity. Dignity lies in the relationship that binds us all together. A person is a person through another person. The concept of Ubuntu has been a fundamental principle of the new South Africa and is also used in the so-called African Renaissance. In politics Ubuntu is used to emphasize the need for a humanistic ethics as the basis for a consensual approach to decision making. By linking dignity to human rights one has begun to find a way to operationalize the concept so that it can be investigated scientifically and thus deprive the concept its mystical character as a "divine touch from God". 

An example: My doctorate

In my doctoral research on shame and sexual abuse, I saw how important it was for the Incest Centre in Vestfold to relate consciously to their own and others' dignity when they met people who have experienced sexual abuse that violated their dignity. I talked to people who told me that the worst of the atrocities they had experienced was not the physical attack against the body, but the violation of their dignity as human beings. I tried to find out how social workers at the Incest Centre worked with unworthiness and registered seven methods that they work for to rebuild a violated dignity. I think that these 7 working methods aimed at healing a violated dignity helps to explain what dignity is. 
1. Respect
2. Inclusion 
3. Positive self-evaluation 
4. Recognition 
5. Viewing emotions 
6. Manage themselves and others as subjects and not as objects
7. New positive and confidence-building experiences. 

Recent research in cognitive neurology (Eisenhower and Liebermann 2004, Why it hurts to be left out: the neurocognitive overlap between physical pain and social pain in Trends in Cognitive Sciences) shows that the brain treats a threat to our dignity as if is was a physical threat. When we feel that our dignity is threatened, we are overwhelmed with shame and we feel physical pain. This may help to explain why some feel physical pain when it knows the shame, the shame is embodied. This may also shed light on why some people engaged in self-harm say that they transmit a "psychological" pain (which can also be called a "social" pain ") to a physical pain. Brain research shows that pain center for the perceived "social" pain is in the same location in the brain as for experienced physical pain. This is the reason why when you feel that your dignity is violated, you can feel various forms of physical pain. Research on the dignity of being here is very specific and demystifies the concept. 

Research by Scheff and Retzinger tells us that shame created because our dignity is violated, it is the center of all human conflicts. These are wounds that do not go away by itself. This is like an open wound. If the wounds are not given sufficient attention, they can they exist for ever and dominate an individual's or group's identity. Today's threat in society is first and foremost about people who inflict painful psychological violations of dignity on others. When we feel that someone harms us by violating our dignity, we respond automatically by either escape or attack. Hidden in the concept of unworthiness is a potential stream of unprocessed emotional challenges that most of us are not willing to acknowledge and even less to discuss with others. Research by Scheff and Retzinger shows us that we feel ashamed when we talk to others about shame experiences. We will usually either deny our shame than to acknowledge it.
Kaare T. Pettersen

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